ByTheEast: Since the beginning of the Thawra on October 17th, corruption is the theme of many debates. How do you evaluate the words flowing freely in Lebanon nowadays?
Rabih El Chaer: What we are witnessing today is a revolt of a generation over the previous one. At the end of the war in 1990, my generation was of twenty years of age. We had to fight against all kinds of corruption. Today’s generation, does not have the same obstacles as ours. The environment in which we grew up was far more difficult than what we face today because then we were under Syrian custody.
Former managing director and cofounders of the first NGOs fighting corruption in Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Transparency Association or Sakker el-Dekkene, had been very vocal in its protests, and had published many articles, among other things. We ran many corruption awareness campaigns, and to an extent we were able to engage with the general public. Our work in highlighting corruption in Lebanese society has paved the way for the current generation, who are now seeking our expertise.
With no traction in politics or in public affairs, the new generation has very little knowledge and grip over socio-economic issues that run deep in our society. On the other hand, they are courageous and a master in the modes of dissemination of information via social media platforms. Harnessing the power of social media to create public meetings at Martyrs Square is a smart way of informing people to switch from populist slogans to more specific actions.
In order to be a true, credible force, one must understand the action of the legislator and grasp intricacies in legislation to understand its credibility. It is not enough to just create laws with fancy, flashy titles; we must dig deeper, pore over every article, in order to understand their clauses, which may have gaps or which by themselves facilitate corruption.
Adapt at using technologies, the new generation can sift through tons of data and distinguish fake news from verified genuine information. They are using these strategies on the ground, in the real world, when authorities infiltrate crowds or spread misinformation on social networks. We are witnessing a collective awareness of not responding to violence with violence, to not play the game of criminals who have infiltrated into peaceful demonstrations. These are great victories for these protesters.
“Creating an anti-corruption committee is essentially a means to dilute and weaken the judiciary system instead of strengthening it.”
BTE: What do you mean by “specific actions”?
El Chaer: Take a look at some of our existing laws – the amnesty law, the law on illicit enrichment, or even the constitution of an anti-corruption committee. The current public debate, even when propagated through public lectures, questions the validity and importance of these laws.
There is a growing awareness, an increase in curiosity in such subjects; there is a collective will to question all actions of the government. The people no longer take the actions of the authorities as trustworthy by default. They are beginning to question decisions and actions taken by the authorities.
Case in point: the formation of an anti-corruption committee as suggested by the President of the Republic or by the current bill is facing a strong push-back. I am also opposed to its formation for the very simple reason that it would represent an attack on the independence of our judicial system. Creating this committee does not answer the critical question of who will appoint the members to this committee? Will it be the political factions as usual? Who will finance this committee? Who will control its financing? Creating an anti-corruption committee without answering these most significant bases is essentially a means to dilute and weaken the judiciary system instead of strengthening it.
BTE: Does the judiciary system have no power?
El Chaer: Let me give you a recent example of corruption. Last Friday, the newspaper Nida ‘el-Watan reported two presidential pardons.
These pardons are potentially suspect, since the lawyers are close to Gebran Bassil and Salim Jreissati, the former Minister of Justice. While the first pardon concerns a Lebanese citizen who had not paid a heavy fine seven years ago following a conviction for defamation against Saudi Arabia and Islam. The second pardon is a more serious case wherein a young woman, of 26 years, facilitated access to drugs by cocaine dealers in nightclubs.
In her original sentencing, she was awarded life imprisonment, which was then reduced to 5 years and now having spent just 1 year in jail, the President pardoned her despite contrary opinion of the Judges Committee.
In both cases, the prosecutor and the judges’ committee had refused the pardon, but President Aoun overruled them. This case has become a subject of discussion for public opinion – what moral limits should be put on presidential pardons?
Since the beginning of the Thawra, there has been an incredible awareness that will limit future acts of corruption. These awakening are also quickly followed by actions, such as calls to protest or lawsuits. This is unprecedented.
“In every walk of life, at every step, the Lebanese are confronted and have to deal with corruption ranging from petty to a significantly larger scale.”
BTE: Let’s go back to more global considerations. There are major types of corruption (active or passive). What are the main forms of corruption in Lebanon?
El Chaer: This is a non-issue.
Al-Chaer: Because corruption has been woven, into the very fabric of Lebanese culture. As soon as a child enters school, he is confronted with corruption. He is witness to the way his parents interact with teachers and administration; he grows up in an environment where cheating is facilitated by teachers during official exams; he has to indulge in corruption to obtain diplomas …
From this very first interaction with the State, he faces and has to deal with layers of corruption. It’s cultural and deep rooted. The Lebanese pride themselves on being resourceful. While it is true that in this part of the world, you have to know how to manage and survive, since we have had to spent centuries upon centuries without the notion of State, on the downside this has led to a phenomenon where no one is ever responsible.
At a most impressionable age of 18, when young Lebanese citizens typically obtaining their driving license from the state, their first hand experience of corruption as well as what they have seen around them pushes them to expect to receive their permit at home as a birthday present, without even passing any test or exam.
In every walk of life, at every step, the Lebanese are confronted and have to deal with corruption ranging from petty to a significantly larger scale.
“Public servants should be based on meritocracy. But for now, it is still based on unreported quotas. As a result, the efficiency of the public service is at a minimum.”
BTE: What distinction do you make between these two types of corruption?
El Chaer: Petty corruption has become an alternative means of income for civil servants. The feudal lords, the political factions, the religious authorities are doing everything to encourage young graduates to emigrate; but those who stay in Lebanon need, in the private sector as well as in the public sector, a good wasta to find a job. Once we agree to be boosted, we position ourselves as slaves to the person who has given us a favour. We are at his service for life. This is the main recipe for patronage.
Public servants should be based on meritocracy. But for now, it is still based on unreported quotas. In spite of the constitutional reform of 1990, we still cling to bad habits, especially in the public sector field, where appointments are not made on merit but are based on profiteering and corruption.
As a result, the efficiency of the public service is at a minimum. Ultimately citizens pay the price since if they want the speed up the process, they are forced to pay bribes.
All the acts of this petty corruption continue along with the absence of online administrative procedures and an effective decentralization. I did not feel on the part of the public authorities a real determination to bring down the level of corruption in Lebanon.
In my opinion, petty corruption is now a problem to be solved but the real and major problem is the grand corruption.
BTE: What is it about?
El Chaer: It is simply about the Lebanese public tender system. The general directorate of public bidding is very weak: it has only ten officials including seven contractors. How can we fight corruption in public bidding with an administration that has only ten members of staff? Not to mention that 90% of public bidding are not under its control.
BTE: Why would Parliament members pass laws that would go against their interests?
El Chaer: Here we go back to the confessional system and the separation of powers. When I was Minister Ziad Baroud’s advisor at the Ministry of the Interior and Municipalities, I defended the law on decentralization and on proportional representation in municipal elections. I remember a member of Parliament who was against the election by universal suffrage of the mayor, saying that the people were “happy with its zaïm and no one wanted to create new zaïms“.
I then realized that MPs were the first obstacles to decentralization. They do not want to lose their power. They want to keep the privileges of being the link between the periphery and the center, the privileges that feed their clientalism system.
“Bank secrecy has nurtured a parallel economy, which involves everything from drug trafficking to money laundering…”
BTE: The mechanisms of this corruption go back to Syrian tutelage. There were many cases before 2005 (Bank al-Madina, cell phone adjudication, quarry scandals, embezzlement at the Casino, the most expensive highway kilometer in the world, the mafia of electricity…). Nothing has changed since then? How to purge the system of this modus operandi?
El Chaer: This system is still in place, 100%. And this affects all sectors of the Lebanese economy. We are facing three big problems. Firstly, since there is no separation of powers, it means that no one controls anyone. Judges must no longer be appointed by the executive. Case in point: nobody has been sentenced on a corruption charge.
From the earliest days of the Thawra, I have publicly campaigned for the independence of the judiciary system. Unfortunately, we also do not have independent judicial system at the Council of State and the Audit Court. This is also explained by the low budget of the Ministry of Justice – it represents only 0.48% of the State Budget. In developed countries, this is typically 2% of the Budget.
We should therefore multiply the budget of Justice by four because we absolutely need to recruit more judges, or implement an e-justice system…
Second, we have to reform the Lebanese public administration.
The third problem is a major project for Lebanon: a legislative overhaul, a clean-up of our laws. We have many many laws but they are often meaningless. There are also others, which specifics need to undergo change.
BTE: Such as?
El Chaer: I am not a leftist, but I am against banking secrecy. We need a complete lifting of banking secrecy. Never again! This bank secrecy profile was created in the 50’s. Since then, the Lebanese economy has been fuelled by the French Riviera, by the mafia, by the great Arab nationalizations like the Suez Canal which caused the flight of Egyptian wealth to Lebanon banks, by the petrol euphoria in the 70s, by the financing of war and of the PLO, by the financing of the Arabs for the reconstruction of the 90s, by foreign funding such as that of Iran to Hezbollah …
It has nurtured a parallel economy, which involves everything from drug trafficking to money laundering … banking secrecy has added to the headwinds and have piled on enormous difficulties for the Lebanese economy.
We want to create an economy of merit! An economy where each of us engages in the third industrial revolution, the digital revolution. This could change the face of Lebanon: we do not want to see Lebanon as a tax haven, it’s bad for our economy. It encourages corruption, motivates money laundering, and gives a blind eye to crime; it also gives in to illegal funding of political factions.
“We want to create an economy of merit! We do not want to see Lebanon as a tax haven.”
BTE: Apart from the lifting of bank secrecy, what do you recommend?
El Chaer: We must update on the anti-corruption laws. Starting with the one on illicit enrichment. The problem is that the law – amended in 1999 – protects the thieves: if you want to bring legal action against a public figure for illicit enrichment, you must make a deposit of 25 million Lebanese pounds. If you lose, you will be ordered to pay a fine of LP 200 million, not counting personal allowances and a prison sentence of up to three years. So who would take the risk?
Despite all that, I strongly believe that the law against illicit enrichment can be applied, especially if attorneys general take action. But this will only happen if Justice becomes independent of political power. Once again, everything comes down to the separation of powers.
What would interest me a lot would be to see the financing of political factions and associations that revolve around them. There is a real suspicion that some political party are funded from abroad.
BTE: Do you think of offshore accounts in tax havens? It is true that there were many Lebanese people listed into the Panama Papers …
El Chaer: The Panama Papers had many names including that of ministers, and businessmen … There was even a member of the board of directors of the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA). This only underscores the extent of the rot of corruption and its grip over the Lebanese society and its economy.
BTE: Is it possible to investigate these offshore accounts?
El Chaer: It’s possible, but it’s a very complicated procedure. It would require a very long investigation, a lot of technical means and know-how, a lot of money too. And then a lawsuit. Either this action is attempted in Lebanon and it can be proved that sums of public money come from acts of corruption; either this action is led by the United States or Switzerland who have developed laws for the pursuit of money laundering around the world.
That said, even if a lawsuit is launched, it will take years. We have the example of Tunisia where the revolution has won but after 8 years they have only ceased USD 250 million out of tens of billions. These procedures are very slow because they are very technical.
BTE: The October 17 revolution had several effects, such as the election as chairman of Melhem Khalaf at the head of the Bar Association. Don’t you find that encouraging?
El Chaer: It’s a good sign, and a pointer that the movement towards addressing issues revolving around corruption is gathering steam. Justice is not only about judges, but also about lawyers who are involved in fighting corruption. It is necessary to take advantage of the election of Melhem Khalaf to go towards more independence of Justice. I trust Melhem Khalaf, but I also know that he can not do a miracle alone.