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.
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