The Unmasking of Already Discredited Politicians: Comments on the So-Called “Reform Paper”
The paper that Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced upon the deadline he had given himself and his partners in government to respond to the demands of the largest popular movement in Lebanese history is clearly superficial and devoid of any general vision or coherence. It ignores the fundamental issues that caused living and social conditions to deteriorate to their current state. Similarly, it is mostly limited to directions and promises whose implementation is left to the future.
From several angles, this reform paper seemed, at its core, to follow the spirit of the reform plan that Minister Akram Chehayeb announced to resolve the trash crisis under the pressure of the summer 2015 movement. While Chehayeb displayed flexibility by acknowledging that mistakes and corruption had occurred in waste treatment over the course of 20 years, his paper contained no direct reform as it distinguished between the difficult present situation, which must be handled as is via the construction of dumps in various locations, and the brighter tomorrow that was supposed to arrive within 18 months (i.e. in the spring of 2017). The plan was laid out, the spring of 2017 came, then two more springs, and none of the promises the paper had included were realized. Unlike in 2015, when some experts, including experts from the UN and NGOs, praised Chehayeb’s plan, Hariri’s paper was lackluster, and upon its announcement, many in the street responded by deeming it further evidence of the government’s total inability to address the people’s issues and concerns and merely a maneuver to contain and placate the movement.
Simplistic, Partial Solutions That Ignore the “Pain of the People”
The first comment on this paper relates to the issues that it addresses, which are partial, technical, sporadic, and lack any general vision or minimum level of coherence. Although the paper included some catchphrases derived from the lexicon of donors, such as combating corruption, reducing the budget deficit, and establishing a social security network, and some that have circulated in public discourse, such as recovering stolen funds, it contained no structural reforms or even declarations of meaningful principles on the political, economic, financial, administrative, and social levels. The paper also contained no mention, not even to tick boxes, of the real problems that people are suffering from, which refutes the claim repeated by many government figures, including Hariri himself, that their pain is understood.
While Hariri praised the movement underway for creating a general national situation that made it easy for him to overcome the sectarian vetoes that usually obstructed decision-making in the past (a point that was reaffirmed in President Michel Aoun’s speech), the paper contained no pledges, commitments, or mere guidelines concerning how future decisions can be adopted in a manner that ensures the end of the game of bargains and quota-sharing. On this basis, the expedition of the government decision appeared to be an indicator more of the strength of the movement that had compelled the political forces participating in government to hurriedly adopt the aforementioned paper in hopes of containing it than of a reliable change in the political forces’ behavior.
The same superficiality exists on the economic level. Except for a lone clause about the state helping to encourage industries that manage to increase their exports (a clause whose first beneficiaries could, it is feared, be the cement companies prospering thanks to the monopoly granted to them and the succession of destructive wars in the region), the paper never mentioned the need to reconsider the nature of the rentier economy, stop the monopolies, or encourage productive sectors. It also contained no commitment to address the environmental catastrophes, which are now threatening the survival of several productive sectors, most prominently agriculture and tourism, and therefore sustainable development.
On the financial level, the solutions were surreal. Hariri pledged to reduce the budget deficit by US$5 billion without any increase of indirect taxes, reduction in wages (except for the 50% reduction in benefits for current and former presidents, prime ministers, house speakers, and ministers), or cancellation of debts. The paper suggests that the government will rely on the Central Bank to reduce debt service by approximately US$3 billion without clarifying the mechanisms for that. It also suggests that the government will levy an exceptional tax on banks’ profits for one year, which would increase the state’s resources by US$400 million according to the paper’s estimation. On the other hand, the paper remarkably neglected to express any assurance regarding the gold bullion owned by the Central Bank and deposited abroad despite the concerning facts that the Mouwatinoun wa Mouwatinat fi Dawla party raised regarding the extent of the state’s sovereignty over it and the possibility of recovering it.
On the level of administrative reforms, the paper contains no commitment to improve public services in any of the public utilities, except for the pledge to increase power supply to 24 hours a day via contracts to construct plants. This promise has been repeated for years and gets delayed ostensibly for technical reasons but actually because of corruption, as in the case of the Deir Ammar plant. As for the amendments proposed, all of which concern merging ministries and public institutions, they are justified on the basis of reducing financial burdens, without any connection to improving the performance of the public utilities related to them. In this regard, the most concerning thing is the paper’s inclusion of inclinations towards privatizing many utilities without establishing any controls to ensure that citizens continue to enjoy them at fair and affordable prices.
On the social level, which is the most closely related to the people’s “pain”, the deficiency appeared enormous. Except for the content about including an additional LL20 billion [US$13.2 million] in the state budget for supporting the National Program to Support the Poorest Families (a program that, it is feared, will turn into a tool for clientelism and exploiting people’s needs) and approving a loan from the Arab Fund to finance the housing project (a matter contingent on the Arab Fund’s will), the paper included no commitments to find solutions to intractable social problems. There was no talk about any housing policy or measures that allow the cost of housing to be reduced and gradual solutions to the slums extending across Lebanese soil to be found. There was no talk about how to help create employment opportunities and ensure job security, about granting unemployment compensation, or even about activating the National Employment Office. There was no talk about education reform, whether in relation to improving the quality of government schools, in relation to controlling the fees of private schools, or in relation to the universities spreading like fungi in a manner that reflects the multitude of political leaderships [za’amat] and sects. Similarly, the paper makes no mention of the death regions whose air, soil, water, and therefore people have been poisoned by persistent pollution amidst the absence and collusion of state administrations. The list of issues that the paper did not dedicate a single word, not even to tick boxes, goes on. The omission of all these issues confirms not only the government’s inability to tackle serious national issues but also that the claim by the political forces (including the prime minister) to understand the people’s pain and the merit of their demands is just a gesture of civility devoid of any real interest in treating it.
Additionally, while Hariri spoke in his speech about old-age security and about the possibility of signing a contract with the World Bank to increase the sums allocated to the poorest families, the paper made no mention whatsoever of these two issues.
Unrealistic Solutions Belied by Current Behaviors
Clearly, the solutions proposed are not in keeping with reality and conflict with behaviors whose abandonment has not been announced. Besides the intense criticisms of the practicality of reducing the budget deficit in an unprecedented manner, I am particularly interested in discussing the issue of combating corruption. Hariri focused on this issue, the paper addressed it from several angles, and the president later dedicated the largest part of his speech to it. In this regard, there are four comments:
Firstly, the emphasis on combating corruption came without any mention of the judiciary’s independence in Hariri’s speech, as though the hope is to combat corruption without making any effort to strengthen the mechanisms of accountability and deterrence. The Lebanese Judges Association has addressed this issue repeatedly, deeming in many of its statements that the battle against corruption and the battle for judicial independence are inseparable as any talk of combating corruption without an independent judiciary is meaningless. While the paper remained silent about the issue of public officials’ and ministers’ legal immunities, the president mentioned presenting in Parliament two bills to remove bank secrecy and judicial immunities. Doing so would suspend the issue in legislative limbo, which usually lasts years. Making these stances worse, the executive authority could, if it really wanted to remove the immunities, have issued a circular to all public administrations requiring that immediate permission be given to prosecute any public official without exception under the present circumstances. Similarly, it could have required its ministers to commit to cooperate with the judiciary or else face immediate dismissal.
The gravest of the government’s pledges in this regard may be the commitment to issue a general amnesty law before the end of this year, which totally conflicts with the logic of accountability. While the political actors have suggested that the promised general amnesty targets drug trafficking in order to please fugitives from Beqaa and Hermel and their families, crimes related to terrorism charges in order to please many detained Islamists and their families (particularly in Tripoli), and collaborators with Israel in order to please other segments of society, the paper promised the general amnesty without specifying the crimes encompassed. Naturally, the fear is that it could encompass the crimes of embezzlement and theft of public funds and all crimes of corruption, just as occurred in the wake of the 1975-1990 war.
Given this orientation, we understand the paper’s lack of any pledge to prosecute any of the major corruption cases or investigate the cases of suspected corruption, most prominently the very costly instances of so-called “financial engineering” by the governor of the Banque du Liban, former minister of interior Nohad Machnouk’s assumption of the administration of more than 150 crushers that destroyed large parts of Lebanon’s mountains, the shady operations of Ogero, the judicial corruption, the signing of decrees allowing the occupation of public property in the various regions (the latest being Naameh and Zouk) in contravention of laws, the wrongdoings by the governor of Beirut in the Eden Bay case, the appropriation of common and public properties (the latest being 30,000 meters of the shore of Mina), the arbitrary recruitments, and the delayed construction of the Deir Ammar plant. The list goes on and necessitates the launch of an integrated judicial process focusing on effecting accountability for corruption to prevent its repetition.
Secondly, the paper’s focus on developing a bill on stolen funds not only implies limiting the approach to theft to recovering the funds without accountability; it also indicates another, equally grave tendency, namely to give prominence to legislative processes in the fight against corruption and to prioritize them over any immediate, practical steps that could recover the funds without delay. The president’s speech, in turn, also prioritized the legislative process, mentioning four anti-corruption bills that he presented in 2013 or that MPs of the Strong Lebanon bloc presented recently. While I do not downplay the importance of the legislative process, there are legitimate fears that relying on it while refraining from any direct action will send us into a spiral that could take years to achieve any actual result. For example, the Unjust Enrichment Law (the “Where did you get this?” law), whose original form was enacted in 1953, was first applied recently 66 years after its adoption, and that only occurred because of the biggest popular eruption in Lebanese history. Another example is the Access to Information bill, which was presented in 2007 and adopted in 2017. After two years of boasting about the law in international forums, General Secretary of the Council of Minister Mahmoud Makkieh (the same person who recently called for the debate on the bill to recover stolen funds to begin) declared that it cannot be applied because its applicatory decrees have not been issued. Similarly, the law on transparency in the petrol sector and the law protecting corruption whistleblowers, both issued in 2018, remain inapplicable because they depend on the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Body, the law for which the president of the republic recently rejected.
The grave issue is that the time taken to debate the bill to recover stolen funds could be long enough for the thieving parties to smuggle out all these funds (at least those that are movable) or dispose of them, rendering the law meaningless.
What destroys any credibility the paper might have enjoyed in this regard is that it contained no commitment to recover stolen properties, which the government could do immediately. What stops the government today from initiating prosecutions against those responsible for encroachments on seaside public properties (some of which have continued for over 40 years), particularly the owners of major resorts? The vast majority of them abided neither by the first deadline that the law granted them to address their situation (which ended on the last day of January 2018) nor by the second (which ended on the last day of October 2019). Moreover, what stops the state from recovering riverside public properties that have been encroached upon and prosecuting the encroachers, properties for which no law allowing any settlement has been issued yet? But here too, the government’s stances lean in the opposite direction, suggesting that there is no will or desire to recover encroached-upon properties and that the government is therefore bowing to all those who stole these properties. For while the paper merely asks the ministries concerned to hasten the collection of overdue fines for encroachments on seaside property (which indicates the state’s gross incapacity), it declares an intent to develop a bill to address riverside encroachments that is expected to resemble the law addressing seaside encroachments – i.e. effectively an intent to again pardon these encroachments while ensuring their perpetuation.
Thirdly, in addition to the government’s avoidance of the judicial paths of accountability and abstention from any direct action to combat corruption and recover stolen funds, it repeated its previous effort to disable the Access to Information law. Abidance by this law is a prerequisite for citizens to exercise accountability and, in general, for any type of popular accountability. This effort consisted in the paper’s inclusion of a commitment to issue an applicatory decree for this law. Contrary to what the language used might suggest, this pledge, at its core, actually constitutes an affirmation of the government’s previous stance contending that the issuance of a decree is a precondition for applying this law and, subsequently, disabling the law until that occurs. This stance completely contradicts the law’s text and three opinions issued by the Legislation and Consultation Committee in 2017 and 2018. Here too, the government could have, in its paper, pledged to give information about any public deals or contracts in order to give effect to this law without delay or at least pursuant to its administrative ethics and in order to enable people to hold it accountable. But it did not do so, once again destroying its credibility in the fight against corruption.
Fourthly, in harmony with its aforementioned positions disabling all the aforementioned forms of accountability (judicial, popular, and administrative), Hariri declared in his speech that all capital investment projects financed via the state budget will be canceled, leaving only the projects financed via loans and grants from abroad. He justified this on the basis that the corruption in budget spending occurs not through the clauses on salaries and debt service but, primarily, via capital investment projects financed via the budget, which are not subject to any foreign oversight. Hariri explained in his speech that investment expenditure will be restricted to externally financed projects, which do not permit corruption. The government thereby seemed to be giving consideration only to foreign oversight, having excluded all above forms of domestic oversight. Besides the fact that this reflects a condescending and degrading view of the state institutions and the citizens, it is untrue for three reasons: firstly, foreign spending is not necessarily subject to serious, professional oversight and usually involves political and diplomatic calculations, and even when strict and effective oversight exists, these projects are still liable to finance corruption in indirect ways, such as the allocation of part of their funding to pay prices inflated by the monopolies granted in certain sectors, as is the case for cement prices. Secondly, in its paper, the government reserved the right to circumvent the prohibition of capital investment projects via decisions it issues whenever necessary, as though it is giving a concession and then immediately taking it back. To comprehend the meaninglessness of this pledge, we must remember that the government and public institutions managed to arbitrarily recruit more than 5,000 people following the issuance of the Pay Scale Law, which prohibited them from any unnecessary recruitment. Thirdly, the claim that corruption is limited to this aspect is totally false, for corruption runs rampant in various forms, as exemplified by many of the discriminatory and monopolistic measures that the public authorities may adopt, from arbitrary recruitment to receiving bribes or benefits in exchange for granting licenses and monopolies to the overlooking of legal violations (such as quarries, the pollution of rivers, and the trading in spoiled food).
The most concerning thing in this regard is the declaration of intent to sell and exploit state property in part or in full (e.g. its shares, institutions, and real estate) per the long list of assets that the paper included. This appeared without any clarification of how the funds raised will be used or any controls for obtaining the best prices and offers, except for the reference to employing experts in this field.
Solutions Not in Effect
Finally, the greatest disaster lies in the nature of the 25 clauses that the paper contained. Except for two clauses about appointing a ministerial committee and renewing the term of the Petroleum Administration’s members, the clauses are divided into four categories, each of which defers the task of elaborating or adopting the decisions to other authorities or times. Three pertain to the state budget for 2020, seven pertain to adopting laws, ten pertain to administrative actions, and just three are mere general orientations and declarations of will.
In this article, I have refuted the contents of the paper adopted by the government and then the presidency, confirming the people’s intuition and conviction, upon its announcement, that it lacks credibility or at least is incapable of addressing any of their demands or concerns. Of course, before October 2019, many people were aware that the presidency and government lie, but the halos around the heads of the elite political leaders [zuama] as heroes and protectors of their sects were enough at that time to dispel this awareness or at least strip it of any effective power. It took a great eruption to destroy these halos and free our eyes and consciences. It took such an eruption for all the masks to fall in an open theatre where the citizen has returned to play the role of the hero. So let’s keep watching...
Keywords: Lebanon, Hariri, Corruption, Reform, Accountability