There’s an apocryphal joke that illustrates the depth and scale of corruption in Lebanon, where incompetence and institutional rot contributed to the Beirut disaster last week that killed at least 150 people, injured thousands, made hundreds of thousands homeless, and levelled much of the capital in damage estimated at more than $15bn.
The story begins with a Lebanese politician who visits the stately home of a counterpart in France.
“Wow,” says the Lebanese politician. “How can you afford a villa like that on a public employee’s salary?”
The French politician points to a road nearby. “Well, you see that $100m highway over there? We billed it for $105m and I pocketed the difference.”
A few years later, the French politician visits the enormous castle of his counterpart in Lebanon. “Wow,” says the Frenchman. “How can you afford such a palace on a politician’s salary?”
The Lebanese politician points to an empty field in the distance. “You see that $100m highway over there?”
“No,” says the French politician. “I don’t see anything.”
Lebanon’s entrenched political elites aren’t your everyday fat cats.
The political caste is dominated by the families and associates of the warlords who fought over the country during the country’s civil war in the 1980s. After the conflict, they took off their fatigues and donned custom-tailored suits, and replaced their jeeps with high-end Range Rovers.
And they are corrupt to the core. One former warlord invited me to his house for an interview, and showed off the precious antiquities he has looted to visitors making their way up to his mountaintop mansion. Everything from the car rental business to electrical power generation is dominated by a few members of well-connected political mafias.
Lebanese people get the shaft: they pay enormously high prices for shoddy services such as water and connection to the internet while political dysfunction and mismanagement lead to mounds of uncollected garbage piling up in the streets and, in the case of the tragedy last week, tonnes of ammonium nitrate sitting in a warehouse in Beirut’s port until they catch fire and blow up in a horrific disaster.
The state-within-a-state that Hezbollah has built over the last four decades is the one entity that faces an existential threat from a transparent and well-run Lebanon
The Beirut catastrophe “is only the latest, if most dramatic and devastating, manifestation of the dysfunction that has marked the Lebanese state for three decades”, writes the Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution and advocacy organisation. “It is the product of a predatory political elite that has held state institutions in its grip and sucked them dry while allowing public services for ordinary citizens to break down to the point of non-existence.”
Over the past several decades, a highly capable and lively civil society has arisen in Lebanon. Sickened by the corruption and incompetence, citizens rose up last year in a widespread protest movement, demanding deep change and the ousting of the entire political class.
“All of them means all of them,” is their main slogan. Thousands of raging Lebanese showed up in central Beirut on Saturday to protest against the incompetence and negligence of the ruling class. Some called for the “execution” of their political leaders and hung their effigies from nooses. Authorities responded with teargas and rubber bullets.
The civil society leaders and activists have demonstrated repeatedly that they are capable of taking up the reins of power. In recent years, they have come up with concrete ideas and plans for reforming the country’s feudally based electoral system and the same judiciary that reportedly ignored repeated warnings by port officials that the materials which exploded last week were a grave threat to public safety.
But they have been continuously ignored and marginalised by the political elite and their parasitic hangers-on that have dominated Lebanon’s political scene since the 1990 agreement that ended the civil war. These clans have mismanaged the economy so badly that the currency has collapsed 60 per cent on the black market, sparking hunger and desperation in the country of 6 million.
Lebanon’s civil society is understandably enraged at the mess the politicians have created. They want scalps. And all is within their reach. The political class that betrayed the nation can be fairly easily set aside, jailed, or pushed into exile – except for one group that stands now as the biggest impediment to fundamental reform: Hezbollah.
The Iranian-backed militia and political organisation didn’t create Lebanon’s crisis. It is not even the most corrupt of all the country’s political power bases. Reforming Lebanon would serve the interests of Lebanon’s long-downtrodden, poor and pious Shia who make up Hezbollah’s political base.
However, the well-armed, well-organised, state-within-a-state that Hezbollah has built over the last four decades is the one entity that faces an existential threat from a transparent and well-run Lebanon.
Unlike Lebanon’s oligarchs, Hezbollah cannot go into exile. It cannot be reformed; as an underground guerilla army, its finances and dealings are, by definition, obscure and secret. No one publishes minutes of Hezbollah meetings where leaders discuss massive drug sales or arms shipments.
Even as Hezbollah’s politicians run for office on platforms of anti-corruption, the group exploits Lebanon’s many weaknesses to pursue its goals. The same port where ammonium nitrate was irresponsibly stored for seven years is likely one way Hezbollah was bringing its massive arsenal of rockets into the country or moving hashish grown in the Bekaa Valley out.
Hezbollah’s raison d’etre, as a geopolitical arm of the Iranian regime and the so-called axis of resistance led by Tehran, means that any fundamental reset of the Lebanese political scene would pose a danger to the group. This makes it the ultimate guarantor of the Lebanese political class – even its Christian and Sunni rivals. Hezbollah seemed to sense as much last year, when its Amal Party allies were allowed to take to the streets and brutalise peaceful protesters.
“Hezbollah made Lebanon a joint stock company,” says Nadine Farghal, a lawyer and civil society activist in Beirut. “The politicians can have all the economy, shady deals and corruption. Hezbollah only wants the following: foreign policy and defence.”
To make matters worse, in the last few years, as Hezbollah’s financial problems have mounted, it too has begun to feed from the trough of corruption, cutting deals that benefit companies owned by its Iranian benefactors.
This is the Lebanese conundrum: confronting the country’s systemic flaws means facing off against the enormous military power and geopolitical interests of Hezbollah. The ghastly explosion at the port was over in a second, but there is a long road ahead for Lebanon.