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Lebanese protestors determined to root out longstanding corruption

Lebanese protestors determined to root out longstanding corruption
Representative Picture. Image Credit: ANI

Lebanese protesters have once again stopped Parliament from meeting by blockading roads heading to government buildings and clashing with riot police this week, aiming to push back a parliamentary session where demonstrators fear Lebanese lawmakers will hand corrupt actors amnesty. That session, which had already been pushed back once, has once again been delayed until next week, as activists formed a human chain to stop policymakers from reaching Parliament.

Tensions have run particularly high after a protester was shot dead last week by soldiers, the first casualty of a month-long period of widespread civil disobedience. Demonstrators have redoubled their efforts in the wake of the shooting, with President Michel Aoun callously scoffing that "if people aren't satisfied with any of the decent leaders let them emigrate." That flippant statement comes as yet more confirmation of protesters' fears that Lebanon's ruling elite are dangerously out of touch with reality.

The protests have paralyzed the country's day-to-day activities. Lebanon's main thoroughfares have been barricaded, banks and schools closed, and already inefficient water and electricity infrastructure hampered. With protesters now vowing that no parliamentary sessions will be held "as long as the people control the street", there seems to be little chance of rapprochement between Lebanon's government and the people it serves.

Taking a stand against corruption

Originally sparked by a clumsy attempt to impose a tax on calls made through WhatsApp, the protests are in fact the culmination of years of frustration with crumbling infrastructure, governmental ineptitude, and—most seriously—rampant corruption. Demonstrations of this scale haven't been seen since the 'Cedar' revolution in 2005, which was thought to have ushered in a new, more transparent era of governance. Sadly, in the intervening years, cronyism and nepotism have become even more commonplace in state institutions and the private sector alike.

Interestingly, although sectarianism is part and parcel of Lebanon's political framework, protestors appear to be drawn from different religious sects and political parties. Socio-economic factors, rather than sectarian identities, are driving their movement. One of the uprising's mantras—'All of them means all of them'—blames the entire political class for the crisis, with many calling for the establishment of a new secular, meritocratic government.

Too little, too late?

This stark economic polarization of Lebanon's population isn't surprising. According to senior economists, a quarter of the nation's income is controlled by the top one percent of its citizens. Meanwhile, one-fourth of its workforce is unemployed and debt stands at 150 percent of GDP—the third highest in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecasted a double-digit fiscal deficit next year. Although the chief of Lebanon's central bank recently made a statement denying that capital controls would be imposed, the local currency is already sliding against the US dollar on the black market, despite being officially pegged to the greenback.

Concessions offered by the government have been labeled 'too little, too late', and trust in the Lebanese financial system has all but evaporated. The international community has urged Lebanese leaders to implement widespread structural reforms that would clear the way for $11 billion in soft loans and grants that could re-start the economy. An aid package proposed by France, for example, specifies that the government will have to transform its corrupt 'patronage' system that sees billions siphoned from state coffers.

Root and branch reform is needed

Despite pressure from without and within, the Lebanese government has yet to grasp that piecemeal reforms won't stabilize the situation. The bad actors who have been allowed to permeate Lebanon's political and financial systems will need to be fully and transparently exorcised before public trust can be re-established.

These actors, unfortunately, include some of the most prominent members of Lebanon's business community. Businessman Raymond Rahme Zayna, a major shareholder in a number of Lebanon's biggest banks, has been connected to cases as sordid as the murder of a prominent US contractor, Dale Stoffel, in Iraq. A major legal case against the Iraqi government has demonstrated how Rahme Zayna subverted Iraqi government funds intended to pay Stoffel for refurbishing military equipment and paint the Lebanese businessman as complicit in the American's death.

Rahme Zayna has not only not faced consequences in either Iraq or Lebanon for his actions in relation to Stoffel's death, but the Lebanese businessman has also been accused of a laundry list of other transgressions. His investment in Iraqi mobile telecoms operator Korek has come under particular scrutiny, with Rahme Zayna allegedly failing to disclose his substantial interest in one of Korek's competitors and contracting deals between Korek and other companies in which he has sizeable personal interests. He also allegedly colluded with Lebanon's IBL Bank to obtain a $150 million loan for Korek, before misleading other shareholders about the terms of the loan.

Rahme Zayna may be the quintessential example of the corrupt elites which have poisoned Lebanon's political & financial spheres, but another long-running scandal also laid bare the complicity of various government subcontractors. Despite receiving generous funds from the municipal budget, private firm Sukleen utterly failed to manage its waste contracts with the city of Beirut, contributing to the mountains of waste "drowning" Lebanese streets for several years running.

Politicians from across the political spectrum lined up to accuse the 'mafia-like' company, whose owners are connected to leading Lebanese politicians, of corruption. Lebanese Democratic Party leader Talal Arslan was particularly harsh, remarking that the government in Beirut had allowed Sukleen's corruption to "exceed all limits" and that "unfortunately, Sukleen […] became stronger than the government itself." While Sukleen's contract was terminated in 2018, the stink surrounding the company's tenure wasn't just confined to rotting garbage bags in the streets of Beirut.

What's next?

Lebanon's government has so far struggled to formulate a response to the civil unrest that threatens to irrevocably damage its reputation. The government has so far been unwilling to engage with the root causes of the demonstrations but, if it wants to unblock the badly needed economic assistance pledged by international donors, will need to make important reforms.

Does Lebanon's fragile coalition government have the political capital to face the challenge head on? While demonstrators in the streets of Beirut have demonstrated their courage, Lebanon's sclerotic political system has yet to do the same.

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