Executive has long recognized the importance of fighting corruption as an essential step toward creating a strong economy for Lebanon. Both previous versions of Executive’s Economic Roadmap (version 1.0 published in December 2018 and 2.0 published in February 2019) had sections dedicated to combating corruption, as does the reshaped Economic Roadmap 3.0 that has been updated to reflect the reality of Lebanon in the last quarter of 2019, aided by the findings of Executive’s roundtable initiative.
The first of six roundtables held in mid-November, roundtable one on combating corruption was chosen as the opener on November 18, given its urgency in the context of the ongoing protests and the demands on the streets. Yet, over the course of all six roundtables—on corruption, on entrepreneurship, on social development, on access to rights and information, on taxation and fiscal policy, and on financial reality—corruption was a topic that participants repeatedly cited as one of the major roadblocks in the way of long overdue and necessary reforms.
Participants were almost unanimous in their view that Lebanon needed to fight corruption—at any cost.
The discussion brief provided in advance to participants of the corruption roundtable invited them to discuss legal initiatives to retrieve embezzled funds, the enhancement of penal codes, and the adoption of laws for prosecuting incidents of corruption. Other discussion points mentioned in the brief included the establishment of institutions to combat corruption and audit public spending, awareness and education on public service paradigms and appreciation for effective administration, and finally a redesigning of services and digital access to government.
Changing systems not symptoms
To start the discussion, participants were asked whether institutional prevention, prosecution, or education and awareness building were the best tool in combating corruption, and which of the three were seen as a priority.
Almost all agreed the main issue lay beyond the proposed question, and that before addressing prevention, prosecution, or awareness building, the first goal must be to change the political system in its entirety—along with its leadership. It was argued that corruption in Lebanon was so flagrant because the political class failed to consider the concept of the public good, and, as a result, the citizen was never a pillar in policy-making. The consensus was that the way forward in fighting corruption was to first create a new government, independent of all current ruling parties, which would, in turn, allow for an independent and empowered judiciary system that could hold politicians to account by allowing for the legislation and implementation of anti-corruption laws—as such, participants called for the passage of laws that would grant independence to the judiciary system, as well as an independent security force that would prevent and control the use of governmental scare tactics to stop prosecution against corruption. Access to information was also brought to the table as one of the main tools that would help with the fight against corruption, in particular when it came to attempts at prosecution.
Corruption was also seen as being a lubricant of what was termed “the political economy of sectarianism.” Under this paradigm, corruption was not the sole purview of Lebanon’s political elite as it was argued that it was in the best interest of the latter to allow corruption to trickle down—thereby reinforcing sectarian identities and moving the populace further from an ethos of accountability.
Leadership in the fight against corruption
The following discussion point was the question of whether or not the fight against corruption should be led by politicians or civil society members, and whether investing in e-government would benefit this fight. Most agreed on the need for leadership in the fight against corruption and that it should come from independent judicial bodies and through the establishment of anti-corruption laws. There was, however, some disagreement on whether leadership would come from above or below. A common thread among participants was that bottom-up approaches—such as the establishment of new political parties with a background in civil society and strengthening independent voices within syndicates and orders—were a necessary long term approach to combating corruption. In this vein, the victory of independent candidate Melhem Khalaf in the elections for the head of the Beirut Bar Association the day prior to this roundtable was seen by participants as the first milestone in a long battle against corruption.
Others, however, believed that change would be imposed from the top down, and therefore, before new political parties or leadership, it was necessary to rehaul the system itself or risk replicating the same corrupt leaders. It was argued that Lebanon’s sectarian constitution needed to be changed to eliminate the idea that citizens need their sects for protection and to start building the idea of protection coming from the government and a strong independent state.
Regarding e-governance, several participants argued that we needed leaders who understood modern technology and were able to put in place a system that would help fight corruption through eliminating the middle-men in bureaucratic procedures—who often ask for bribes—and through making it easier to trace instances of tax avoidance. However, it was also warned that given the state of the internet in Lebanon, migrating official paperwork online would be a nightmare, and the priority would need to be in fixing the internet infrastructure before even thinking of putting time and effort into e-governance.
The battle against corruption is a long one, and it should be led by the new generation who have proven through this uprising to have a clear understanding of what needs to be done.
Participants were asked to consider the fact that a society that has corruption also incurs some economic benefits from it. Executive editors then asked for a simple yes/no response from around the table on two questions: whether they felt that the economic benefits of corruption in Lebanon would be bigger than the cost of fighting it, and regardless, whether Lebanon could afford to not fight corruption? While there were some attempts to address the first question—several participants, while acknowledging some economic benefits, argued that the cost of opportunities lost was still greater—most responses singled out the second question, with participants almost unanimous in their view that Lebanon needed to fight corruption—at any cost. One dissenting voice was against such a fight under certain circumstances, arguing that in the past, Lebanon has been able to thrive under the stewardship of moderately corrupt leaders. At this point, the moderator quoted South Korean development economist Hyun Chang, author of “Bad Samaritans,” who argued that certain elements of anti-corruption were actually promoted in order to keep developing economies from gaining an advantage—what German economist Frederich Lust termed kicking away the ladder after you have used it. This view was well-received by the table.
An environment for change
The judiciary’s role in combating corruption was the focus of the general debate. Participants were split between the idea of working within the current system to change it versus the need to change the system altogether. One argument for the former was that honest lawyers could impact positive change despite a corrupt system. This was met with criticism by others who again raised the point that corruption needed to be weeded out from the system itself, and the first step toward that goal would be an independent judiciary.
The value of a bottom-up approach was again highlighted as the preferred mechanism of achieving an independent judiciary within a corrupt environment embedded in za’ims and sectarian party leaders, with participants calling for a series of small victories—such as Khalaf’s Beirut Bar Association win—within orders and syndicates that would lead to change, giving the example of professional orders in Tunisia as key to the success of the revolution there.
The idea that there were two battles being waged—one against the sectarian system, but also one within the system itself—was also floated. Within each sect are people who are fighting against their political parties, but also those who want to keep the regime as is because they benefit from it economically. Participants concluded that the battle against corruption was a long one, and that it should be led by the new generation who have proven through this uprising to have a clear understanding of what needs to be done.
The question of how long the protests could last given the current economy was asked by one of the participants, two scenarios were proposed: either the current government would take action before the country goes bankrupt—because it goes against their interests—or the economic situation would severely deteriorate further. The latter was argued to be good for the protests as it would tip the scale between an uprising of middle income to lower-middle income citizens to one with full participation of lower income citizens—a full-on revolution.
Throughout, the tone of the roundtable was one of grim determination to face the difficult task of weeding out corruption through changing the current system, yet hope for a better Lebanon was evident in all the participants’ answers.