Lebanon’s public sector falls further into chaos and corruption

People queue at a vehicle licensing agency in Dekwaneh, Lebanon on Thursday. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 December 2021

Lebanon’s public sector falls further into chaos and corruption

  • Lebanon’s public sector has long been regarded as bloated, lethargic and rife with corruption
  • The country’s now falling into further disarray due to an economic crisis that has left some eight in 10 people poor, according to UN agencies

DEKWANEH, Lebanon: After waiting in line for hours to register his car at a vehicle licensing agency in a suburb north of Beirut, Amine Gemayel’s patience is running thin.
He has already visited the branch in Dekwaneh several times for what should be a simple procedure, without success.
The only way to get his paperwork done any faster would entail breaking the law by paying someone off — a dilemma facing all Lebanese trying to access basic services as their public institutions buckle under a catastrophic financial crisis and perennial political paralysis.
“It’s a great burden on citizens,” Gemayel said. “I know that to complete my procedure I need to use a middle-man.”
The country’s public sector has long been regarded as bloated, lethargic and rife with corruption. It’s now falling into further disarray due to an economic crisis that has left some eight in 10 people poor, according to UN agencies.
Such an environment breeds corruption, said George Attieh, who heads Lebanon’s public sector watchdog. He accuses many government employees of using the growing disarray of the state to ask for bribes in return for issuing citizens’ crucial paperwork.
“The situation is incomparable to before the crisis,” Attieh said. “If I look to how it was in 2018 and how it is now you can’t recognize the public sector. There are much more complaints, hundreds of complaints ... mostly about bribery and intentional delays by employees in order to impose bribes.”
Before the crisis, most civil servants earned salaries worth around $1,000 and up; today, most are earning around a tenth of that after a currency crisis led the Lebanese pound to lose more than 90 percent of its value.
Some public sector workers have since the beginning of November been staging an open-ended strike over better pay and living conditions.
Others simply can’t make it into work: A full tank of gas can eat up more than half of their monthly wage and benefits.
Attieh said fuel shortages have also made the watchdog’s work more difficult as on-site visits needed to investigate alleged corruption have become impossible.
Most Lebanese now struggle to put food on the table and are seeking to permanently leave the country, according to a recent poll by US-based polling company Gallup.
To help its employees workers cope, Lebanon’s government has said promised to triple their daily transportation allowance and provide public employees with an extra half salary per month, but has not yet done so.
It has also been slow to provide other forms of badly needed social assistance despite funding being available. The cabinet has not met for nearly two months amid a row over the probe into the August 2020 Beirut port blast, leaving it unable to implement measures demanded by the international community to unlock aid.
Outside the vehicle registration office in Dekwaneh, Roy Mghames, 20, was also waiting in line.
“You either come and wait like other people and they tell you to come back next week, or you get your things done on the quick,” he said.
“You have to give it to them under the table.”
The director-general of the Traffic and Vehicles Management Authority, Hoda Salloum, was herself charged with corruption, including illicit enrichment and wasting public funds in February 2020, allegation she denies. She was released on bail and remains in her position.
Salloum told Reuters she had worked to increase transparency at the public institution by digitising procedures, but hours-long state power cuts and a shortage of funds to buy fuel for backup generators meant these systems were often offline.
Hers is just one of Lebanon’s public institutions which do not know if they will still be operating in a month’s time.
“We can continue our work till the end of the year,” she said. “Then, it’s up to God.”


Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

Updated 05 July 2022

Belgian held in Iran for ‘espionage’

  • Man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in ‘illegal’ detention since

BRUSSELS: Iran has been holding a Belgian man for the past four months under “espionage” charges, Belgium’s justice minister said Tuesday, as his country weighed a controversial prisoner swap treaty with Tehran.
The man was seized in Iran on February 24 and has been in “illegal” detention since, the minister, Vincent Van Quickenborne, told Belgian MPs without identifying him.
Belgium last year imprisoned an Iranian diplomat for 20 years after his conviction under “terrorist” charges for plotting a bomb attack outside Paris in 2018.
While Quickenborne did not give the detained Belgian’s identity, Iran International, a Saudi-financed media outlet based in London, reported that a 41-year-old Belgian former aid worker is detained in Iran.
The outlet said the Belgian’s arrest appeared to be another instance of Iran “imprisoning foreigners as hostages to exchange them with certain Iranians jailed in Western countries.”
Among those Iran is holding is a Swedish academic who also holds Iranian citizenship, Ahmadreza Djalali, who taught at a Brussels university. Iran also applied “espionage” charges to Djalali and has sentenced him to death.
Quickenborne said officials from Belgium’s embassy in Tehran had twice visited the jailed Belgian to give all possible assistance, and that his family had earlier Tuesday made public his detention.
“I cannot say more, at the express request of the family,” the minister said.
Belgium’s parliament on Thursday is to vote on whether to ratify a bilateral treaty with Iran that would open the way for prisoners in each country to be repatriated.
Quickenborne on Tuesday said as he presented the proposed treaty to MPs for debate that “if the bill is not fully approved, the threat to our Belgian interests and certain Belgian citizens will increase.”
Some US lawmakers, however, are pressing Belgium to ditch the proposed treaty, which was signed in March.
One, Randy Weber, a Republican representative in Texas, tweeted he was “shocked to find out that the Belgian gov has cut a deal with the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism and plans to send Iranian terrorists back to Iran to plot more terroristic acts.”
The imprisoned Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted by a Belgian court in February 2021 of attempted “terrorist” murder and “participating in the activities of a terrorist group.”
He was found guilty of supplying explosives for a bomb attack on June 30, 2018 event outside Paris held by the dissident National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) group.
Information supplied by several European intelligence services allowed Belgium to thwart the attack by intercepting the car carrying the bomb.
A two-year investigation into the plot determined that Assadi was an Iranian agent operating under diplomatic cover.
Assadi was arrested in Germany, where his claim to diplomatic immunity was denied because he was attached to Iran’s embassy in Austria, and extradited to Belgium for trial.
He opted not to appeal against his sentence. Tehran has protested his conviction.
Lawyers for the NCRI, whose core is made up of a militant organization known as the MEK, said the proposed Belgium-Iran treaty was designed to allow Assadi to go back to Iran.
The controversy in Belgium over the treaty comes as European powers are trying to bring Iran and the United States back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.
That pact was badly weakened when former president Donald Trump pulled America out in 2018.
Iran has since leapt ahead with its uranium enrichment to a level putting it close to the point where it could produce nuclear weapons.

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France repatriates 35 children, 16 mothers from Syria camps

Updated 05 July 2022

France repatriates 35 children, 16 mothers from Syria camps

  • Minors were handed over to child protection services while the mothers would face judicial proceedings

PARIS: France has repatriated 35 children and 16 mothers from camps in Syria where family members of suspected Daesh terrorists have been held, the foreign ministry said in Paris.
“France has today undertaken the return to the country of 35 French minors who were in camps in northeast Syria. This operation also includes the return of 16 mothers from these same camps,” a statement said, adding that the minors were handed over to child protection services while the mothers would face judicial proceedings.


Israel PM visits France with Lebanon gas row topping agenda

Updated 05 July 2022

Israel PM visits France with Lebanon gas row topping agenda

  • Yair Lapid took over the premiership on Friday following the collapse of Israel’s coalition government

TEL AVIV: Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid departed on his first foreign trip in office Tuesday to France, where he will ask for backing on a gas dispute with Lebanon that days ago saw Israel shoot down three Hezbollah drones.

Lapid took over the premiership on Friday following the collapse of Israel’s coalition government, which will see the country return to the polls in November for its fifth election in less than four years.

The new leader was confronted with his first test a day later, when Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement launched three drones toward an offshore gas field in the eastern Mediterranean.

Speaking before his departure from Tel Aviv, Lapid said he will raise the matter with French President Emmanuel Macron.

“We will also discuss of course what has occurred recently off the coast of Lebanon,” Lapid said.

“There have been repeated attacks on Israeli gas rigs. Israel will not accept this type of attacks on its sovereignty.”

Lebanon rejects Israel’s claim that the Karish gas field lies within its territorial waters.

Israel and Lebanon resumed negotiations on their maritime border in 2020, though the Karish site sits outside of the disputed area and is marked as Israeli on previous United Nations maps.

The US-backed talks have been stalled by Beirut’s demand that the UN maps must be modified.

Hezbollah’s backers Iran will also be on the agenda at the bilateral talks in Paris, as Israel stands firmly opposed to international efforts to revive a nuclear accord with Tehran.

“It’s important that our position against this agreement is heard,” Lapid said Tuesday.

Israeli officials fear that giving Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program could allow Tehran to boost funding to Hezbollah, as well as the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

A senior Israeli official said the Lebanon gas issue will be high on agenda during talks at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

“We will ask France to intervene to secure the negotiations that we want to lead until the end of the gas issues,” the official told journalists traveling with the premier.

Lapid’s Paris visit comes days ahead of US President Joe Biden traveling to Israel and the Palestinian territories, before flying to Saudi Arabia for energy talks.

Washington is seeking to stabilize the global energy market following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which led Moscow to cut its gas supplies to some European countries.

Israel and Egypt signed a deal last month to boost gas exports to the European Union, as the bloc attempts to end its dependency on Russian energy.

“The Lebanon issue is essential and Lapid will come back to the Israeli position, according to which Hezbollah is first and foremost a threat to the future of Lebanon,” said the Israeli official, who requested anonymity.

Israel and Lebanon remain technically at war but agreed to talks aimed at delineating their maritime border to allow both countries to boost gas exploration.


Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

Updated 04 July 2022

Egypt FM in London to inaugurate partnership council

CAIRO: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry headed to London to inaugurate the first partnership council between his country and the UK.

The council will be co-chaired by Shoukry and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. It will include political consultations and discussions on economic and trade issues, with the participation of British Trade Policy Minister Penny Mordaunt.

A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said the launch of the council comes in light of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in various fields.

While in London, Shoukry met with Lord Tariq Ahmad, British minister for South Asia, North Africa, the UN and the Commonwealth, to discuss bilateral relations.

Related


US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

Updated 05 July 2022

US offers cash rewards to curb Iran smuggling

  • Navy targets weapons and drugs in Arabian Gulf and Red Sea

JEDDAH: The US Navy is offering cash rewards of up to $100,000 for information leading to the interception of smuggled weapons and narcotics in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea.

The initiative by the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet does not directly name Iran but analysts said it was clearly aimed at curbing the flow of Iranian arms to the Houthi militia in Yemen and restricting the lucrative regional drugs trade operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“Any destabilizing activity has our attention,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins said. “Definitely we have seen in the last year skyrocketing success in seizing both illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our effort to enhance regional maritime security.”
Operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi will staff a phone hotline, and the Navy will also take tips online in Dari and Pashto. Payouts can be as high as $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that include information on planned attacks targeting Americans.
Asked whether new seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept under the program. “That’s what we’re after,” he said. “That’s not in the interest of regional stability and security.”

Opinion

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The fleet and its allies seized $500 million in drugs alone in 2021, more than the four previous years combined, and intercepted the shipment of 9,000 weapons, three times the number in 2020.
Despite a UN Security Council arms embargo on Yemen, Tehran has long been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weapons to the Houthis in Yemen. UN experts have examined missiles aimed at civilian targets and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and traced the components back to Iran.
The rewards program is the latest initiative under 5th Fleet Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, who also launched a drone task force last year amid rising tension with Iran. The US Navy and Revolutionary Guard naval forces have had several encounters in the Strait of Hormuz.
The Houthis said last week they were monitoring increased US activity in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf.“Because of this, defense and confrontation options are open,” a spokesman said.