The fight against corruption is off to a bad start
Lebanon’s fight against corruption is off to a bad start. Less than a month after the country’s new government took office, Hezbollah is using the anti-corruption campaign to settle political scores by singling out former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora for criticism, according to political observers.
On March 2, Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah, who is spearheading his party’s anti-corruption campaign, said that Siniora “has designated himself as an accused” and asked financial prosecutor Ali Ibrahim to investigate the case.
One day earlier, Siniora had confronted Fadlallah about his use of the anti-corruption campaign for partisan purposes. Fadlallah had insinuated that Siniora needed to be held accountable for his management of the government’s budget during his tenure as prime minister from 2005 to 2009. At the base of the conflict is more than $11 billion in extra-budgetary spending during Siniora’s term that, according to Fadlallah, can’t be traced.
Fadlallah’s accusation echoes similar allegations made by President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) a few years ago. But this time, the FPM has remained silent while Hezbollah has issued its accusations. According to an informed source, since the presidential compromise between the FPM and Hariri in 2016, which paved the way for Michel Aoun to become president, the party has stopped, or at least tempered, its media war.
Preemptive press conference
On March 1, Siniora held a press conference to preemptively respond to Hezbollah’s accusations. With support from the leaders of the March 14th coalition, he explained that public spending had been higher than expected between 2006 and 2009 because of the rise in oil prices and the unexpected reconstruction expenses following the July 2006 war with Israel.
Siniora provided a list of expenses that he said accounted for the $11 billion in mystery spending, including $2.08 billion that was paid to Electricite du Liban, $3.5 billion that was used to pay interest on the public debt, $1.98 billion that was used to cover previous commitments by the government and $1.12 billion that was owed to municipalities. Siniora also said that these expenses could be traced and verified by the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank.
A former minister, who asked to remain anonymous, told L’Orient-Le Jour that the timing of Hezbollah’s accusation is meant to undermine the application of the program of the Paris CEDRE conference and unsettle Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The attacks were pre-scheduled, according to the source, and were intentionally launched when Pierre Duquesne, the French diplomat in charge of the follow-up to the CEDRE process, was in Beirut. Their obvious aim was to create political tension, the former minister continued, adding that the expenses in question were always sent to parliament. But at the time, the pro-Syrian camp considered Siniora’s government as illegitimate because the Shiite ministers had resigned. As a result, parliament, headed by Nabih Berri, refused to note the expenses.
The former minister also said that there is a connection between these attacks, indirectly targeting Hariri’s Future Movement, and the Syrian government’s attempts to weaken Druze leader Walid Jumblatt by dividing the Druze community. "These two battles are part of the same battle. It is the Syrian-Iranian axis trying to take control of political life,” the former minister said.
Despite being preempted by Siniora, Fadlallah pushed forward with his attack on March 2 and accused the former prime minister of “mastering the art of escaping accountability”, hiding state expenses from parliament and embezzling donations through a special account opened for the Higher Relief Committee to use the money for political purposes at the expenses of the victims of the July 2006 war.
The tension between Hezbollah and the Future Movement seems to be drawing in other political forces who are also looking to settle scores. OTV, a TV channel close to President Aoun joined the fray by implying there should be a distinction between Siniora and Hariri. Future TV, a mouthpiece for Hariri’s political movement, responded Sunday with a strongly worded statement denouncing what it called “a cheap and fabricated attempt to put the two men in opposition” and added: "Whoever attacks Siniora attacks Saad Hariri.”
On Monday, the head of FPM and current Minister of Foreign affairs, Gebran Bassil, called Hariri to assure him that his party did not endorse OTV’s statement and to try to defuse the tension. Hariri also received Mufti Abdel Latif Derian, who said: “Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is a red line because he is a statesman par excellence… We will defend him against any slander.”
Meanwhile, at the institutional level, parliament will convene Wednesday to elect the seven members of the High Court to judge former presidents and ministers. The High Court is composed of seven deputies elected by parliament and eight magistrates chosen according to hierarchy and seniority by the Council of Ministers. The court's decisions require a ten vote majority.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 4th of March)