Lebanon's uphill corruption battle against an 'untouchable class'

Lebanon's uphill corruption battle against an 'untouchable class'
Corruption in Lebanon is widespread, but there are hopes a new law can root out pervasive nepotism.
6 min read
06 May, 2020
A mass uprising sparked in October last year targeted Lebanon's rulers and banks. [Getty]

Lebanese lawmakers passed an anti-corruption law in late April that would target malpractices in the public sector and form a national anti-corruption commission.

Following the draft law's approval back in December 2018, it lingered in Parliament for 16 months before being passed.

The commission would consist of six appointed members, between the ages of 40 and 74, independent of any political affiliations: two retired judges, a lawyer, an accounting expert, a finance or economic expert, and an expert in public administration, public finance, or anti-corruption. 

Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil celebrated this development and called for a series of laws to follow suit, saying this law alone is not enough.

Cash-strapped Lebanon has been scrambling to implement a series of reforms to a pledged $11.1 billion in mostly soft loans over two years, and its government will request financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Going through arguably its worst financial crisis in its history, its local currency has lost nearly 60 percent of its value since last September, while food prices continue to skyrocket.

The uphill battle against economic corruption in Lebanon is not recent. Advocacy campaigns to pass transparency legislation go back decades

A mass uprising sparked on 17 October last year has targeted the country's rulers and banks, citing widespread corruption and mismanagement of public funds.

Corruption in Lebanon is widespread and rampant. Lebanese Transparency Association, an advocacy group in Lebanon, says that corruption "governs all sectors of society and all branches of government." 

This unsurprisingly reflects popular opinion. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Lebanon continues to be perceived as one of the most corrupt countries surveyed, ranking 138 out of 180. In addition, an IMF audit that took place over the summer of 2019 also said that there are "governance weaknesses that increase Lebanon's vulnerability to corruption."

With all that said, while the new anti-corruption law appears to be a significant step forward, many say that it leaves far too much to be desired. 

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While Bassil and MPs from Lebanon's ruling political parties were full of praise, civil society organisations and even some MPs were critical of what they say are problematic elements of the law.

Independent MP Paula Yacoubian was most vocal. "I would have preferred it would be both public and private sectors together in one law," Yacoubian told The New Arab over the phone. 

But what especially irked the Beirut MP is a rejected amendment she proposed which would have at least two of the six committee members elected, rather than appointed. She quickly expressed her frustration on Twitter from the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, which acted as a makeshift parliament building that day.

Yacoubian told The New Arab that she suggested in her proposal that the lawyer and accountant would be elected as both respective syndicates "hold elections internally."

"When appointed, there is always an allegiance to the authorities that made said appointment," she explained. "This is sadly part of ongoing clientelism [in Lebanon]."

The uphill battle against economic corruption in Lebanon is not recent. Advocacy and awareness campaigns to pressure the passing of anti-corruption and transparency legislation go back decades. 

The United Nations Development Programme and the Lebanese Transparency Association released a 50-page report in March 2009 called 'Towards A National Anti-Corruption Strategy'. In its preface, the UNDP says it launched a national dialogue project to take on corruption back in mid-2004.

Lebanese lawmakers passed an anti-corruption law in late April that would target malpractices in the public sector and form a national anti-corruption commission

Lebanon previously had a State Ministry for Combatting Corruption, held by Free Patriotic Movement appointee Nicholas Tueini for two years from December 2018 until January 2019.

In April 2018, Lebanon announced its 'Anti-Corruption National Strategy' in partnership with the UNDP that would set a pathway for the country until 2023.

Tueni's ministry had little to no budget - just his salary. The state ministry never resumed after his term ended. 

With that said, Assaad Thebian, Founder and Director of the Gherbal Initiative, an organisation that promotes publishes and visualises data on state institutions, believes that legislation is not the core problem when it comes to corruption in the first place.

"We've always seen several laws which are supposed to be progressive, but they are never really being applied," Thebian told The New Arab, echoing MP Yacoubian's sentiments about the need to elect committee members, rather than appointing them.

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He added that while the government has tried to appeal to a largely infuriated population, promising reform to take on corruption, there has been no "tangible" results just yet. 

"The next steps that should be done is actual transparency commitments from all public administrations," Thebian said. "They should regularly be updating their data and making them more accessible and easy to use by citizens which is not a common practice so far."

Thebian and his colleagues at Gherbal continue to fill in a huge gap left by the Lebanese government. As Lebanon's local currency continues to lose its value, all eyes are on financial and economic developments in the country.

The organisation recently launched El Lira, a website database of the local currency exchange rate, state budget data visualizations, and other crucial information.

"Websites likes El Lira are tools that are put into the hands of citizens so they have an effective ability to measure and analyse data on their own," he said. "This is a practice the government should adopt.

Now, Assaad Thebian is preparing a data-driven evaluation of Prime Minister Hasan Diab's government. 

At the same time, MP Paula Yacoubian tells The New Arab that her focus has been making sure crucial laws that combat corruption aren't weakened before being voted on in Parliament, particularly one she says is central to combating corruption: an independent judiciary.

An independent judiciary is one of the central demands of Lebanon's protest movement, but also a central point of criticism when it comes to Lebanese corruption

"The important thing [going forward] is to pass a law to guarantee the independence of the judiciary," said Yacoubian. "You can't combat corruption without an independent judiciary."  

Calling for the independence of a judiciary is one of the central demands of Lebanon's protest movement, but also a central point of criticism when it comes to Lebanese corruption and misconduct.

Yacoubian said the draft law, prepared by local NGO Legal Agenda, would be a complete restructuring of the judiciary, guaranteeing its independence in all its different facets.

It's currently being debated in parliament's general committee, though she says it's been an uphill battle preventing others from diluting its efficacy. For now, she remains cautiously optimistic.

 "This law when – or if – it goes through the general committee, would be a huge development."

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He leads investigations at The Public Source

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