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The rampant corruption spurring Lebanon protests

February 29, 2020

BEIRUT: The Lebanese government had frozen recruitment but then, around the time of a key election, thousands of people suddenly landed civil servant jobs.

The alleged corruption case is just one of many stirring public anger in Lebanon, where protesters are calling out rampant graft they say has brought the economy to its knees.

Cronyism in the public sector, bribes, conflicts of interest and dodgy procurement deals -- Lebanese have been angrily detailing their complaints in waves of mass protests since October, crying out that enough is enough.

The authorities have said they are determined to root out corruption, and state prosecutors frequently say they have launched a probe or questioned a official. But experts and protesters are sceptical. How, they ask, are they expected to believe in change from leaders who benefit from the system and whose interest is to preserve it?

In August 2017, Lebanon passed a law to halt all recruitment in the public sector. But after that decision and through 2018, more than 5,000 people were taken on in murky circumstances, a source at the oversight body for public administrations said.

That period coincided with the country’s first parliamentary election in nine years. "It’s buying votes," says Assaad Thebian, who heads the anti-graft non-governmental organisation Gherbal Initiative.

"When you give someone a job, you’re buying their loyalty and that of their relatives," he said. Lebanese media have also accused key political parties of arranging hundreds of illegal hirings at state-owned telecommunications firm Ogero in 2017 and 2018.

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said in December that almost one in two Lebanese had been offered a bribe for a vote. Parliament’s finance committee investigated 5,000 hirings, and the file has been transmitted to the Court of Audit.

Committee chairman Ibrahim Kenaan said it was not his place to analyse what had happened. "But logically, it’s a political issue," he said. "It was a period of elections. Maybe it was easy to just provide someone with a job. "Maybe it’s to do with... people being used to no one being held accountable."

But the lawmaker, who represents the Free Patriotic Movement of President Michel Aoun, now under fire for its record in power, said things would change. "Now there’s accountability -- at least we’re trying," he said.

Laws are being drafted to prevent illicit enrichment and retrieve stolen public funds, Kenaan said. But anti-graft activist Thebian warns political will is lacking.