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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...