by Abul Fadl (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 11, Rabi' al-Thani, 1419)
Nothing beats the bizarre, stinging war of words and mudslinging that has been raging for the last few weeks between Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and his minister for the displaced Walid Junblat. At the centre of the political bickering between the two erstwhile allies is the humanitarian cause involving some 90,000 families (approximately 450,000 people) who have been displaced from their homes and villages during the 15-year civil war that ravaged the country between 1975 and 1990.
The feud, which has been simmering for months, was sparked mainly by Hariri’s refusal to release money for the return process amid claims there had been irregularities in compensation payments allotted for the displaced. A critical juncture came in January when the 1998 fiscal budget was approved without allocating any funds to assist the return of the displaced.
The running feud peaked in May after the Progressive Socialist party (PSP), headed by the Druze leader and former warlord, received a setback in the municipal elections in the predominantly Sunni Iqlim al-Kharroub county where a coalition of Hariri supporters and al-Jama’a al-Islamiyyah, the mainstream Ikhwan al-Muslimin front organization in Lebanon, won in most villages and towns of this traditional stronghold of Junblat.
Like repentant sinners still on a bender, Hariri and Junblat, after years of reveling in the smug nepotism, corruption and squandering of public funds characteristic of Lebanon’s public life, have been vowing that the Lebanese orgy of waste and favouritism carried out under the guise of the return of the displaced must stop. The task of compensating the displaced and ensuring their return is shouldered mainly by the ministry for the displaced and the Central Fund for the Displaced, which is attached to the prime minister’s office.
In 1991, Hariri’s first government had produced a figure of US$450 million to complete the return. Up to now an estimated $800 million have been spent and only about 25 per cent have returned. Director general at the ministry for the displaced, Hisham Nassereddine, estimates that another $1.2 billion is needed to complete the return. However, critics of the government estimate that at the current rate of squandering, anywhere from $3 to $4 billion will be needed for the task.
In a number of statements to the media, Junblat unleashed a barrage of scathing accusations at Hariri whom he described as ‘the symbol of savage, liberal economics’ and as ‘the treacherous enemy’ who had stabbed him and his supporters in the back. He charged the premier with deliberately prolonging the plight of the displaced by holding back funds which would ensure their return. In a lectern-pounding fiery speech that he delivered at a two-day conference to highlight the plight of the displaced held under his auspices in early July in the mountainous town of Bayt al-Din, Junblat lashed out at Hariri for ‘refusing to give importance to the issue of the displaced for political and sectarian reasons.’ He also pointed at a number of infrastructural projects, including a new Beirut International Airport terminal, as examples of overspending by the government.
Junblat has also taken up the gauntlet of defending the social rights of the majority of Lebanese who have been bearing the painful burdens of Hariri’s warped reconstruction policies. He directed his special venom at some officials and their cronies who have been amassing tremendous wealth from tourist seafront resorts which they built on public property with Hariri’s blessings.
In fact, instead of the prosperity, or independent, creative, wealth-producing capitalism which he had promised to introduce, Hariri and his coterie of political allies, sycophants and cronies have thrown up a ramshackle, nepotistic edifice of robber-baron capitalism that enriches them as it further impoverishes the society at large. The prevalence of corruption, incompetence, nepotism and sectarian carve-up of State jobs, has prompted the Lebanese Central Bank in its latest quarterly report published in June to decry the ‘inefficient and politicised public administration’ which is crippling investment and asphyxiating business in the country.
In response to Junblat, Hariri has marshaled an impressive arsenal of vitriolic accusations of his own. A statement issued by Hariri’s office following the Bayt al-Din conference said that since Junblat had admitted to squandering in his ministry, the government will no longer allow the Central Fund for the Displaced to satisfy the minister’s supporters and relatives. The statement revealed that at one instant the minister had asked ‘the Fund to compensate 1,250 families in a village which only has 280 families.’
The Hariri-Junblat feud has created an impetus for political realignment in the country. Junblat has been building bridges with his former foes in the Christian community. Following a series of high-profile meetings, Junblat succeeded in cementing his ties with the predominantly Christian and right-wing National Liberal party, the Phalange party, and the National Bloc party.
In return, the premier reinstated Shaykh Bahjat Ghayth, a Junblat foe, as the Shaykh al-’Aql or spiritual head of the Druze sect in Lebanon. He had also been building bridges with Junblat’s arch-rival in the Druze community, minister for emigrant affairs Talal Arslan. Speaking after a meeting with Hariri on July 7, Arslan decried the ‘mismanagement’ of funds allocated for the displaced that has raged for seven years. He lashed out at the ministry for the displaced where waste is ‘beyond description.’ Arslan also lambasted Junblat’s ministry as unique in not being subject to surveillance, describing it as ‘a government within a government.’
If anything, after all the cacophonous rhetoric and the boisterous theatrics are set aside, the accusations and recriminations traded by Hariri and Junblat are a damning indictment of the brazen corruption and cronyism prevalent among Lebanese officials. As rightly pointed out by Beirut MP and former prime minister Dr Salim al-Hoss, a man of unusual integrity in official Lebanon’s sea of slime, the feud leaves no doubt that ‘a large amount of funds have been squandered under the pretext of solving the problem of the displaced.’
Hoss also marveled at the fact that ‘the accusations we hear today didn’t exist before the alliance between the two leaders collapsed.’ He added that ‘if we really live in a democracy, the case should go to court because of the cover-up when the two men were getting on.’
Interestingly enough, the justice ministry has declined to respond to calls made by Dr Hoss and other parliamentarians to investigate the accusations traded by both camps under the pretext that ‘it does not have agencies like the auditing department which are capable of investigating the squander charges,’ as one unidentified ministry source told the Beirut-based Daily Star (July 9, 1998). In the meantime, the Lebanese ‘iron triangle’ of politicians, cronies and sycophants continues to feed voraciously at public expense without being challenged.
Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1998