By Benedicte Aboul-Nasr, Project Officer, Transparency International – Defence & Security
On October 17, 2019, Lebanese citizens took to the streets in response to a government proposal to tax WhatsApp communications, in what would become known as the “Thawra”, or “Uprising” against widespread corruption and worsening economic conditions. A year after the beginning of the protests, and two months after the explosion in the Port of Beirut killed 191 people, injured over 6,500, and uprooted nearly 300,000, Lebanese citizens still have no clear answers as to why for six years, 2,700 tons of explosive chemicals were stored in hazardous conditions at the heart of Lebanon’s capital. Many suspect that a long history of negligence and corruption, the very factors that pushed people to the streets last year, are at least partly responsible for the devastation that took place on August 4, 2020.
The government response has been uneven and in the aftermath of the explosion authorities were slow to support immediate relief efforts. Instead, when Lebanese protesters took to the streets on August 8 to voice their anger towards a political class that many believe has benefited from Lebanese resources for decades, security forces responded harshly, deploying tear gas and live ammunition against protesters. Two days later, Hassan Diab’s government resigned, noting that corruption in Lebanon is “bigger than the state”. And, on August 13, eight days after the explosion, Parliament voted for a state of emergency, giving defence forces a broader mandate than the one they already had under the general mobilisation adopted to help contain COVID-19. Since then, Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib stepped down, within a month of his nomination, having failed to achieve the consensus necessary to form a government. At the time of writing, Lebanon remains in a political impasse, while former Prime Minister Hariri, who had stepped down two weeks into the protests in October 2019, is in the running to replace his successor.
Allegations of government corruption are not isolated incidents, and mismanagement has led to numerous crises and leadership vacuums over the years, which paved the way for the protest movement. Lebanon is now facing one of the most serious financial crises in its history which has crippled the economy. The state has defaulted on debt payments and banks are imposing de facto capital controls on withdrawals while Carnegie’s Middle East Center estimates that close to US$800 million were transferred out of the country within the first three weeks of the protests. The Lira lost 80% of its value over nine months; by July this year and Lebanon became the first country in the region to enter hyperinflation. Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, the World Bank had estimated that up to 45% of Lebanese citizens would be below the poverty line by the end of 2020. Despite undeniable evidence that the situation was untenable, prior to the explosion, discussions with the IMF had been stalled for months, and Alain Bifani, the finance ministry’s director-general, had resigned over state officials’ unwillingness to acknowledge the scale of the crisis and achieve consensus to identify solutions. The contract for a forensic audit of the Central Bank was only signed in August, and the audit itself did not begin until September.
The international community has offered loans and significant humanitarian aid to support victims and the reconstruction of Beirut. Tellingly, several governments have pledged that they would not disburse aid through the government, and are prioritising non-governmental organisations that have been at the forefront of assessment and reconstruction needs. Aid disbursed through the government, and renewed commitments to unlock funds promised by the CEDRE conference in 2018, are conditional on stringent anti-corruption reforms being adopted and must be accompanied by strict oversight. In this regard, it is crucial that Lebanese civil society and non-profit organisations are granted access to sufficient information to oversee the disbursement of aid and prevent funds from being lost.
As part of the broader powers and responsibilities granted to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) under the state of emergency proclaimed after the explosion, the military has been given the crucial role of coordinating the distribution of humanitarian aid and supporting other public bodies in their reconstruction efforts. In carrying out these roles, and with the additional powers from which they benefit, it is crucial that the LAF ensure the highest standards of integrity and transparency with the Lebanese public. The LAF has benefitted from a high level of trust in the past, and remains one of the most representative branches of government – the institution must ensure that it maintains trust and supports ways forward for the Lebanese, in particular as Lebanese citizens and organisations rebuild.
The coming months will be crucial for Beirut’s reconstruction and to help lift Lebanon out of the crisis it is experiencing. Anti-corruption measures and transparency, not only in the disbursement of aid but also in reform efforts, should be prioritised by the armed forces themselves, and more broadly by an incoming government committed to resolve the financial and political crises Lebanon currently faces as the country seeks international support. The Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA), Transparency International’s national chapter in Lebanon, has been advocating alongside Transparency International – Defence & Security for increased transparency and accountability of the defence sector since 2018. In 2020, LTA continued to emphasise the urgent need for further transparency with constituents, and for the armed forces to implement access to information legislation to allow Lebanese citizens to understand how the body functions. As the LAF maintain responsibility in the aftermath of the explosion, both for aid disbursement and for maintaining security alongside security forces, clear communications and oversight of the defence sector are critical.
The explosion and its aftermath have brought issues that Lebanese citizens were familiar with – and which pushed many to the streets over the last year – to the forefront of Lebanon’s dealings with the international community. Only by tackling the root causes, continuing to push for reform, and beginning to rebuild institutions in which the public can trust, will Lebanon have a chance to become more stable and pave a way out of the crisis. Lebanese politicians have often shown willingness to commit to reforms when dealing with the international community in the past. However; reforms have then stalled due to a lack of consensus, for instance leading to delays in implementing access to information legislation, or in selecting members for the National Anti-Corruption Commission. As the international community aims to support Lebanese citizens and help rebuild Beirut, they should be wary of attempts to divert assistance, and of mismanagement in the disbursement of funds. Instead, any international and national initiatives should support Lebanese citizens’ calls to dismantle the root causes of corruption, for the political class to seriously address the financial crisis, and for concrete and measurable steps for reform and accountability.
Benedicte Aboul-Nasr is Transparency International – Defence & Security’s Project Officer working on Conflict and Insecurity, with a focus on the MENA region. She has a background in international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians, and currently researches links between corruption and situations of crisis and conflict.