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BEIRUT Whenever Elie, a successful Lebanese architect, starts a new project, he loads up on “aspirin” or “Panadol” — the codeword in his entourage for bribe money doled out to officials.

“You need to hand out a lot of 'Panadol' to municipal officials, police, building inspectors and anyone involved in a project in Lebanon to be able to keep it moving,” said Elie, who asked that his last name not be used.

“Otherwise they can find any excuse to delay the project for months if not years,” he added.

“And the amount of Panadol given depends on the size of the project, its location and the rank of the official taking the bribe.” Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog, ranks Lebanon as one of the world's most corrupt countries, placing it 130th — the same ranking as Nigeria and Libya — among 180 nations considered in a report it released this year.

It scored 14th out of 20 countries ranked in the Arab region.

The World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators also painted a bleak picture last year, putting Lebanon at 167th out of 212 countries in terms of corruption control.

Experts say corruption is so rampant in the Mediterranean country of four million people that bribery has become the norm when applying for a building permit, a driver's licence, avoiding a high tax or electricity bill, or even getting a divorce.

The country's sectarian system also means that sub-state actors undermine the government's legitimacy with administrative jobs and contracts often allocated based on religious or political affiliation rather than merit.

“Corruption in Lebanon exists at all levels of society and state, and in its various forms including patronage, cronyism, vote-buying, and embezzlement,” said Transparency International.

Key factors contributing to this broken system are the successive crises Lebanon has experienced and the political stalemate, coupled with a reluctance among the various ruling clans and parties to change a system from which they benefit.

“It starts at the highest level of government, and it's going from bad to worse on a daily basis,” said Gina Chammas Mrad, a financial consultant who has worked in the public sector.

“If you are middle class, you either become corrupt or go down the social strata and, if you are poor, you either go criminal or die of hunger.”

Mrad and other experts noted corruption's impact in Lebanon has translated into a loss of faith in the system and a collapse of the basic rule of law.

It has also widely contributed to the country's staggering debt of more than $50 billion, one of the highest in the world in terms of percentage of gross domestic product.

Rami, an electrical engineer, said he is never able to conclude a deal without first distributing cash-filled envelopes.

“It goes from a clerk at a ministry to the head of an administrative department,” he said, also asking his last name not be used. “For every deal or project we bid on, we have to factor in the amount of bribes to be paid.

“It's part of the process. Otherwise your administrative paperwork can get stuck in between floors at a ministry and you won't get anything done.

“That's just the way you do business in Lebanon.” Rami said he knows to pay up when he gets a phone call from an official inviting him for a courtesy visit.

“When they tell you to come over for coffee, you know to get the envelope ready,” he said laughing. “And let me tell you it ends up being a heck of an expensive cup of coffee.” The electrical engineer said $30 slipped to a clerk can get a file moving faster.

“For someone at the senior level in a ministry it can be as high as $2,000,” he added.But despite the extent of the problem, tentative efforts are under way to remedy the situation, with the government promising reforms and a national anti-corruption agency set up in May last year.

“We need to change the mentality of the whole Lebanese population, not just blame the administration,” Finance Minister Raya al-Hassan said.—AFP