Bernard Khalil

Emerging Voices

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30 Years of Corruption: Lebanon’s Struggle for Reform

The Lebanese people have been protesting more in the past year than they ever have. Since the ruling political elite came into power at the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, the country has been ruled by a circle of politicians and political families wielding sectarianism and corruption to remain seated in power, despite Lebanon’s rapidly worsening situation.

In the past, politicians avoided retribution for their actions. However, in light of recent events, a number of politicians are being prosecuted, including former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Jamal Jarrah and Muhammad Shokier, both former government ministers. Despite these or any further prosecutions, corruption is still deeply ingrained into the fabric of Lebanon.

Perhaps the most visible effects of the corruption plaguing the country is the government’s inability to handle the effects of the deadly blast that rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020.

Even more odious was the government’s role in the catastrophe itself. Two weeks prior to the explosion, Lebanese security officials warned the government in the form of a letter, describing the industrial chemicals stored in Beirut’s port.

And that wasn’t even the first warning. The letter was just the latest in a string of pleas by port, customs, and security officials. Over and over again, they begged government officials to order the removal of the ammonium nitrate, which was dangerously close to populated areas. While these government bureaucrats didn’t cause the explosion itself, having six years to prevent it with a simple order speaks volumes to the competence of the current administration and of past ones, all of which have fallen prey to the same vice of corruption.

On August 10, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his cabinet’s resignation. Responding to the outrage regarding the explosion, he blamed corruption and the political elite for blocking necessary reforms.

When he was appointed as prime minister in January, Diab assured that he would rescue Lebanon from economic and social plight. Yet, Lebanon continues to suffer an intensely heightened version of economic and social plight. But while his title may have made it seem like he had the power to change things, in reality, he didn’t. Diab was only appointed to placate the protests that had been festering since last October. The momentum of the protest movement died down significantly after Diab’s appointment.

Following the explosion, that same momentum that had previously died down seems to be picking back up. Protestors are clashing with police, blaming the explosion on mismanagement by the political elite.

As for the rest of the complications boiling within the country, which many Lebanese also blame on the corrupt ruling class, the majority remain unaddressed. Public debt hit $92 billion in March and the country defaulted on some of its debt in the same month. Plus, the overwhelmed government is failing to provide basic services: electricity, water, and garbage collection. As a result, estimates reveal that nearly 75% of the population needed some form of aid as of April while 33% of the workforce is out of a job.

Problematically, although Lebanon was in search of a $10 billion loan from the IMF to combat the worsening economic crisis, discussions stalled last month due to disagreements, mainly because the ruling class refused even the most modest reforms suggested by the IMF.

It is evident that necessary reform cannot coexist with the political elite unless significant pressure is applied, especially when any aid must go through them first. While France and other countries have pledged over €250 million to the crisis, there is no guarantee that Lebanese political leaders will allow this aid to get anywhere near the people it is meant for.

French President Emmanuel Macron, when confronted by a crowd of protestors during his latest visit to Beirut, declared that the medication and food that France would be providing would not fall into corrupt hands. But later in a press statement, Macron insisted that in the long-term, aid would depend upon Lebanon’s ability to implement structural reforms, similar to IMF’s request that was rejected by the political elite.

In the wake of the explosion, the international community has the opportunity to exert leverage over the Lebanese ruling class so that reforms can pass through. Notably, much of the elites’ wealth developed from transactions through the recently wrecked port. Therefore, the time is right to demand structural changes when the elites find themselves politically and economically weakened. Along with France, the rest of the international community must up the pressure on the corrupt leaders of Lebanon, especially since they are partly responsible for the entrenchment of the current Lebanese political system.

For decades, loans and foreign aid packages flowed into the country, the majority of which ended up supplementing the finances of political elites. Because money continued to flow in from the international community, regardless of the fact that neither they nor the Lebanese people held the ruling class accountable for its failure to do anything useful with the money, the government became dangerously complacent.

Though many donor countries were aware of this cycle, they continued to feed into it because it was a simple and predictable alternative to the civil war that had caused turmoil for the country for many years up until then. Now, the greed of the political class has resulted in Lebanon being well on its way to a failed state. The international community must acknowledge its role in the situation and refrain from doling out money that will eventually go into the pockets of the deep ruling class.

Treating the crisis as one that is solely humanitarian, without realizing the decades of economic indolence that factored into making it a reality, does nothing to address the corruption and complacency that lies at the root of the problem. Instead, they must hold the Lebanese government accountable for its years of incompetence and pressure them into accepting basic reforms, which will set the stage for more as needed.