Lebanon Targets Politicians in Anti-Graft Drive

July 19, 2001 - 0:0
BEIRUT The Lebanese government, faced with a $24 billion mountain of debt, has vowed to take on rampant corruption that has exhausted public finances -- and is starting with the ranks of politicians.

Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri at the weekend ordered an investigation into lists of dozens of past and present MPs and ministers published in Lebanese papers who allegedly owe the state electricity company millions of dollars in unpaid bills.

His move on the lists, published by utilities workers who face the end of a scheme under which they enjoy reduced fees, signalled a grudging consensus that the cash-strapped country can no longer offer public services as part of the patronage that makes Lebanese politics run.

"Everyone recognizes that what's important is the elimination of political bottlenecks to economic reform," said Kamal Shehadi of Beirut's Connexus Consulting, referring to charges of official misuse of public utilities.

Lebanon has pledged to streamline many state assets for sale in a bid to whittle down its debt, with unwieldy public utilities joining cellular phone licences and loss-making Middle East Airlines (MEA) as likely candidates.

The country has appointed BNP-Paribas to advise on a possible sale of Electricite du Liban, which loses about $500 million annually and collects only half of its bills.

Those who pay complain bitterly that others use ties to politicians and their parties to escape bills, and say that utility employees have managed to secure discounts or free electricity for the whole of buildings in which they live.

No Cover for Anyone

Electricity, water and public transport workers last week went on strike and clashed with security forces outside a cabinet meeting after learning of plans to scrap the scheme under which they pay reduced fees.

Officials have moved to assure the rank and file who prepared the lists that the high and mighty will also lose their privileges.

"There is no cover for anyone," public prosecutor Adnan Addoum -- who is handling an electricity probe that will also focus on electricity officials who failed to collect -- was quoted as saying in the leading **** An-Nahar *** daily on Tuesday.

Lebanese media on Tuesday reported that MPs and others whose names appeared on the lists of alleged bill-dodgers are threatening to sue electricity workers for libel over the issue.

But they also quoted electricity officials saying that delinquent customers -- many of them prominent politicians-- had paid bills worth some two billion Lebanese pounds ($1.33 million) over the past two days.

"There is now at least an idea that everyone has to take some kind of responsibility, and so they're paying their bills," said an analyst with one Lebanese bank. "Some were even hurrying to do it before the list was leaked."

Supporters of Hariri's government have accused some parties during Parliament debates of involvement in long-distance phone call rackets and various kinds of populist opposition to economic reforms.