Jamil Mouawad (JM): What is the broad political context currently framing the fight against corruption? And how do you interpret the growing interest of political parties in fighting corruption? What are their aims and motivations?
Hamdan: Anti-corruption discourse has emerged for many reasons. The most important of these is that we are currently witnessing the final phase of the collapse of public utilities and the system of public services in Lebanon. For the past quarter-century (that is, in the post-Taif period), only about 8%of the total expenditures of the Lebanese state – over 225 billion dollars – were spent on public capital investment. And not even all of this percentage translated into direct services for citizens: we have to account for the profits of the contractors and the costs of commissions and brokers, all of which are expenditures that typically accompany public contracts. And so we can conclude that the investment in public services in Lebanon resembles the proverbial “orphans at the feast of the wicked.” And so people are raising cries and expressing their disgruntlement about corruption as a natural reaction to a worsening reality.
JM: What steps are presently being taken to address corruption, and to whom is anti-corruption discourse being directed (citizens, the international community, foreign companies)?
Hamdan: With the disappearance of public utilities and services, families in Lebanon are forced to pay out of pocket to access public services (electricity, healthcare, education, etc.) on top of expenses necessary to ensure their livelihood. Alongside the weakening of resources and services that should be state-funded, private household expenditures have also steadily increased.
That is the situation in Lebanese society. As for those who hold power, it appears that they are also suffering from a financial crisis, especially given the scarcity of resources flowing to them from foreign sources. This is the result of regional shifts in the price of oil or changes in the priorities of each faction’s primary benefactor due to other burdens and claims (such as the war in Yemen or the war in Syria). And so we can see that it is not only cries from the people but also from those who hold political authority who are increasingly suffering from corruption. The irony here is that these raised voices do not change matters much. Corruption as a phenomenon continues to remain the same, even now.
JM: What are the types of corruption in Lebanon? Which sectors are most corrupt? Are they part of the agenda of the political parties, and how do you explain this?
Hamdan: The cornerstone of corruption in Lebanon is what has been referred to as the “system of breadcrumbs.” This is a system based upon the ruling factions’ seizure of public institutions and their resources. Then they distribute “breadcrumbs” of public resources in an unlawful manner to their followers. This mechanism allows factions to secure their adherents’ loyalty on a sectarian basis.
This is reflected in the outcomes of legislative elections. These “breadcrumbs” become a source of power for those who distribute them (admission to hospitals at public expense, attaining transgressive building permits that distort architecture and cultural sites, etc.). The system of breadcrumbs inevitably has come to carry weight and value in citizens’ lives, thereby contributing to the continuous reproduction of relations of dependency. If not for the breadcrumbs, i.e. the system of clientelist distribution of benefits and resources, then people would have become aware of their own interests much more swiftly – even given the existence of sectarian rhetoric.
The system is in effect a total blow to the concept of public interest. Corruption, for example, manifests when we see the standards of “eligibility” for various forms of support (educational scholarships, productivity incentives, additional work hours, compensation, etc.) violated in major ways, largely for the benefit of those who are close to power. This leads directly to the impoverishment of the poor and the enrichment of large segments of those who are middle-class and wealthier – most of whom owe their political and social loyalty to the factions that hold power; each has their own “particular party.”
JM: Is there any serious possibility that the Lebanese political system (given the balance of power and the players involved) would permit cases related to corruption and accountability to proceed forward?
Hamdan: It must be said that the political class is not completely untouchable. This was made clear by the moment of action undertaken by so-called “civil society” in the summer of 2015. It is not an exaggeration to say that the 2015 movement created a state of fear among the ranks of the political class. The movement was radical and wide-ranging, and was driven by a base made up of different social groups that transcended sect – whether in places where a range of actions took place (as the movement manifested in different regions) or in the centers of action (Beirut). It got to the point of liberating the system, even if gradually, from the narrow confines of partisan identities.
In truth what gave the movement of 2015 its true dimension was the fact that it coincided with a movement of the Union Coordination Committee. We should also analyze the teacher’s movement in order to understand the challenges confronting the system. We must recognize that despite its importance, this was not an ideal movement in the full sense of the word. Its campaign was well-managed, to a large extent (with sit-ins and demonstrations by teachers in every region, a variety of protest and reformist slogans, continuous media coverage, etc.). But at its heart, the movement expressed the demands of interests relevant only to the specific benefits of teachers. The movement’s internal structure also reflected the system of sectarian confederation. In reality, if the broad base of the movement’s public had been infused with social groups, groups of workers, trade unions, and leftists, then its results would have been more radical than outcomes related to the rights of teachers alone. Instead, they would have been on the level of the movement’s implications for the process of social and political change in the country more broadly.
JM: Has anti-corruption discourse dealt exclusively with the public sector and disregarded the private sector? And what are the effects of this approach on state institutions, or on the rhetoric of public-private partnerships?
Hamdan: One of the key reasons for grumblings about the system of corruption comes from the large economic and social burden that families and various social groups are suffering from, particularly when it comes to the disappearance of basic public services and the severe increase in living expenses in the capital – which may be one of the most expensive cities in the world. The increased cost of living is neither a localized nor a temporary factor, but instead reflects deep roots tied to the model of commercial markets in Lebanon. A 2004 study explains this model, stating that these markets are the most concentrated in the region, with most of them subject to the control of historically entrenched monopolistic blocs. This is achieved through what is termed “oligopoly,” as two-thirds of these markets are dominated by two or three companies within a single market.
Likewise, the dividing lines between the private sector and the public sector are not totally clear, because of the growing networks of connections and links and favoritism between the “political world” and the “business community.” Since the war, fundamental changes in the makeup of the political class have taken place; business owners have flowed into it, while sectarian leaders, for their part, have begun engaging in business. Their doing so depends on their accumulation of public funds and profits, whether from domestic or foreign sources. And so the makeup of the political class and the various strains of the bourgeoisie have come to have shared and overlapping interests – especially in the banking, financial, hotel, tourism, and construction sectors, and when it comes to bidding for public contracts. All of this underscores the political nature of corruption, making the process of fighting corruption more complicated. This is particularly the case when parts of the revenues of these partnerships are allocated to financing and distributing clientelist “crumbs” to certain circles within the “public” of sectarian communities.
JM: Is the fight against corruption a technical matter or a political one? How do we reconcile the two? Is success permissible, or even possible, through creating frameworks and institutions to fight corruption without reconsidering the political structure as a whole?
Hamdan: The biggest problem lies in the way we define corruption. Is squandering public money a form of corruption? Is the lack of an economic vision, or the mismanagement of public economic affairs, a form of corruption? Or is corruption limited to what commissions and brokers siphon off from the source, and disrespect for the requirements for carrying out public projects? We have to put a definition into place, or at least try to, within a regulatory framework that reflects the nature of the political and sectarian system and its context.
The problem is that the structure of the central state in Lebanon is weak. Contributing to this weakness on one hand is the consolidation of the system of a “sectarian confederation” and its alliances. These empower the political and sectarian leaders, who attract and hold sway over their communities on a sectarian basis. This in turn guarantees them the opportunity to apportion and control public resources, as well as to access foreign sources of patronage.
On the other hand, this weakness of the central state leads to the weakening of actual benefits, due to a lack of loan flows and financial aid presented to the Lebanese state. When it comes to the CEDRE conference, for example, the state itself is actually lacking in terms of people who set down and produce contracts, prepare dossiers of conditions, organize bids, and accompany and oversee the work of implementation in everything related to the projects involved. This casts serious doubts on the extent of the state’s ability to control the trajectories of disbursements from these loans and aid, and to ascertain whether they have achieved their intended goals. We are in “Ali Baba’s Cave” and that is where we will remain, so long as the sectarian system of apportionment remains in place. This is the most crucial source of political corruption in the country.
We cannot cover up this bitter reality simply through the verbal or formal adoption of international rhetoric about fighting corruption. This rhetoric springs from the development of capitalism in the West over the course of three centuries. It is impossible to impose its concepts, tools, standards, professional requirements, and institutional frameworks on a country like Lebanon – where the state almost doesn’t qualify as a state in the precise meaning of the word.
JM: There are numerous laws (for example, the law protecting whistleblowers) and bodies (e.g., the Anti-Corruption Commission) that are designed to limit corruption; but will they yield any results without an independent judiciary?
Hamdan: If the sectarian system persists, I don’t think there will be a radical rupture. But this does not mean we should not seek change. Change will take place by way of gathering different opposition forces and urging them to become more professionalized and less slogan-driven – and more prepared to compile case files and fight their battles. At the same time, we must intensify pressure towards fundamental reform of the judiciary and public institutional frameworks. We must rely on accumulating experience and gradually strengthening the formation of a popular bloc for judicial reform outside deplorable sectarian alignments and their different standards. This will inevitably contribute to the weakening of the dominant sectarian and class system.
JM: Compared to other Arab countries, in Lebanon there is sufficient space and freedom for public opinion, the media, and associations to address corruption and name those who are implicated in corruption cases. Is this enough to move forward on exposing those who are complicit in corruption? What are the restrictions or obstacles that prevent that?
Hamdan: There must be a popular and labor movement that transcends the sects and represents a range of social groups and professional interests, and we must improve the quality of public education and liberate them from the grasp of the sects. As long as we do not achieve these things, the field will remain open to the continuous inundation of public slogans, quarrels, and partisan loyalty [asabiyya] that have unfortunately become the media’s bread and butter. Doubtless the existence of labor unions, parties, and labor movements (in the liberal professions, for example) will contribute to the framing of interests and demands, and open the field to the improvement of public discourse, elevating it to a higher level of responsibility.
JM: Are there societal structures capable of supporting the anti-corruption rhetoric, or that are already doing so? What are they? And what is society’s role in establishing parallel frameworks to strengthen official measures, and their monitoring and oversight?
Hamdan: Previously I mentioned the 2015 movement and the movement of the Union Coordination Committee. And I’ll say here out loud that had the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers been more effective and independent, it would have played a powerful and boosting role at the heart of, or in addition to, what is now called “civil society.” This could have produced a different reality from what we have now. This kind of change might have crystallized through a greater endorsement for a protest opposition movement in society, underpinned by a clearer class and social dimension. This could have produced an outcome of this struggle that prompted a breakthrough in the political field.
JM: Do you trust that the various corruption cases will be brought to a conclusion? And what impact will that have on the current system and on society?
Hamdan: The biggest challenge to achieving change is the need to dismantle the “breadcrumb” system and put a stop to the relationship of dependency and subjection that each sectarian leader holds over their confessional “community.” On a related point, we can reinterpret the outcome of the crisis that Lebanon’s economy is currently experiencing. There is a prevailing opinion among some experts about the need for hastening a financial and social collapse. According to them, this would help dismantle the system of loyalties and breadcrumbs that currently vertically tie the bases of the sects to their leaders.
In conditions like these, is hastening such an explosion an objective means that, by way of impeding the “breadcrumbs” system, can push society’s elements towards escape (or liberation?) from the constraints of the dependent relationships that tie each sect’s “community” to its leaders? Does it make space for establishing a favorable climate, in which people can become aware of their true interests, to the degree that they will say, “let us wade into the tides of change”?
In my view, in order to wager on such a scenario – which is not without its risks – requires the prior existence, at a minimum, of a diverse social, civil, and political alliance. This alliance must have a defined agenda, with demands and basic reforms capable of consolidating a popular bloc that will supercede the sects and affect the prevailing balance of power. Among these demands and reforms should be, for example, a precautionary securing of end-of-service benefits (for about 500,000 Lebanese employees registered in the social security system) that ties them to the current price of the dollar, in order to avoid that reserve disappearing should a financial collapse take place. There should also be a push to adopt a law requiring comprehensive healthcare coverage for all Lebanese residents. This would require only about 20% more than the state currently spends on health through a mixture of ministries and public and semi-public insurance providers. There should also be fundamental reforms to the tax system, with particular emphasis on the progressive nature of taxes on incomes, profits and wealth (tax brackets on profits and interest from bank deposits), and other similar reforms.
The fundamental worry, however, concerns who is in power and will bear responsibility for the worsening conditions – and who might then be nominated to reengineer the system after the collapse. This scenario is dangerous, especially in light of the spread of phenomena like unemployment, class exploitation, and general impoverishment. It could launch unprecedented tidal waves of forced or near-forced migration abroad, especially from among the ranks of the middle classes, who are foundational to the system. This in turn will impact the country’s internal demographic imbalance. It is already fragile, including some 2 million non-Lebanese residents of whom half are displaced Syrians. We do not know when they will return to the country, according to the intentions of “external and regional wishes.” When they do the country, and the composition of its internal fabric, will both change.
Keywords: Lebanon, Political class, Corruption, Breadcrumbs