Emile Nakhleh is a retired CIA Senior Intelligence Service Officer and founding director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program Office. Nakhleh is currently a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico.
OPINION — The horrific and totally avoidable explosions that ravaged Beirut on August 4 have once again shown that Lebanon’s ruling class is corrupt, inept, uncaring, and unfit to govern.
The legendary resilience of the Lebanese people has proven powerless in the face of the political elite’s endemic corruption, callousness, greed, nepotism, and sectarian patronage.
In the aftermath of the explosions at the Beirut port and the resulting massive homelessness, poverty, unemployment, and hunger, it has become clear that the government — President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and the ministers — the judiciary, and the parliament cannot extricate Lebanon from the current national calamity.
The cabinet’s resignation Monday, which followed the resignation of two ministers, is unlikely to mollify the protesters and most of the Lebanese people because the people’s anger has been directed at President Aoun and his supporters (“Aounis”) within the high echelons of government. Speedy elections are also unlikely to succeed. The sectarian virus that has afflicted the political system for decades must be treated before real reform occurs — government removal and early elections notwithstanding.
Most senior leaders are beholden to different centers of power and are incapable of acting independently. President Aoun, for example, is a political creature of Hezbollah and Syria and by extension, Iran. They have found ways to steal public monies that belong to the state. For example, Hezbollah controls the Beirut port and therefore collects and pockets customs fees on imported goods. President Aoun collects customs fees on imported goods, like cement, that come into “his” port at Ra’s Sil’ata.
Other powerful factions have their own ports, including Tripoli, Juniyah, Sidon, Tyre, al-Zahrani, and Khaldah. These mafia-like groups siphon off customs fees, leaving the government bankrupt and the people more furious. According to my own sources, President Aoun recently refused to allow cargo ships carrying grain and other food supplies to dock in the Tripoli port because he won’t get the fees from those ships.
The country’s senior leaders are unable to govern and have no money to pay for rebuilding Beirut. They have lost the trust of the Lebanese people and international donors. Influential religious sects — Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Hezbollah — pursue their economic and political interests through their contacts in the government.
The judiciary is equally controlled by these groups. President Aoun has rejected calls for an international investigation of the explosions for fear that he and his cronies might be indicted for criminal negligence. The current judicial system cannot possibly conduct an impartial investigation because it’s part of the problem.
Port managers and senior politicians must answer basic questions. For example, who was responsible for storing thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate for at least six years in a port hangar so close to residential areas? Were there any bribes or kickbacks involved in the unloading and storing of these deadly chemicals? Was the hangar under the control of the port authority, the government, or a particular influential group such as Hezbollah? If, as has been reported, port officials had repeatedly asked government officials to remove the ammonium nitrate because of its potential danger, who in the government ignored these pleas and why? Why didn’t the judiciary respond to the pleas from port officials to remove these materials? Since senior government officials are potentially liable, any investigation they conduct would be whitewash and would lead to a coverup.
The Lebanese state is failing and is rapidly devolving into chaotic and warring smaller regions run by warlords. Meanwhile, poverty, lawlessness, unemployment, and hunger are becoming rampant.
The destruction from the explosions has left most Lebanese angry and exhausted. Calls for “revolution” against those in power are heard all across Lebanon. Many educated young Lebanese no longer see a future in their country and probably would migrate to Western countries. Lebanon can ill afford the ensuing brain drain.
During his visit to Lebanon last week, French President Emmanuel Macron promised the people he met in the streets that French aid would go to their specific needs, not to “corrupt” officials. This statement also applies to President Aoun, not just the cabinet.
While President Macron was speaking, President Aoun turned his back and walked away, presumably not wanting to hear about official corruption or possible international investigations. Many street protesters view the ruling class as a mafia family that considers Lebanon its private fiefdom. Some protesters are already calling for violence against those in power, including Aoun’s presidency and Hezbollah.
Despite the rising poverty and homelessness, many senior officials are living in palaces, drive expensive cars, and enjoy vulgar luxuries. As their salaries cannot afford such lavish lifestyle, they have turned to raiding the public purse through corruption. International donors, including the IMF, have already signaled that aid will go directly to specific projects, not to government officials.
The numbers tell the ugly story of today’s Lebanon: over 160 people were killed in the explosions, and at least 6,000 have been injured and maimed. A quarter of a million Beirutis are homeless. The country has only a one-month supply of grain and wheat to bake bread, 40 percent of the population are unemployed, and nearly 50 percent are below the poverty line. Because of inflation and the sinking value of the Lebanese currency, most Lebanese can no longer afford to pay for basic foods. People have resorted to a bartering system where some women are trading their clothes and household items for a gallon of milk or a dozen of eggs.
U.N. Trusteeship Council for Lebanon
If Lebanon is to be saved, the United Nations should establish a Trusteeship Council for Lebanon that would govern the country for five years, which most Lebanese would welcome. President Aoun, Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria, however, will vigorously oppose it.
The Trusteeship Council for Lebanon will have to address the following tasks urgently:
- Replace the current government with a TCL coordinator who will work with community leaders on critical reconstruction and revitalization projects.
- Dismantle the sectarian confessional system of government and change the constitution to allow for electing the president and the prime minister on the basis of one person one vote.
- Rebuild the Beirut port and restructure the management of all ports under a national Port Authority accountable for all customs fees. The Port Authority would transfer these fees to the national treasury directly, not through warlords or political parties.
- Create a system of financial accountability and a transparent system of taxation run by qualified civil servants.
- Invest in job creation projects and enterprises to help reduce unemployment.
- Prepare a transparent electoral system for the purpose of holding national elections for a president, prime minister, and parliament within four years.
- Invite the new government to assume control of the new Lebanon at the end of five years.
The confessional system, which has governed Lebanon since the 1940s, has fostered systemic corruption and sectarian nepotism at the highest levels. It has destroyed the country and must be abolished. No one knows whether a people-based system of government grounded in honesty, accountability, and transparency will work, but drastic restructuring of the country’s institutions must be done in order to build a new and more stable Lebanon.
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