The deadly port blast, the triple-digit inflation, the energy shortages — Lebanon’s many crises have a shared root: misrule by a self-dealing elite.
By Rania Abouzeid
The head of Lebanon’s Central Inspection Board, Judge Georges Attieh, stood in his mother’s fourth-floor apartment, his childhood home in Beirut, and pushed open a new, white window shutter. A sharp winter chill stole into the room, bare except for a neat stack of gray cinder blocks. A few steps away, a damaged piano covered in a floral sheet was surrounded by a jumble of objects: broken dining chairs, cardboard boxes, a clothes steamer, rolled-up rugs. Attieh looked out at the flat blue sea visible between the few buildings that separated his mother’s apartment from the Port of Beirut. “I haven’t been here in six months, even though I drive by here every day,” he said. “I can’t. I’m unable to come here. It isn’t easy.”
The last time he was there, on Aug. 4, 2020, he had just rushed from his office across town to rescue his mother and his younger brother Joseph. At 6:08 p.m. that day, a portion of some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, recklessly stored at Beirut’s port since 2014, suddenly exploded. A fertilizer often used as a component in improvised explosive devices had been stockpiled within walking distance of residential neighborhoods.
Joseph captured the blast in a 15-second video, which Attieh showed me on his cellphone as he stood in front of the window where it was recorded. The old shutters, visible in the footage, were green. In the video, a column of light gray smoke froths and bubbles into a bright blue sky — the initial fire in the port’s Hangar 12, where the ammonium nitrate was stored. Joseph’s prayers to the Virgin Mary are interspersed with pleas to his mother to move away from the window. In the smoke, small bright lights flash, as tons of fireworks stored alongside the hazardous material pop. An abrupt, ferocious burst of fiery black orange shoots into the sky, and then a white mushroom cloud rises as Joseph cries out to the Virgin Mary one last time before the video cuts. He was flung into an adjacent apartment through what moments earlier had been a wall.
The explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history. It killed at least 216 people (the exact figure is unknown) and injured more than 6,500. It left hundreds of thousands homeless and damaged 85,744 properties. Attieh’s mother and brother survived, but between them they needed about 100 stitches. Nineteen people from their neighborhood weren’t so lucky. Their names are memorialized across the street on a stone plaque bordered by red geraniums.
More than a year later, not one person has been held responsible for a peacetime explosion that harmed more people than any single violent episode in Lebanon’s long, troubled history. A handful of senior political, judicial, security, military and customs officials — including President Michel Aoun and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab — all knew that volatile materials were stored at the port and did nothing to remove the danger. A judicial investigation is underway, but few Lebanese expect it to identify the culpable and deliver justice, not because they don’t trust the investigative judge but because they fear political interference. In December 2020, the first judge charged Diab, along with three former ministers, with negligence. All refused to appear, claiming immunity. The judge was removed for “bias,” following complaints from two of the ministers. Similar attempts were made to remove the second judge, Tarek Bitar. Those failed, but the political establishment — especially the Shiite group Hezbollah and its allies — has continued to try to dismiss Bitar, spawning violent protests this month that left at least six people dead. (As of press time, he was still in charge.) Many Lebanese are calling for an independent international investigation.
The Port of Beirut is overseen by a hodgepodge of government and security agencies with overlapping mandates. Technically, the port falls under the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation and the Ministry of Finance, as well as a body established in 1993 with a mouthful of a name, the Temporary Committee for Management and Investment of the Port of Beirut. Despite its “temporary” status, it is still in operation — though very little of what it does is subject to any scrutiny. It does not publish financial statements, and its board is appointed by the country’s political leaders. A host of civilian entities operates at the port within the various government ministries and committees, in addition to security and intelligence agencies, including the Lebanese Armed Forces. “The very design of the port’s management structure was developed to share power between political elites,” Human Rights Watch wrote in an August 2021 report about the blast. “It maximized opacity and allowed corruption and mismanagement to flourish.”
The Beirut explosion was one of the ugliest manifestations of everything that has gone wrong with Lebanon since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, an indictment of a postwar system that has enabled a handful of politicians to dominate and exploit every facet of the state. The country has collapsed under the burden of concurrent crises that were decades in the making: a financial and economic implosion, grinding political deadlock, the Aug. 4 blast. In October 2019, tens of thousands of Lebanese across the country took to the streets in protest, fed up with the mismanagement and arrogance of their leaders. “All of them means all of them!” was the battle cry. Lebanon’s October Revolution was met with force and fizzled. And then came the coronavirus pandemic.
The Lebanese are now struggling to survive one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns of the past 150 years, a crisis the World Bank has called a “deliberate depression” perpetrated by a feckless ruling class. More than 70 percent of the population of a once-middle-income country now lives in poverty. The local currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value. In 2019, the Lebanese woke up one day to learn that the banks had locked them out of their accounts, leaving depositors unable to retrieve their rapidly depreciating funds. Triple-digit hyperinflation has taken hold. Food prices alone have increased 550 percent since 2019. Unemployment is soaring, businesses are closing and the country is hemorrhaging tens of thousands of people to emigration. Power outages can last for days. Internet services have become intermittent, and there are shortages of medications, from over-the-counter painkillers to cancer drugs, in a country once called the Hospital of the East. Hours- and even days-long lines for staples like bread and gas have become the norm.
The country has been driven to bankruptcy by a handful of politicians, most of whom began as sectarian warlords. The power-sharing agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war produced a cross-sectarian political system — much like the one the United States imported into Iraq after the 2003 invasion — that has looted the state and weakened its institutions.
Attieh knows this better than most. The institution of which he is the head, the Central Inspection Board, is the country’s main investigative agency, responsible for keeping tabs on public services and funds. But his inspectors are forbidden to scrutinize many key state and state-affiliated bodies, including the Port of Beirut. These are the red lines that Attieh cannot cross. He wants to erase them.
As Attieh told me when surveying the repair work in his mother’s home: “There shouldn’t be a person or an administration dealing with public funds that isn’t subject to oversight.”
Attieh didn’t apply to head the Central Inspection Board. Like others in many senior civil-service positions, the judge was appointed by Aoun. Attieh, a 44-year-old father of three who has taught law at Université Saint Joseph for almost two decades, had been a judge for 17 years in various low-level courts, dealing with traffic infringements and civil disputes, when he got a call to meet the president in the spring of 2017. (Attieh says he didn’t know Aoun and is not a member of his political party, the Free Patriotic Movement.) Five days later, he was head of the agency.
He walked into a disorganized, understaffed bureaucracy with little in the way of digitized records. There were no administrative links among the Central Inspection Board’s eight departments, each of which is headed by a general inspector. Only three general inspectors were on the job when Attieh took over; the others had retired. Within a few months, two more retired and Attieh was left with only one.
Attieh cannot hire or fire personnel. That privilege belongs to the cabinet and to the sectarian political leaders, who stack government ministries and public institutions with loyalists. The cabinet sent Attieh a list of names, which were not chosen from within the Central Inspection Board as required by law. Attieh refused to sign off. Finally, after about six months, the cabinet relented. It was Attieh’s first win. “I felt like, whoa, 30 years of accumulated corruption,” he said. “It’s like a mountain in front of me, and I have small, small tools to chip away at that mountain.”
Attieh asked for more people and greater powers but has not received either. In total, the number of inspectors on his team is less than half of the 106 he is allowed by law, a figure set in 1959 during Lebanon’s heyday of institution building. Back then, there were about 13,000 civil servants. Today Attieh says the number is at least 10 times that — closer to 20 times if you include the military and security services, whose finances also fall under his purview — but he is still allowed only the set number of inspectors. The 1959 law has been amended not to increase personnel but to exclude bodies from the Central Inspection Board’s oversight. “This all happened after the war,” Attieh said. “For 30 years, the regulatory oversight and control bodies weren’t supported. It means you’re inviting chaos and a lack of oversight into the public administration, and that’s what happened.”
Attieh knows that his department, like most public institutions, is riddled with moles, appointees who are working in the interest of certain politicians. Over the years, competency requirements were eliminated in favor of the right sectarian background, not just in Central Inspection but across much of the public sector. A clientalist system rooted in the concept of muhassassa, or the allocation of positions based on sectarian quotas rather than merit, became entrenched. Political leaders determine who is hired, enabling them to carve out private fiefs inside state institutions by doling out jobs to their followers. Citizens with wasta, or pull, have the advantage, even if there are still many clean and competent public servants. Attieh himself faces criticism because he, too, is a political appointee. “If they can read properly, they’d see how straight my work is,” he told me. “I don’t bend for politics or religions.”
Attieh frames his task as a “mission,” not a job. His monthly take-home pay of 6.7 million Lebanese pounds, $4,466 before the currency crash, is now worth less than $340 at ever-changing black-market rates. It’s not much for a family of five, although it’s a lot more than many are making these days. The minimum monthly wage, once $450, is now about $34. Attieh says he’s dipping into his inheritance to make ends meet. He was born into money, the eldest of four sons whose parents had a textile business and provided uniforms to Lebanon’s security services. Attieh remembers the civil war and its hardships, particularly the economic crash of 1987 caused by a sharp depreciation of the currency, a mirror of today’s catastrophe. “All the money my father had, all of his millions, melted,” Attieh recalled. “He used to tell me, ‘Look at how thugs have become rich, and the rich and people who worked hard for their money have become destitute.’ So I felt at that time that there was no justice, and it was all unfair.” Attieh was only 11, but it was not long after that he decided to pursue law.
Attieh was just two weeks into his new job when his father was hospitalized with lymphoma. He died within months. “I’m bitter about it,” Attieh said. “I’d been by his side for 40 years, and that year I left him. I had just accepted this position and was trying to build momentum.” Attieh says he turned down job opportunities in the Persian Gulf that came with five-figure monthly salaries because his father once scolded him, saying, “You put a price tag on your mission?” Although born in France, Attieh does not have French citizenship and the guaranteed exit plan that comes with it. His father refused it, Attieh said, “because he didn’t want to provide an easy route for us to emigrate. My only option is to fight to find a way to make this a better country for my children and others.”
Attieh‘s Central Inspection Board has two main operational methods: surprise inspections and the investigation of complaints, though whistle-blowers have few protections. “The legal mechanism says that a person has to complain about their supervisor through their supervisor,” Attieh said. “It needs to change. The complaints should come directly to Central Inspection, and if that happens, managers will fear their employees.”
For now, Attieh’s powers extend only as far as a ministry’s general manager. “Ministers are not under our supervision,” Attieh said. “I can’t hold a minister accountable. I can’t investigate ministers.” Ministers can and have forbidden their employees to cooperate with Attieh’s inspectors, going so far as to kick inspectors out of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, for instance, the same ministry that shares responsibility for the port. It was closed to Central Inspection by four consecutive ministers (including two charged in the initial port-blast investigation) — until Attieh pushed his way in. Among other things, Attieh’s inspectors were investigating claims that roadwork contracts were awarded based on dividing the same road into chunks as if each were a separate project. “They’d contract every 100 meters to somebody for 75 million Lebanese pounds, just below the amount that requires auditing,” Attieh explained, so that the projects could be awarded at the minister’s discretion and escape oversight. “The minister at the time issued an order to not cooperate with us. I replied on Twitter. I told him, ‘Your orders are illegal!’”
On that occasion, he added, “I broke them.”
Lebanon’s dysfunction can be traced directly to the country’s post-civil-war system of governance. When the war ended, a new government was forged not out of an attempt to reckon with the toll of death and destruction, but by burying the past under a 1991 amnesty law that paved the way for sectarian warlords to become sectarian political leaders. (The Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah was the only party to retain its weapons because it was engaged in armed resistance to Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon.) The amnesty law helped enshrine unaccountability at the state’s highest levels.
Lebanon’s sectarian system, which predates the war, divides positions among the country’s 18 officially recognized sects. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. The system was designed to ensure that every community’s voice is heard in a country rived by factionalism, but it has enabled sectarian leaders to avoid accountability by claiming that any criticism of them is really a criticism of their sect.
The power-sharing deal that ended the civil war is known as the Taif Agreement. Among other things, the Taif Agreement (named after the Saudi city where it was negotiated) divided Parliament, the cabinet and senior civil-service positions equally between Christians and Muslims (eliminating a prewar Christian advantage). This sectarianism was supposed to be temporary, but more than three decades after the agreement was signed, it is still deeply entrenched, and some of the Taif Agreement’s many other provisions, like decentralization and the creation of a Senate, have not been implemented.
Hussein el-Husseini, the 84-year-old former parliamentary speaker who is known as Abu Taif, or the father of the Taif Agreement, told me at his home in Beirut that implementing Taif would mean “their role will end.” Every Lebanese knows whom he means: the half dozen or so men who have called the shots in Lebanon since the end of the civil conflict. “I named them the company of five,” el-Husseini said. “A bunch of thieves, a company of five that has ruined us.”
AdvertisementContinue reading the main storyThere’s Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shiite Amal Movement militia turned party, who has been parliamentary speaker since 1992. The Druse chieftain and former warlord Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party. The Maronite Christians’ Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces militia turned party. And Geagea’s wartime and peacetime rival, the current president, Michael Aoun, a general who commanded part of the Lebanese Army that split along sectarian lines during the war. And finally, the Sunni billionaire businessman and former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “He was the godfather,” el-Husseini said. Hariri was assassinated in 2005 and succeeded by his son, Saad, the political heir of the Future Movement party. A company of five plus one — Hezbollah, which first entered government in 2005.
“Every one of them has a statelet within the state,” as well as foreign patrons, said el-Husseini, who led the negotiating committee in Saudi Arabia. “They want a state without institutions and a country without citizens.” Some are allied to the West and its Saudi ally, others to the East, as part of Iran’s “axis of resistance,” while Aoun and Jumblatt have toggled between the two. All are embroiled in larger regional agendas that trap Lebanon in the Middle East’s many disputes. El-Husseini went on: “As long as they are present, there is no reform, because any reform will lead to their disappearance.”
The militia leaders’ ways of doing business also transitioned into the postwar system. Militia-related financial networks, including ownership of banks, have become politician-aligned financial networks and banks. Dr. Jad Chaaban of the American University of Beirut found that, in 2014, eight political families controlled 29 percent of the banking sector’s assets. As Attieh told me, “Here, everything is a conflict of interest.”
Shared goals can trump political differences. Riad Kobaissi, an investigative journalist with Lebanon’s Al Jadeed television channel who has looked into corruption at the port since 2012, told me that every major political party has its people at the port. Even political rivals “can coordinate when it comes to Mr. Benjamin Franklin” — a $100 bill — “he is the guy who can solve any problem in Lebanon.”
Over the years, Kobaissi and his colleagues have revealed how, for the right price, shipping containers entered or exited the country without proper inspection; containers were stolen and passed through the port’s security checkpoints; hefty fines vanished or were markedly reduced with a bribe. Of the 25 or so customs officers at the port responsible for inspecting containers, 16 were caught taking bribes in footage Kobaissi broadcast. All kept their jobs, even after eight were prosecuted and some were imprisoned. “Until now, until now, they are still serving in their positions at Beirut harbor! Till now!” Kobaissi said. “You’re asking me how there was an explosion in the port? This is how.”
Overhauling a system of enmeshed political, financial and sectarian interests is a formidable task, one that Kobaissi believes “is stronger than the explosion,” and stronger than Attieh’s well-meaning efforts. Kobaissi, who hosts the television show “Bring Down Corrupt Rule,” has on occasion called Attieh live on air to grill him about various scandals, only to seem surprised that Attieh was also investigating them. Still, he doesn’t think Attieh is “bold” enough to take on the system. “I’m not saying he’s a bad person, but he’s not the profile of the person who is needed,” Kobaissi said. “I’m talking about having a Central Inspection body that makes their knees shake. That’s how you make a state!”
When I met Hassan Diab in May at his office in the Ottoman-era hilltop Grand Serail, he was waiting for a new government. Diab had been prime minister for a total of six months when the blast occurred; he and his cabinet resigned days later. He had now been the caretaker prime minister for nine months and counting, and would become the longest serving caretaker in Lebanon’s history. “God knows when it will end,” he said. “I’m waiting. I’m sad, I’m angry, because the Lebanese people are paying the price for these delays.” In March, Diab threatened to stop work to exert pressure on sectarian power brokers to form a government. They didn’t budge. “They lost their sense of shame a long time ago,” he told me. “I’ve tried everything. What more can I do?”
Lebanon has been paralyzed with caretaker governments for more than three of the past 10 years, in what Diab said he considers the surest sign that “the political system has failed.” Collective decision-making means that progress can hinge on whether one sectarian leader is speaking to another. “Every leader tells his supporters that the blame is on the Other, and then he sits with the Other” in national unity governments, Paula Yacoubian, an independent member of Parliament who resigned after the explosion, told me. “It’s a joke.”
A political outsider, Diab served as education minister for a few years and was a professor of computer engineering and vice president of the American University of Beirut for decades. He says he was undermined and obstructed “from Day 1” because if his government “succeeded in uncovering just a fraction of the corruption, it would expose part of this corrupt class. They didn’t want that to happen.”
I asked him for names and examples. “It’s not like I have a list that I don’t want to give you,” he said. “It’s not a joke to say that this person is corrupt. It shouldn’t be the prime minister or ministers who say that — the judiciary should decide that,” he said. “I knew there was corruption, but I didn’t imagine it was so rooted, and I knew we would face confrontations, but I didn’t think it would be this much.”
Diab has his own history with the judiciary. This August, Bitar, the judge leading the port investigation, subpoenaed Diab and others charged in connection with the explosion. Diab, who had given an affidavit to Bitar’s predecessor, has refused to appear for questioning as a suspect. Sunni religious and political leaders quickly rallied around him. Lebanon’s grand mufti, the top cleric for Sunnis, described the charges as an attack on “the office of the prime minister.” (The other suspects have similarly sought cover from religious and sectarian leaders.)
I put it to Diab that he hid behind his sect like an old-school sectarian politician. “I’m not hiding behind anything — I’m saying I abide by the Constitution,” he said, “and the Constitution says if you want to accuse a prime minister, you do it in the Parliament.”
The Constitution stipulates that ministers and heads of state can be tried only in a court formed by the Parliament — a body that has never been activated. Ziyad Baroud, a former interior minister, election-reform campaigner and legal expert, told me that the parliamentary special court was built into the system “to avoid accountability. Why do ministers need to be judged before a special court?” he said. “They are not special people.”
Diab insists that the charge against him was politically motivated and that he was a scapegoat. “I knew of it” — the ammonium nitrate — “on July 22, about 10 days earlier, and some people knew about it for seven years. So was it a political decision or not?”
Attieh, like Baroud, doesn’t believe that ministers should be tried in a special court. “When a minister is performing his duties, he should be investigated directly by the judicial courts,” Attieh said. No public servant at any level “should be politically protected from being held accountable.” To make this possible, he strongly supports calls to strengthen the judiciary.
Although on paper the judiciary is an independent body, in practice it is subordinate to the political ruling class, in part, because the High Council for the Judiciary, an administrative body responsible for overseeing the judiciary, is financially dependent on the executive. Eight of the council’s 10 members are chosen by sectarian leaders via the cabinet. The other two are elected by judges. “There is no revolution unless the judiciary as an institution is involved,” Marie-Claude Najm, the former justice minister, told me in her office in March.
Najm, a lawyer and professor at Beirut’s Université Saint Joseph, supports a bill, still pending in Parliament, to grant the judiciary independence. It is not the first attempt to break the political establishment’s hold over judges. In April 2018, cracks in the judicial body appeared with the formation of the Lebanese Judges’ Association, a group established against the wishes of the High Council, which fought its formation for years. I met Judge Amani Salameh, then the head of the group, along with two of her colleagues, Judges Bilal Badr and Faysal Makki, at a cafe in early spring. “We crossed a million lines,” Salameh told me. “We are the black sheep in the judiciary.”
The three judges, who are all in their 40s, explained how politicians can influence judges by appointing them to important courts or keeping them in lowly ones, or by denying them perks like lifetime positions on lucrative judicial committees that can supplement a judge’s income by as much as two or three times their salary. The Judges’ Association members I talked to said they want all 10 members of the High Council to be elected by their peers. About 90 of Lebanon’s 550 judges have so far joined the association, which faces stiff resistance within the judiciary. In April, Salameh was hailed a public hero when, after a complaint from a group of depositors, she ordered the seizure of all assets of Lebanese banks and their chief executives. The order is on hold while the banks maneuver to remove Salameh from the case. It’s “the same way that’s used with Judge Tarek Bitar, to have the judge changed,” she said. The association is “hammering away at a rock with a needle,” she added. “We have a deep state,” Makki, who now heads the group, said. “You cannot change 30 years in three years.”
Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the financial sector. In April 2020, Diab’s administration approved an economic recovery program based on negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for assistance, while also drafting reforms to unlock international aid predicated on anti-corruption measures. Diab’s cabinet estimated that the central bank’s losses alone amounted to roughly $50 billion and called for equitably distributing the burden of those and other losses, including among creditors and bank shareholders. Predictably, representatives in Parliament, acting in the interests of the banks, scuttled the plan, insisting the losses were much lower (contradicting reports of the I.M.F.’s own estimates), and the banks proceeded to push the debt off themselves and their shareholders and onto regular citizens by severely reducing the value of their deposits. Talks with the I.M.F. collapsed because the Lebanese could not agree on the size of the financial losses.
Diab’s plan also included a forensic audit of the central bank, the Banque du Liban, which among other things is tasked with safeguarding the country’s monetary and economic stability. Riad Salameh, who has been the bank’s governor since 1993, enjoyed worldwide acclaim, including for his so-called financial engineering. It basically worked like this: Commercial banks offered double-digit interest rates for new term deposits and then lent that money to the central bank, which then lent it to the government. The arrangement, which even the French president Emmanuel Macron called a “Ponzi scheme,” relied on banks sucking in new money. The share of public debt held by banks amounted to more than 40 percent. From 1993, when Salameh assumed his position, to 2018, the banks’ net profits increased 3,000 percent to $2 billion.
The high interest rates on bank deposits encouraged a rentier economy that disincentivized investment in industry and agriculture. Hala Bejjani, the former managing director of Kulluna Irada, a civic organization for political reform, told me that the signs of Lebanon’s financial doom were “obvious” but that leaders didn’t care to see them. She and a team of development specialists, economists and finance experts met with senior politicians, including the president, in March 2020, to warn of an impending financial implosion and suggest ways to avert it. “It’s a recipe, like making a cake,” Bejjani said of the plans. “They were all absolutely shocked at what we were telling them,” Bejjani said, “because this is the job of Riad Salameh. They were each focused on their fiefs.”
‘If you still believe that you can trust the same warlords to take new aid money in order to fix the problems, you’re delusional.’
Salameh has refused to answer many of the questions submitted by the foreign auditing firm Alvarez & Marsal, selected by Diab’s cabinet, citing a 1956 Banking Secrecy Law. Najm, the former justice minister who has been one of the fiercest proponents of a forensic audit, railed against Salameh’s claims that public funds were subject to the banking secrecy law, which had to be lifted for a year before an investigation could proceed. “There’s no need, and it’s a dangerous precedent,” she said, “because it gives you the idea that you can’t do any audit without each and every time lifting the law.” Attieh, who attended cabinet sessions about the forensic audit, pushed for auditing not just the central bank but all of the state’s ministries, a recommendation that was not adopted.
Salameh is currently being investigated by Swiss and French authorities for amassing hundreds of millions of dollars, allegedly through embezzlement and money-laundering schemes. He denies any wrongdoing. The French president has said that Lebanon’s ruling class used its ties to banks to transfer funds abroad during the financial crisis. Many Lebanese, including Michel Daher, an entrepreneur and first-time member of Parliament who tried and failed to introduce a capital-control law in 2019, want the international community to reveal the foreign bank accounts of Lebanese politicians. “If people are starving and their political leaders have billions of dollars overseas and are selling them slogans,” Daher said, “people will turn on them.”
A new Lebanese government headed by Najib Mikati was formed in September, and in October it restarted the forensic audit of the central bank and talks with the I.M.F. The Saudis and their gulf allies, meanwhile, have withheld aid that would help dig Lebanon out of its deep hole, largely because of Hezbollah’s powerful role within the state and its strong ties to their regional nemesis, Iran. The West has also said that aid will be predicated on reforms and anti-corruption measures, a condition it has made and ignored in the past.
To people like Kobaissi, it’s clear that Western nations are “liars when they say they want to fight corruption” in Lebanon. If they were serious, he told me, “they would support accountability and regulatory bodies.” According to the Gherbal Initiative, a civil-society organization founded in 2018 that researches state contracts, foreign loans and grants, foreign states have often poured money into hazy schemes that never materialize. Assaad Thebian, Gherbal’s 33-year-old executive director, gave me a typical example: multiple foreign loans over the years, totaling some $200 million, for the same wastewater project that was never executed. “If you still believe that you can trust the same warlords to take new aid money in order to fix the problems, you’re delusional,” he said.
Although both pro- and anti-Western sectarian leaders and their acolytes remain deeply embroiled in various domestic corruption scandals, to date only Hezbollah and its allies have been internationally censured. The United States has imposed sanctions on a number of Hezbollah members and affiliates for corruption, as well as several of Hezbollah’s allies from other parties. Hezbollah and its supporters consider the sanctions political. “So now the Americans and French have woken up to the corruption?” said Hussein Hajj Hassan, a Hezbollah member of Parliament. “Ah, OK, I didn’t realize that they didn’t know before.”
Some Lebanese blame Hezbollah for the port blast, accusing it of having a connection to the ammonium nitrate and of stockpiling weapons at Hangar 12, which made it a target of an Israeli airstrike that set off the port explosion. (Israel denies the allegation.) Hezbollah’s detractors also claim the ammonium nitrate at the port was destined for its ally, the Syrian regime, for so-called barrel bombs. Hezbollah, for its part, denies any connection to the fertilizer or the blast, maintaining that the substance was stockpiled by Lebanese on the other side of the political spectrum who are opposed to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to be used by al-Assad’s opponents in their improvised explosive devices.
‘There shouldn’t be a person or an administration dealing with public funds that isn’t subject to oversight.’
The blast aside, detractors say that Hezbollah is more responsible than the company of five for eroding the state’s authority, because it has established a powerful ministate within the state, backed by its weapons. I put it to Hajj Hassan that a weak state suits Hezbollah. “A strong state is impossible with this system,” Hajj Hassan told me.
“The weakest thing in it is the state,” added Ibrahim Moussawi, Hajj Hassan’s colleague and fellow member of Parliament. “The sects are stronger than the state. It’s that simple.”
Against this backdrop, Attieh’s plans to strengthen the state may seem somewhat modest. But they are significant in a country where opacity is the order of business: He is trying to digitize procedures to enable the kind of transparency and tracking that would make anti-corruption investigations easier — or even perhaps prevent wrongdoing in the first place. His aim is to create an interlinked data-based system across public institutions, municipalities and ministries so that policy decisions can be based on collectible data that is shared with the public, not a politician’s opinion or private side deals. It is an ambitious project in a country that hasn’t held a census since 1932 (an effort to sidestep the thorny question of sectarian demographics).
Attieh has developed and implemented Lebanon’s first e-governance platform, known as Impact, which connects public institutions and citizens. It requires administrations to upload and share data in order to, say, geographically map Covid-19 cases, allowing people to register for coronavirus vaccinations as well as receive the permissions required to leave home during the multiple extended lockdowns that Lebanon imposed. Attieh says that in the first three weeks of Impact’s lockdown-permissions portal, it received eight million requests from two million people — this in a country of about five million Lebanese and some 1.5 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees. Impact has “modernized the way we live,” Attieh said. “Tell me, doesn’t all of that reduce wasta?”
Impact is “a corrective change,” as Attieh puts it, in other ways too. “If a person is going to write something, and you know that paper will be posted somewhere, you make sure it’s right,” he said, adding that he has informed ministers that Impact is publicly posting their decisions. “We are not just collecting data,” he said. “We are creating a new awareness, a new reality for citizens, a new way of doing things.”
Attieh wants to extend Impact so that citizens can make appointments in ministries and with other public bodies and know beforehand how much a procedure costs and what paperwork is required to complete it. That way, he said, “nobody can ever again say: ‘Oh, I can’t find the file. It fell down some crack’” until a bribe is paid.
For a man keen on digitizing data, Attieh has an office stacked with paperwork. He worked through Lebanon’s many extended lockdowns, going to the office twice a week, often staying well into the night. He has a habit of speaking quickly, as if he can’t get his ideas out fast enough, switching thoughts midsentence to get another point into the conversation. He is bursting with plans. He wants to introduce an internal auditing unit in every ministry and have it report directly to Central Inspection. He is working on a draft law to oblige anyone who deals with public funds or is in a public position, including ministers, to be subject to Central Inspection’s oversight. He and his team are formulating a comprehensive five-year road map for administrative reform, based on the more than 3,000 recommendation letters that he has sent to ministries and other bodies. “Our recommendations are ignored — it’s a problem,” he said, leafing through piles of manila folders as he read out some of his many recommendations. He drowns administrators who ignore him with monthly follow-up letters, which has prompted some, including ministers, to at least acknowledge his correspondence, if not to act on it. Attieh also formally notes in writing when “a minister does something illegal,” so that the minister knows that he’s keeping score. “I felt like I was planting 100 kilograms of seed, and only one kilogram would sprout,” he said. He needs just one thing to put his plans in action: “a government that will empower us,” he said. “If a new government doesn’t cooperate with us, for sure we will fail.”
Instead, one of the first things the new Mikati government has done is demand that Central Inspection receive the prime minister’s permission before investigating any public institution. “It’s not legal,” Attieh said of the decision, a point he relayed to Mikati in person. The prime minister, he said, was responsive and talks are continuing. Attieh is not deterred. “I’m not working with the attitude of an employee who is afraid of losing his position.”
The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for spring 2022. Civil rights organizations and activists involved in the October Revolution are mobilizing to stand for seats, but first they must unite and agree to a common platform. They face a system that changes the electoral law ahead of every poll, by amending the size and boundaries of electorates, for instance, to suit the main political parties. “We are champions in gerrymandering, really champions,” Baroud, the former interior minister, told me. Still, the longtime electoral-reform campaigner believes that this time, “whatever the law, change is coming,” and that the cry of the October Revolution, “All of them means all of them,” should really be “All of us means all of us.”
Attieh agrees that change doesn’t just mean ridding the system of corrupt politicians and judges and the public servants who do their bidding. “Bribes require a briber and somebody who accepts that bribe,” he said. Attieh recalled an anti-corruption demonstration in front of his office during the October Revolution. He said he recognized a man in the crowd who was leading the chants. He had once tried to make a traffic fine disappear in Attieh’s court, claiming wasta through a connection to a politician. Attieh reminded the young man of his actions, telling him, “If you want to fight corruption, start with yourself.”
For Attieh, Lebanon faces nothing less than a battle for its destiny. “There is a move to rebuild the temple in the same way that we are now rebuilding the walls of our family home,” he said. Attieh hasn’t been back to his mother’s apartment since that one visit in February. It still pains him to go there. The apartment remains empty. “I can’t afford repairs,” he said. Although “every day, things are getting worse in this country,” Attieh hasn’t lost hope. “I’m an optimist, because otherwise I would pack my bags and leave. There is no middle ground. We either leave, or we work toward reform.”
Rania Abouzeid is a Beirut-based print and television journalist and the author of “No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria,” as well as “Sisters of the War: Two Remarkable True Stories of Survival and Hope in Syria.” She has received numerous awards, including the 2014 George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. Diego Ibarra Sánchez is a Spanish documentary photographer and filmmaker and an educator based in Lebanon whose work focuses on the use of images to raise questions. He has been covering Lebanon’s collapse for more than three years. His first photo book, “The Phoenician Collapse,” will be published in 2022.
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 31, 2021, Page 36 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: State of Collapse.