'Slush fund' rocks Lebanon university: Money paid to maintain the country's medical standards has caused a scandal at a leading institution, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut

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The Independent Online
OVER THE gates of the American University of Beirut, there is inscribed in stone the aspiration of its 1866 founder, Daniel Bliss: 'That they may have life and have it more abundantly.'

For the past three years, however, it seems that at least 18 professors have been living life more abundantly, courtesy of a secret fund partly provided, according to its originator, by the millionaire Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, and administered without the knowledge of the university's American directors.

The AUB is one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the Middle East. Its graduates include government ministers in Lebanon, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; two Lebanese ex-militia leaders - Bassam Abu Sharif of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - and the Palestinian hijacker, Leila Khaled.

The university's American president - who has not dared to visit Beirut since he was given his current job - has now fired the AUB's Arab deputy president, a much admired doctor called Ibrahim Salti, for the 'judgemental error' of keeping the fund secret from the university's US trustees.

After surviving bombardments, kidnappings, car bombings and murders through 15 years of civil war, the university should have been allowed to enjoy the fruits of peace. Its Christian students once shelled the campus; its 1984 American president was assassinated outside his office. But it was this very same civil war that led to the private financial 'arrangements' and scandalised Frederic Herter, the university's president, in New York. And, despite the ironic tone of the letter in which Mr Herter fired his deputy, both Dr Salti and Mr Hariri appear to have behaved with Lebanon's best interests at heart.

Indeed, another AUB doctor, Najib Abu Haidar, has proudly announced that he himself instituted the 'special administered fund' - his words - to help academic staff weather the inflationary years of the civil war and has paid tribute to Mr Hariri's help. Beirut newspapers have reported that as well as contributions from Mr Hariri, the fund was known to Fouad Sinyoura, a member of Mr Hariri's cabinet who was general manager of the Mediterranean Bank, in which the fund was allegedly kept.

According to one senior member of the AUB academic staff, the motives were simple. With the collapse of the Lebanese pound - from 2.5 to 2,000 to the dollar in 15 years - many of the university's medical staff were on the point of emigrating to the US. In a last-minute, and ultimately successful, effort to retain their services, Mr Abu Haidar, Mr Hariri and other unnamed donors set up a system of secret dollar payments for at least 18 doctors and medical staff who decided, as a result, to stay on in Lebanon and maintain the country's best-run health service.

'Medical doctors were beginning to leave,' the AUB academic said last week. 'Many of them had American residence cards or US nationality. About 18 of them got special payments in secret, without paying income tax, and they stayed on. It wasn't a big fund. Maybe only dollars 300,000 (pounds 200,000) was paid out. Things went wrong when one of the doctors found he was no longer getting paid. He wrote to the deans and to Herter. Herter called Salti - who knew about it but hadn't told Herter.'

In retrospect, it is clear that the payments - already referred to in Beirut as a 'slush fund' - should have been publicised from the start; to maintain a country's medical standards in wartime is scarcely a crime, even if the methods used on this occasion were, at least in American eyes, somewhat unorthodox. But the secrecy with which the money was paid out and the tone of Mr Herter's letter of dismissal have led to bitter debates on a campus that has always prided itself on being the most radical in the region.

'For over a year,' Mr Herter wrote in a message to students last week, 'Dr Salti has spoken repeatedly of his desire to move back to his cherished (and less encumbered) career in medicine . . . I can no longer refuse him.' At once, many Muslim students and at least one of Beirut's daily newspapers suspected another motive. With the US reportedly on the point of lifting its travel ban on American citizens who wish to visit Lebanon, the university's New York administrators wanted to 'purge' Arabs from the AUB's senior ranks before sending American academics back to Beirut to take their places.

However conspiratorial this may sound, Dr Salti has certainly made known some original views on the future of the university. Almost all teaching at the university is in English but in a lecture last year, he advocated the long-term 'Arabisation' of AUB, albeit with a series of carefully drawn up conditions and a time-frame involving several decades.

Although his suggestion was made 'in the spirit of open-mindedness which AUB has taught us', it can hardly have delighted the univerisity's administration in New York.

Mr Herter has appointed Samir Makdissi - the popular professor of business studies and a former Lebanese minister of economy - to take Dr Salti's place.