“No more business as usual,” that’s the message from one of Lebanon’s top business leaders and lawmakers to France. Fouad Makhzoumi has appealed to the French government not to turn a blind eye to corruption in Lebanon, as the Arab state battles to pass this year’s budget.
“Normally, governments do not like to hear bad news,” says Makhzoumi. “They would like to say: ‘You’re doing the right thing,’ and hope that it will go away. Unfortunately, we are the masters of disguise,” he told RFI.
Widespread corruption has blighted the Lebanese economy for years, with Makhzoumi blaming it for a loss of revenue of nearly 5 billion dollars.
“When a minister buys an item for 100 dollars and yet the real price is 50, when parliament approves the 100 dollars, you are giving the minister legal cover to do that. And this is how the system is working,” he said.
Makhzoumi, who was nominated to parliament in last year’s in May election, joined politics out of frustration.
“I’m in the pipeline business, we’re one of the largest pipeline companies in the world, operating from Asia right into the US.” Yet for a while, his company, Future Pipe Industries, could not find a single contract in Lebanon.
“One of the weaknesses we have is that politics controls the economy,” he comments.
After opening a factory in the north of the country, the businessman-turned-politician was forced to shut it down after 17 years “because politics started getting involved.”
“The government at the time decided that the factory should not get any more business, and there was twice an attempt to burn it,” he said.
Now that he is in politics, the founder of the National Dialogue Party has vowed to wage waron corruption from within. It is a tall order, complicated by Lebanon’s delicate Christian-Muslim sectarian balance.
“Every sectarian group now has its own leaders, its own politicians, their own members of the parliament,” explains Makhzoumi.
“In this ministry you have to be a Sunni, in that ministry you have to be a Shia…it is becoming a real fiefdom.”
Getting past this political gridlock has taken deft and skill from Lebanon’s partners. However, countries like France still see Beirut through a narrow prism regrets Makhzoumi.
“Before Jacques Chirac, France’s concern was protecting the Christians. After Chirac, the aim was to deal with the Hariri’s in order to protect Lebanon, because historically [Prime minister] Hariri is a moderate and won’t create a sectarian state.”
But the reality of Lebanon is far more complex.
“What worries me is that people who would like to help us, won’t because they think Lebanon is too complicated,” he continues.