Lebanese need world’s help to weed out corruption

The warlords and mafia bosses who run the country have to be held accountable in a way they never were at the end of the civil war

  
A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020.

A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020.

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
 

Sept. 1 will mark 100 years since France carved Greater Lebanon out of Syria. Of all the many highs and lows this coastal Mediterranean gem has faced, this anniversary may be the gloomiest in that century, amid serious doubts over the country’s political, social and economic viability. As brilliant and capable as Lebanese are, their ossified system has failed them. The triple whammy of last week’s Beirut explosion, a failing economy, and the coronavirus disease pandemic means the Lebanese can only look to the outside to salvage what they have left.

No doubt driven by frustration, bitterness and anger, nearly 60,000 people last week signed a petition calling for the reintroduction of the French mandate. Everything seems brighter in the distant past, but not one of those post-First World War mandates in the Near East furthered the interests of the peoples the colonial powers of Britain and France were granted responsibility for. France has always viewed Lebanon as its fiefdom, even before the mandate, intervening as it did in 1860 and maintaining a close involvement in Levantine affairs.

Everyone wants to help the Lebanese in the wake of the Beirut blast. Everyone has declared their solidarity. Everyone has made all the right noises and offered platitudes. An impressive $300 million was pledged at a donor conference on Sunday. The question is can aid be delivered without entrenching the very system of corruption, self-interest and criminality that caused all these crises? Shoveling funds into official circles to help rebuild Beirut and the shattered Lebanese economy would be akin to taking a paracetamol for smallpox. You have to pull the weeds out by their roots if you do not wish to see them flourish again.

Let us be in no doubt. Whatever ignited the fire that led to the explosion, the root cause was criminal negligence on a gargantuan scale. Such is the secrecy and obfuscation surrounding official comments, conspiracy theories are running amok as to what else was in those port warehouses and why. How come 30 to 40 nylon bags of fireworks were stored next to nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate? How could this substance have been allowed to languish in what looked like a dilapidated warehouse in the heart of the Lebanese capital for more than six years? How come all the warnings from port and customs officials, as well as judicial figures, simply vanished into the city’s quagmire? How was it that explosives deemed too dangerous for a ship to carry were safe enough to be stored in this urban center? Moreover, why did Lebanese leaders not plan for a strategic reserve of wheat, instead of leaving the country dependent on one major grain silo, which is now in ruins?

The Lebanese elite has deployed a whole school of red herrings to defend itself. But the warlords and mafia bosses who run the country have to be held accountable in a way they never were at the end of the civil war. President Michel Aoun claims he only found out about the stash of ammonium nitrate last month — a barely credible statement. His son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, claims that what really matters is not why the materials were there but how they were ignited. No surprise then that both Aoun and Bassil reject any international probe, as of course does Hezbollah.

Bassil, the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc, claims his party is “anti-corruption” — a lie that will stick in the throats of the people of Beirut. Hezbollah’s standing will also be eroded even further. Everyone knows that it has considerable control over the port area and that the head of customs, clearly a designated scapegoat, was an Aoun appointee.

Enter President Emmanuel Macron of France, who landed in Beirut with the fires still smoldering. Macron did something that none of the main warlords and mafia bosses, who remain hunkered down in their strongholds, dared to do — he went on a walkabout and spoke to the Lebanese people. Will Aoun leave Baabda Palace to visit the scene of the crime? Will Bassil? Hassan Nasrallah cannot even leave his bunkered lair. Many Lebanese noticed the stark contrast between the Hezbollah leader’s relaxed speech after the Beirut explosion that killed at least 220 people and his quasi-hysterical performance of grief after the US killed the Iranian Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani in January.

Hezbollah will either hide behind force against the Lebanese public or feel compelled to inch toward a compromise to safeguard its dominant position. Many Lebanese and others will be demanding the militia be dismantled.

What should the international community do and, just as importantly, not do? Credit to Macron. He did not fall into the obvious trap of showering Beirut with promises of bounteous aid. His message was crystal clear: No reform, no aid. This was delivered to all the Lebanese party leaders inside the magisterial French Embassy. Other international leaders must stick to this line.

In the first stage of search and rescue, all aid must be directed to nongovernmental outfits, with cast-iron guarantees of how the funds are to be spent. The costly rebuilding of this ancient port city, which will require billions of dollars, must not be funded through the rotten core of the existing government system. Richer countries must also start shouldering some of the burden of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees that Lebanon has hosted at great cost over the last eight years.

Accountability is key. No official Lebanese inquiry will hold water with the Lebanese public. Just as there was an international tribunal into the assassination of Rafik Hariri — which is now due to give its verdict later this month — an international inquiry with teeth and full access has to be a condition of support for Lebanon.

But the international community may not be able to do the essential weeding on its own. The Lebanese people, tired and fed up, will have to dig deep into their reserves of resilience. Many went out into the streets to protest against the system last October. They know a new constitutional order is vital to initiating a cleansing of the Augean stables. They are back on the streets again now, even before finishing sweeping up the smashed glass and burying the bodies. The international community must not just watch from the sidelines. Already, the security forces have used violence. The true measure of international solidarity will be how much backing we give the people, or else we will have to watch what is left of Lebanon being flushed away down the freshly created 150-meter-wide crater in Beirut port.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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