Lebanon has a political class with little interest in fighting corruption and a government that has decisively blocked a UN-funded attempt to create a committee to oversee such efforts, as little hope remains for reform from within the system.
This is the stark view of Adnan Iskandar, the president of La Fassad (No Corruption), a group dedicated to fighting corruption and encouraging transparency in public life.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Iskan.dar outlined the prospects for improving everything from getting paperwork processed by the bureaucracy to strengthening the judiciary.
“There has been no improvement in the political system since 1943,” Iskandar sighed. “It’s an impressive record, no doubt about it,” he said. “It has successively resisted change. I don’t know of any country in the world where no change or improvement has taken place in a 60-year period.”
“It’s a closed system, a small group sharing power and resisting participation by other groups, and resisting changes that would affect their interests,” he said.
Iskandar is the former chairman of the political science and public administration department at the American University of Beirut, and served as AUB’s vice-president for university relations.
In 1998, he became a senior expert to Arcadis BMB, a Dutch-Greek consortium that is advising the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Development on improving the performance of the bureaucracy.
In March, Iskandar took over from Salim Azar as president of La Fassad, which has been active recently in preparing booklets on the rights of citizens and a code of ethics for government employees.
“Both were approved by the Cabinet without too much difficulty, because they aren’t binding,” he said, describing the limits to such efforts.
La Fassad’s reports on the level of transparency required in privatization stressed the need for public participation through stock-holding in such initiatives, although the authorities appear to have little interest in encouraging such a phenomenon.
The same goes for having efficient bodies to supervise privatization, also yet to take shape.
A more dramatic indication of the government’s attitude came after Iskandar, along with the Central Inspection Department and the Accounting Department’s Rahif Hajj Ali, lawyer Philippe Khairallah, Batroun MP Butros Harb and economist Gina Shammas were appointed as the board of the National Integrity Steering Committee.
“They were appointed under the former government of Salim Hoss, but the initiative went nowhere when the government of Rafik Hariri refused to go ahead with the project,” Iskandar said.
The Vienna-based anti-crime office of the United Nations signed a protocol with the Hoss government for the body’s work, which would involve preparing a strategy to fight corruption in Lebanon.
In November 2000, the newly installed Hariri government took office and, as Iskandar put it: “They weren’t very friendly; they didn’t like the idea of an anti-corruption agency and they froze the project.”
“They contacted the UN office in Vienna and told them “we have no confidence in this committee,” Iskandar continued. “And so, the work of this anti-corruption committee has been frozen since November 2000. We received one computer from (Minister of State for Administrative Development) Fouad Saad and that’s the brief history of this national office.”
In analyzing the general inertia when it comes to reform, Iskandar said one factor that must be taken into consideration is Syria’s role in managing the Lebanese political system, meaning that serious change will not take place without approval from Damascus.
Meanwhile, a new generation that could be an agent for change, particularly those people with badly-needed skills, is leaving the country.
Iskandar predicted that external pressures for reform could only become stronger on the authorities.
“The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have conditions relating to corruption that must be fulfiled. They’re not very serious about it yet, but I think that donor agencies will become tighter in giving money to such regimes. You cannot isolate yourself from the world anymore,” he said.
During the past few years, he acknowledged: “We have witnessed a growing awareness of the seriousness of this problem; there have been some writings that have highlighted the cost of corruption for Lebanon, and it has become one of the main issues here, although very little has been done about it.”
Iskandar said that while public awareness has grown, it is difficult for ordinary citizens to provide the first spark for change, since people are obliged to work within the system.
“Any Lebanese dreads going to a government office and would rather pay a bribe to have his work facilitated. So part of our awareness campaign is to stop this. But it’s very difficult to stop this when you can’t get what you’re entitled to from the government except by ‘greasing the wheels’ of the bureaucracy.”
However, Iskandar says that low salaries for civil servants should not be blamed as the chief culprit, since studies show that well-off state employees in other countries often exhibit a higher level of corruption.
Instead, he focused on politicians who have made an art of merging their private interests with government policy.
“The Lebanese political and administrative system is built on a lack of accountability. Do you know of a system in which there is a prime minister who owns a majority in one of the companies (slated for a transfer of licensing), LibanCell he says it’s his son-in-law’s, but there is no one who can pay $125 million to buy the stock in LibanCell.
“When the prime minister responsible for privatization of such a basic activity of the state’s (and) has such an interest, there is no notion of the concept of conflict of interest at all,” he said, citing as another example Hariri’s earlier purchase and sale of shares in the state-run TeleLiban.
Government ministers have their own interests in various domains, while the media is not free of direct political intervention, he continued.
Iskandar said that while Arab elites might acknowledge that they are headed for disaster unless corruption is rooted out and political and economic reform initiated, Lebanon’s political class has its interests elsewhere.
“The collapse of Lebanon won’t affect them; they can go live wherever they want … Ask (politicians) if they have money here. They’re not investing here. I’ve never known governments in Lebanon that don’t care about the public interest like this government. In many (past) governments, there was a minimum of attention to the general interest. You satisfy it, and then you can do what you want.”
Describing the culture and atmosphere since Hariri’s arrival in office, Iskandar recalled the American maxim: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the United States.”
“I think that Hariri believes that what’s good for Hariri is good for Lebanon.”
Iskandar said that as a result of the war, the weakened, traditional feudal political class was infiltrated by a group of powerful businessmen, evidenced by the soaring costs of election campaigns.
An upcoming by-election in Metn, he said, will probably see more spent on a single seat than on the entire district in 2000.
Iskandar cites the 70-year-long and still-unfinished drive to establish a supreme council for the trial of senior officials as an example of how difficult it is to hold top officials accountable.
In neighboring Israel, he said, the two prime ministers (Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu) have faced investigations over alleged minor misdeeds, while senior figures have been imprisoned in Jordan as a result of a corruption scandal.
“Our civil servants,” he continued, “are protected by the laws, an absence of any efficient control system and the protection they have from political patrons.”
A lack of accountability pervades the entire Lebanese system, Iskandar argued, with the non-existent notion of conflict of interest perhaps the most distressing feature.
The solution, he indicated, will have to overcome the vicious circle of a political class and a judicial system that suffers from outside intervention.
“The submission of the latest draft bill to establish an independent judiciary by MPs has led nowhere at all,” he said.
“One of them had second thoughts: ‘This might give the judiciary too much power, maybe we should rethink this.’”
Civil society, Iskandar continued, did have some successes to speak of, namely in the environment and human rights domains, where NGOs have been able to make their views known and lobby for change.
As for seeing a dramatic public uprising break out to force action, whether or not spurred by an economic collapse, Iskandar indicated that strong Syrian disapproval and a general lack of potential for such a development here appeared to hinder any significant developments.
He sees the Lebanese public these days as fairly docile, citing the fact that recent fuel price increases that pushed the price of 20 gallons of gasoline to well above LL20,000 did not spark public protests.
Iskandar said that Lebanon is notable for its margin of free speech, but is hindered by a lack of participation necessary for true democracy.
Covering the system is a blanket of secrecy, Iskandar said, despite the fact that many groups can speak out forcefully to criticize the system.
“For example, if you can get information about who pays how much income tax, it will stir up the Lebanese, when they read the names of rich people paying hardly any tax and a salaried employee paying more.
Before the war, Iskandar’s brother Marwan published an article showing that around 100 government-licensed prostitutes paid more income tax than all of the country’s doctors put together.
“Businesses have to submit balance sheets every year to the government,” Iskandar said. “Most of them report losses. A company that reports losses for ten consecutive years why is it still in business?”