Lebanon: Where Every Party Vies to Keep its Part of the Corruption Cake

Today marks one month on the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port. No Lebanese official has taken any responsibility and no report was issued on what has happened.

I have worked in the media for 10 years, followed by 15 years of intense work in political affairs and diplomacy with the United Nations on some of the most complex political and humanitarian files. I have organized peace talks in Geneva and Kuwait, drafted ceasefire agreements in Yemen, visited refugee camps in Turkey and Tunisia, developed political agreements in Cairo, contributed to the removal of chemical weapons in Syria and worked on Counter-Terrorism in Africa. After all these experiences I can honestly say, in good conscience, that I have never witnessed the level of corruption and mismanagement that Lebanon is engaged in. As a Lebanese citizen, it breaks my heart to say so but a quick overview of what Lebanon is currently witnessing and its egregious lack of leadership will clarify the picture.

Fed up with the economic stagnation, massive currency devaluation and endemic corruption, Lebanese men and women took to the streets in October 2019 in a massive uprising cutting across the sectarian lines that have plagued the country for decades. Throwing fear to the wind, protestors asked for reforms and demanded a new non-sectarian political system with a new President, fair parliamentary representation, and sustainable living conditions.

For the last 20 years, the Lebanese economy has been struggling with low growth and high debt, reaching a GDP growth 0.2% in 2018 and around -0.2% in 2019, according to the World Bank. Not much has improved since Lebanon’s civil war, one that the Lebanese still remember vividly, especially since the very people who initiated it are still in power. The country is still plagued by an ongoing deteriorating infrastructure, spiraling inflation, frequent power cuts, suppression of freedom of speech, daily piles of uncollected garbage and numerous daily struggles Lebanese people go through.

Lebanese youth feel disempowered by the political system and lack of opportunities for growth. Recent reports refer to more than 350,000 (10% of the Lebanese population) visa applications submitted to foreign embassies in order to leave the country. All this was before COVID-19 had hit Lebanon in February 2020 and is, for many obvious reasons, currently on the rise in Lebanon with more than 600 cases recorded every day. In summary, the country has been struggling for years and the latest events only aggravated an already dire humanitarian situation.

As if this was not enough, on August 4, 2020 a massive explosion shook Beirut. It killed hundreds, seriously injured thousands and many are still missing. This man-made catastrophe was totally avoidable had the political leaders who admitted knowing about the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut took sufficient and timely action to remove the time-ticking bomb from one of the most populated areas in the country. The explosion left more than 300,000 Lebanese citizens homeless, a ratio to total population equal to 14 million Americans in the US or 6 million in Italy.

Initial reports indicate that the ammonium nitrate was on board of a Russian-owned vessel that arrived in Beirut on its way to Mozambique in November 2013. The vessel suffered “technical problems” while sailing through the Eastern Mediterranean and was forced to dock at Beirut’s port. While the ownership of the ship and the technical problems remain unclear with suspicious scenarios being speculated every day, the information vacuum can lead to many analyses.

Earlier in 2013, on August 21, chemical weapons attacks took place in Syria on the opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta. The attacks killed hundreds of civilians, including large numbers of children. I was part of the UN joint UN-OPCW Mission that was established on 16 October 2013 to oversee the timely elimination of the chemical weapons program of the Syrian Arab Republic in the safest and most secure manner possible and ban the entry of new chemical weapons to the country. Was the arrival of the vessel containing chemical weapons to Beirut in November of the same year a pure coincidence?

On another note, experts are confirming that the amount of chemicals that have exploded did not exceed 1,000 tons. If this information is correct, what happened to the remaining chemicals? Were they used or sold? Where, by whom and to what country?

A month has passed and the current establishment has not held a single press conference or released one investigation report to explain what happened. Instead, Lebanese politicians are playing the only game they are skilled at: blaming each other, passing off responsibilities to one another and covering for each other to avoid a snitching domino effect. Of course they would do so, since the sectarian political system that indulges in clientelism allows political parties to appoint their supporters in key positions in the judiciary system which makes any condemnation almost impossible.

The forecast seems pretty bleak, at least for the near future. Most Lebanese scribe to the need to cave to international pressure for any remarkable change to happen. So far nothing has happened unless big regional and international powers have intervened, whether it is the election of the current President or the very recent appointment of new Prime Minister Mustafa Adib only a few hours prior to French President Macron’s second visit in less than a month.

Macron called for a new “political pact” and threatened the political leaders with sanctions unless a reform-cabinet is formed within the next 14 days. But what do we know about the new PM. Not much, except that he is Sunni (which Prime Ministers are required to be by Lebanese constitutional law); he is backed by Hezbollah; and he has been maintaining strong relationships with the political parties who are currently leading the country. In other words, it was the very same people who are asked to step down that are nominating the new Prime Minister.

No plan has been announced, nor has he issued a political framework or economic rescue plan. He has yet to form a new government, a difficult task in a country where every political party vies to keep its part of the corruption cake. The International Monetary Fund and donor countries are imposing corrective measures as a pre-requisite for any support. And all this chaos against the backdrop of a pandemic which is getting worse and worse with each passing day. Let us not forget that regional conflicts and turmoil are also impacting the country, East and West, South and North and every decision has to be at the cross interest of the international players represented directly or indirectly by the political blocs. It is also known that this status-quo may last until the US elections, for a possible deal between the US and Iran that could lead to a breakthrough at some point.

But the situation in Lebanon cannot last longer and the country does not afford the luxury of time. The clock is ticking and immediate actions should be taken. Protests are powerful, and the immediate demand of those leading the newest iteration of a revolution is that the government allows for new parliamentary elections leading to the election of a new President.

But warlords don’t historically go down without a fight, and the revolution has not put forth any new leaders to unify the resistance. People of Lebanon need to focus on three pillars as stepping stones towards a new system: a) a fair neutral judiciary system for justice to prevail and sanctions to be imposed in order to stop clientelism that is rooted and intertwined in the current political system; b) an immediate financial rescue plan to ease suffering of the citizens and alleviate the soaring poverty rate (more than 30,000 employees have been laid off and more than 1,000 restaurants closed in the last few months); c) advanced parliamentary elections allowing for new knowledgeable figures to contribute to the political non-sectarian landscape and leading to the election of a new President, provided that new trusted political figures gain some traction until then.

Lebanese men and women feel powerless and the resilience that was once their best quality is now considered to be a blessing in disguise. The country is collapsing. The current leadership and political blocs have failed to provide the most basic life conditions. But how would these warlords let go of the power and at what price? I have met over the last few years presidents turning down peace deals because they did not reflect their personal aspirations. I am currently witnessing in Lebanon the same denial of politicians in their fancy comfortable palaces disregarding the unbearable living conditions of the population, including their followers, who are struggling to feed their children or heat their home on a cold rainy day.

In summary, Lebanon is dealing with a double pandemic: while there is hope about a cure for Covid19, the poisonous political virus affecting the country won’t be easily eradicated. The country is going through its own kind of euthanasia or clinical death. You would not wish this storm on your worst enemies.

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