Anti-corruption in Lebanon is both a diversion and a political tool
Anti-corruption efforts evoke the promise of justice, but they often lead to an abuse of power. Last week, Lebanese judge Ghada Aoun broke into one of Lebanon’s major currency exchange and export firms, accompanied by a cheering crowd from a political party. She claimed to be investigating illegal transfers of funds outside of the country. Her actions were technically illegal, as she was taking the law into her own hands. The assault sparked a frenzied debate about the politicization of Lebanon’s judiciary and legal system.
Within this debate, each side of Lebanon’s political divide accuses the other of corruption and of selectively targeting its opponents in efforts to combat it. Yet they are both guilty of the same offenses. This is yet another sign of the disintegration of the country’s institutions.
Lebanon’s protesters have demanded more transparency and investigations into perceived governmental corruption. But as politicians co-opt these demands, the anti-corruption debate turns into a diversion that helps extend the political paralysis and prolong the absence of a government.
This political paralysis is the third that the country has faced in 15 years. The system was blocked twice before, for 19 months and 29 months, respectively. This time, it is far more damaging: The country’s foreign reserves are being depleted at a rate of $200-300 million a month as subsidized goods are smuggled out of the country with no government able to control either the subsidy or the smuggling. Negotiations with the international community, which could revive the economy, are blocked.
With little time to spare, a deeper dive into the behavior of tyrannical regimes can shed further light on the complex issues associated with corruption and the fight against it.
Fighting corruption has long been a favored political tool. This is not unique to Lebanon. We saw it recently in the US, where each party selectively pointed to the other’s corruption. As former CIA case officer Robert Baer wrote in his memoirs: “As elsewhere in the federal government, you’re innocent until you’re investigated.”
Politicized anti-corruption can amount to a witch-hunt, in which the hunter claims the moral high ground to gain populist support. Elsewhere in the world, populist strongmen, from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Narendra Modi in India, swept to power with claims of combating corruption and cleaning up the system.
Almost every autocrat in history has used anti-corruption efforts to clamp down on opposition. Saddam Hussein, who modeled himself on former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, had an anonymous hotline in his palace for whistleblowers. One of his famous sayings went: “Beware of your friends before your enemies, and most of all beware of yourself.” In his system governed by fear, every Iraqi reported on even his or her closest relatives.
Emile Lahoud, the former Lebanese president and army general whose mandate was under Syrian control of the country, announced a similar hotline for reporting corruption in the early 2000s. But the trend started under Fouad Chehab, another Lebanese army chief turned president. Chehab began his mandate in 1958 with a “purification” campaign that was largely directed against his political opponents. Army intelligence officers got rich and interfered in every aspect of the country.
Today, current President Michel Aoun, yet another former army general, flaunts anti-corruption as a main pillar of his regime. It even formed a part of his homecoming speech after he returned from exile in 2005.
George Orwell illustrated the tyranny of anti-corruption efforts in his dystopian novel “1984.” Rules imposed by the all-knowing Big Brother prevent social interaction between people. They dictate what language can be used with a vocabulary of acceptable words. Breaking those rules is considered corruption, and even a child reports on their own parents. For Orwell, breaking these rules means escaping tyranny. Corruption is freedom, and the government’s fight against it is an instrument of control.
In every tyrant’s manual, bespoke laws against corruption can be used as universal instruments of suppression. These will have a vague definition of the crime — such as “spreading corruption on earth,” “diminishing the resolve of the nation,” “weakening the morale of the army,” and similar ambiguous definitions of what constitutes treason. In a universe of such rules, anybody can be found guilty at any moment; it is like original sin.
The country’s foreign reserves are being depleted at a rate of $200-300 million a month as subsidized goods are smuggled out of the country with no government able to control either the subsidy or the smuggling.
The despot’s stunt is to create an environment in which full compliance is impossible and hence anyone is vulnerable and can be arrested at any time. In such an environment, the accusation of corruption can also become a form of slander, extortion and blackmail.
One of the most sordid uses of such a tone can be found in an article in the online publication The Grayzone. Its author attempts to justify the murder of political activist and cultural entrepreneur Lokman Slim as a collaborator and a traitor.
Reality in authoritarian regimes often exceeds fiction. Lebanon’s anti-corruption debate must consider these dangers, as the country’s paralysis leads us closer to a point of no return. The political claim to fight corruption should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially when it is part of a narrative that takes the moral high ground in order to justify holding the country hostage. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
- Nadim Shehadi is executive director of the Lebanese American University headquarters and academic center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.