by Dario Rivolta * –
There was a period, around the sixties of the last century, when Lebanon was considered a small paradise in the Mediterranean. Meeting place in its history of peoples and religions, it was nevertheless small, with scarce natural resources of its own, but rich thanks among other things to the exceptional commercial spirit of its inhabitants. In those years it was spoken of, with good reason, as a “Switzerland of the Middle East”. Anyone who went there today carrying the image of that time would no longer be able to recognize it. Currently, at least 80% of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line, food and fuel shortages are daily and even in the capital Beirut electricity has frequent outages. Inflation is close to 270% and that for basic foodstuffs reaches 350%, while the Lebanese pound has collapsed by 98% against the US dollar in a decade.
What’s more, when the war broke out in neighboring Syria, almost two million refugees took refuge in Lebanon (out of a total population of less than seven million) who, when they succeed, offer their work at low wages and thus steal jobs from the indigenous. This fact, combined with the aid that international organizations offer only to refugees, contributes to aggravating the intolerance of the Lebanese towards these new arrivals. For several decades now even more than a million Palestinians have settled permanently in Lebanon and this constitutes another serious problem for the country. They have never been integrated because doing so would have caused other and greater upheavals. According to the 1943 agreements confirmed in Taif with the end of the civil war of the 1980s, the quotas of the population divided between Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druze and representatives of all other confessions had been fixed once and for all religious (the State officially recognizes 18 denominations: among Muslims, Sunnis, Twelver Shiites, Ismailis, Alawis and Druze, the Maronite Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Church -Catholic, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Protestants, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Latin Church and finally the Jewish community) who have proportionally divided up constituencies and seats of power. To give an idea of the institutional problem caused by the many Palestinians present, it is enough to remember that their camps (now almost all with masonry buildings) have a totally autonomous jurisdiction even if in Lebanese territory and the official army is even forbidden to enter them. According to the constitution, the president of the republic will always be a Christian, the president of parliament a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. The other positions follow in cascade always respecting a proportional representativeness.
After Taif it seemed, for a certain period, that everything could return to the best moments of before the outbreak of the civil war and the interlude of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri appeared to confirm this. A man of great diplomatic skills, charismatic and with international support (especially from the Saudis) he managed to improve the state accounts, create new jobs and rebuild the center of Beirut destroyed by the war as it was before and even with a certain elegance and greater functional efficiency. His assassination, probably inspired by the Syrians who did not love him and who feared losing the hegemony they exercised over that country, brought all the contradictions to the surface. It must be said that, after 16 years of investigations costing one billion dollars, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon has convicted a member of Hezbollah of being responsible for the attack and three others have been acquitted for lack of evidence. However, Hezbollah refused to extradite the culprit citing a “political ruling”:
As is typical of many Middle Eastern countries, and beyond, corruption has always been inherent in Lebanese governments and mentality, but since Hariri’s death there has been no limit to its development. For about ten years the state accounts have been on the road to bankruptcy and none of the successive governments has had the strength, and perhaps not even the will, to remedy it. Each Prime Minister, one after another, has promised to fight corruption and stop the squandering of public money but without ever taking concrete action (remember Zelensky anyone?). The international community and the IMF have proposed financial aid as long as the electoral system is reformed in a more democratic way, the judiciary is reorganized and made independent, corruption is really fought and the enormous conflicts of interest that bind the banks are put to an end of the country to the various politicians. Nothing was done due to mutual vetoes by the various parties and the three billion dollars from the IMF were never disbursed.
The already critical situation has worsened further after the explosion of 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port of Beirut. It was perhaps the single most powerful non-nuclear explosion in human history, destroying an entire neighborhood of waterfront homes and killing and injuring hundreds of people. It took place on August 4, 2020 and an investigation was immediately announced to discover the responsibilities of those who had silently tolerated the presence of such a dangerous material for six years. Despite the various reassurances, still today no one has had the courage to identify who was the owner of that deposit and who, despite knowing it, had kept silent about that presence. Two investigative magistrates who seemed to want to draw conclusions were removed from their posts one after the other and, although everyone knew that this was material at Hezbollah’s disposal, announcing it would have caused a new political crisis and probably brought out hidden complicity. Relatives of the deceased and injured protested in the squares several times, with the only result being attacked by the police and many of them imprisoned.
The crisis linked to Covid-19 further aggravated the economic situation and, at a certain point, all banks short of liquidity blocked savers’ withdrawals. Not for everyone, however: the wealthiest and most of the politicians, conniving with the bank executives, have managed to transfer all their money abroad, thus making the system’s debt even heavier. It is no coincidence that last February the governor of the Central Bank (Banque du Liban), Riad Salameh was accused of money laundering, embezzlement, money laundering and tax evasion. In March 2022, France, Germany and Luxembourg seized his assets worth 120 million euros and last May France and Germany issued an international arrest warrant against him followed a few days ago by the United States , Great Britain and Canada. The accusation is that Salameh abused his position of power in violation of Lebanese laws and plundered the money of savers “to enrich himself and his associates by piloting hundreds of millions of dollars through shadow companies that invest in real estate in Europe ”. The same charges and related sanctions were also issued against the governor’s brother, his assistant, his mistress and his son by the latter. Salameh’s case is indicative of the Lebanese situation: although evidently guilty, he remained in his place until last July 31st, continuing as if nothing happened to manage the Central Bank. However, do not think that he has now been removed: his mandate had expired after thirty years in power, and his reconfirmation or a new appointment would be up to the Government with the approval of the President of the Republic. Unfortunately, the government currently in office is “provisional” having not found, since the elections of May 2022, a parliamentary majority to vote for it and can only carry out acts of ordinary administration. As far as the president of the republic is concerned, the position has been vacant since October 2022 and, even in that case, there is no agreement among the political forces on which of the possible Christian candidates can fill the position. The last vote, the twelfth which took place last June, did not give a useful result in the first round due to the lack of the necessary quorum. In the second round, where a relative majority would have been sufficient, many MPs left the room to make the quorum fail. It is not the first time that Lebanon has remained without a President for a long time because it already happened in 2014 and the sufficient number to elect him was reached only in 2016.
Naturally, the case of the governor of the Central Bank is not the only one, so much so that in April a former minister, Marwan Khair El-Din, had already gone on trial in France on charges of money laundering and participation in a criminal organization . Even in that case and although the decision of a French court was well documented, the Lebanese government refused to arrest him saying that a possible extradition of him would be up to the local judiciary. Those who know the real situation in Lebanon can only smile because no powerful man, whether businessman or politician, has ever been imprisoned in Lebanon and even when (rarely) this happened, those arrested soon fled without being traced.
Corruption is not limited to banks and businesses: even in hospitals there have been reports of trafficking in newborn babies taken from their mothers and sold on an illegal market. On the other hand, there is no law in Lebanon that regulates adoptions or protects abandoned children.
It is practically impossible to carry out any act concerning public administration without paying a “tip” or having influential contacts. Most politicians have shares or associates in banks and no one abstains from voting in Parliament for measures concerning companies in which they have financial interests. Cronyism is a common practice and thousands of people belonging to both parties/religious denominations are hired for public offices thanks to their “protectors”.
Even the press participates in the “Lebanese system”, so much so that most of the local media have not even mentioned the international arrest warrants and the most blatant cases of corruption.
We have already talked about the judiciary but suffice it to say that from 1951 to today there have been at least 300 murders of politicians but in 90% of cases the perpetrators have never been identified. Even when some naive investigator believed he could do it, he was immediately removed and replaced by someone more “docile”.
Local politicians are not only dedicated to the underworld for personal enrichment. They are very attentive to morals, so much so that the current, albeit provisional, Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada has just announced that he has asked the (also provisional) Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi to take “all necessary measures to prevent that the film Barbie be performed in the country”, since this film, scheduled for screening on August 31, “promotes homosexuality and transsexuality … it diminishes the role of guardian of fathers, undermines and ridicules the role of the mother and questions the need for marriage and having a family”. The interior minister has guaranteed that he will impose on the censorship committee, which he heads, the need to view the film and decide accordingly.
* Former deputy, he is a geopolitical analyst and expert in international relations and trade.