Lebanon's vast web of corruption unravels

WHEN Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud (ex-general, former head of the Lebanese army, trained at Royal Naval College, Plymouth) met the country's Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri (holder of Saudi passport, shareholder in the company rebuilding Beirut, listed in Forbes as one of the world's 100 richest men), last week, the conversation was short and to the point. "I've accepted your resignation," Mr Lahoud said. "I know," Mr Hariri replied. "I heard about it on the radio."

Behind this Pythonesque exchange, which preceded Mr Hariri's replacement by Selim al-Hoss, is a serious affair. It involves Syrian power politics, a web of extortion, an alleged Israeli spy, a hopelessly indebted nation, and a string of alleged commissions to Lebanese ministers which - if proved true - would substantiate international banking statistics that Lebanese corruption surpasses even that of Colombia."We are not experts in corruption," a Lebanese academic said indignantly last year. "We are professors of corruption."

No one is accusing Mr Hariri of anything. His government, perhaps. But the Prime Minister was so rich that nobody stood a chance of bribing him. True, he owns 10 per cent of the shares in Solidere, which has the contract to rebuild the centre of Beirut. True, his Finance Minister, the affable Fouad Siniora, found himself explaining to the state prosecutor last week that his ministry was not destroying its records - merely transferring them to new offices. And it is fair to say that President Lahoud, like all generals, believes there can only be one national leader.

Mr Hariri saw himself as Mr Lebanon: when it was once suggested to him that the Lebanese economy would collapse if he died, he replied: "So keep me alive." Mr Lahoud - with President Assad's support, since the Lebanese army is a true ally of Sister Syria - is probably happier to have as his prime minister Dr al-Hoss, four times a premier in the war, survivor of a car-bomb attack and so honest he is in danger of being boring.

The battle for influence occasionally surfaces in public. When, for example, a new law closed down most television stations in Lebanon, it turned out that Mr Hariri, an ally of the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri, and a close relative of the Interior Minister, Michel Murr, owned three of the four surviving stations.

Finance ministry officials, meanwhile, face possible charges of illegally authorising the destruction of a building in central Beirut on land annexed to Solidere. The owners are suing four officials and the chairman of the company (not Mr Hariri) because Solidere workers and policemen forced them from the building, which was subsequently torn down.

Most of the time, unsavoury issues such as these remain safely out of sight. But enter Najah Wakim, an MP who has been screaming abuse at Lebanese ministers for years and has just published a book called Dirty Hands, which details all kinds of skulduggery by government ministers. President Assad, so it is said here, has been deeply upset to learn of such corruption (Syria, of course, being the most squeaky-clean state this side of the Euphrates).

So what on earth has been going on in poor, war-ravaged Lebanon?

Well, according to Mr Wakim, a series of shocking scandals has torn apart the fabric of Lebanon's body politic:

One minister ran petrol imports through a relative's company, raising its share of the market to 30 per cent.

A minister vetoed a company for regional development because he was not cut in on the project.

A minister agreed to a telephone network which would reward him and two colleagues with $500m (pounds 300m).

A minister seized 7,500 acres of public land in Lebanon.

A minister accepted $5bn from US sources for giving Palestinians citizenship in Lebanon (no such citizenship was ever forthcoming).

A militia leader brought toxic waste into Lebanon through a company owned by a minister.

Most people in Lebanon have their own stories. One of the most popular (the names are well known) is of a contract for a road junction, awarded by a government official to a construction engineer at three times the cost price - because the construction engineer had agreed, for the increased price, to let the government official sleep with his young wife. The wife, so it is said, was duly sent to the official's bed.

More seriously, one government official close to a senior minister was accused by the Syrians of passing information to the Israeli intelligence service. The official has been flown out of Lebanon, but his protector has not been forgiven.

And not just officials but ministers, so it is being hinted, may find themselves locked up for many years for alleged dishonesty. President Lahoud said as much in his inaugural speech last month.

Electricity is one department at which the justice department is taking a close look. So is construction. Salim Azar, a leading Lebanese judge, recalled that he had had no luck in bringing prosecutions against officials since he vainly tried 30 years ago to start an inquiry into alleged corruption by a ministry director-general.

Why, Mr Azar asked, had no prosecutor sought information from Mr Wakim about his book?

As for Mr Hariri, he has promised to work with the new president. "We have faith in Lebanon's future," he announced, adding that he would continue to sit in parliament, opposing the government if he chose, but supporting the nation.

"The problem with Mr Hariri is that he wants to be remembered as the man who saved Lebanon," one of his detractors once said. Given the number of Lebanese who wanted to go down in history for destroying Lebanon, that is not a disgraceful ambition. But Mr Hariri was a big man in a tiny country, and he didn't tolerate dissent kindly.

Last week the Lebanese pound - standing pre-war at three to the US dollar but which Mr Hariri brought down from 2,200 to 1,500 to the dollar in six post-war years - slipped to 1,515, but was then reinforced by the central bank. If it fell too disastrously, Mr Hariri might be back again as Mr Lebanon.

In the meantime, the general's anger may embrace a minister or two.

Suggested Topics
News
i100
News
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsAll just to promote a new casino
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
News
i100
Sport
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java, AI)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-Office D...

Day In a Page

Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband