Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Reinoud Leenders (RL): Since my first encounter with Lebanese politics and society in the mid-1990s, I have been fascinated with the nature and role of the state in this country. This was primarily because I became exposed to a lively array of contradictory narratives on the state when talking to ordinary Lebanese and living in and visiting the country for over a decade. On one and the same day, it was quite conceivable to listen to one politician on the radio slamming the financial drains imposed by Lebanon’s state enterprises, then to hear an economist at some symposium praising the country’s tradition of “laissez-faire,” after that to be told by an industrialist that red tape had stifled his business, and next to hear a taxi driver cursing at the chaotic Beirut traffic, ma fi dawla, ma fi nizam! (there’s no state, no order!). When asked about these apparent contradictions, Lebanese academicians and analysts would patiently explain to me the enigmatic nature of the Lebanese state. But often their narratives dwelled in much greater length on other pressing topics, such as ever-rising sectarianism and Lebanon’s changing exposure to the region’s turbulent politics. To me at least the real nature of the “weak” state in Lebanon—its operations, its institutional qualities, and its significance—remained a mystery.
In 1997 I had embarked on a PhD project at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. I wanted to study Lebanon’s economic policies and post-war reconstruction in an attempt to get to the heart of this country’s political economy. However, this approach proved ill-advised, as I soon realized that the main source of controversy and friction was not so much state policy, but the very nature of state institutions and their links to society at large. Simply put, what the state “did” seemed to matter much less than whether and how the public administration distinguished itself from the main exponents of the private sector and their interests. Indeed, many of the political contests about the role of the state seemed to occur in the virtual absence of noteworthy state policies in the first place. Thus a study of the latter seemed a step too far and appeared to be based on a range of assumptions that I had not even realized I was making. I needed an approach that would highlight that amorphous entity called “the state” without assuming that its structures and institutions were already in place.
It was in this context that my journalistic interest in political corruption in Lebanon acquired an unexpected significance. When I was writing regular dispatches from Beirut for Middle East International in the late 1990s, Lebanon was immersed in a lively and at times rancorous debate on rampant political corruption and numerous scandals of politicians allegedly enriching themselves at the expense of the public coffers. Although much of this debate was soon overshadowed by the self-serving political manipulations and wrangling so typical of Lebanese politics, the renewed curiosity in corruption was inspiring. I felt that some of the anti-corruption activists were implicitly posing the same question that was on my mind: What kind of state had emerged out of the rubble of war and destruction since Lebanon’s Parliament set in motion the peace process adopted in 1989?
The connection between political corruption and the nature of the state appeared to me as following from two considerations. First, while political corruption was commonly if loosely understood as the use of public office for private gain, inquiries into the phenomenon inexorably touched upon the nature of the Lebanese state. Second, the curiosity as to the exact circumstances of political corruption—elaborate and technical by nature—drew attention to state organizations whose peculiar institutional arrangements now seemed to matter a great deal more than they had before. Thus, while political controversy raged over an overwhelming array of corruption cases, for example in the country’s energy sector, local newspapers focused on explaining how the Ministry of Industry and Oil was in fact structured and operating. Press reports on these subjects read like a fascinating journey through the state’s myriad of institutions, many of which had attracted no or little attention before. In brief, in their outrage over political corruption, Lebanese journalists, intellectuals, and politicians rediscovered the significance of the state. By doing so, they unwittingly offered me a window into the nature and origins of state institutions in post-Ta’if Lebanon.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RL: The book unpacks the widely held view that corruption permeated Lebanon’s state institutions throughout the post-Ta’if period until 2005. It does so, first, with reference to general appraisals and surveys on the subject; this is a methodology that has expanded greatly over the last two decades or so when it comes to the study of corruption generally. Yet more importantly, and less common in “corruptology,” the book explores in detail how corruption implicated senior policymakers and high-ranking public servants in key sectors of the Lebanese economy and government, including transportation, health care, energy, natural resources, construction, and social assistance programs. The study aims to understand why corruption levels from Ta’if in 1989 until the Syrian withdrawal in 2005 have been so profound. In this context, I believe that causal explanations can only make sense if incidences of corruption are first analyzed in their own immediate institutional and political contexts. Accordingly, much of the book is devoted to the unique stories of each of these institutions, as it assesses their susceptibility to corruption, looks into their nature and qualities in terms of bureaucratic organization, and analyzes the underlying politics of these institutions’ evolution.
This eventually brought me to two key sets of observations. First, I established that all the institutions that I had scrutinzed failed to meet some essential criteria associated with bureaucratic organization and derived from its Weberian ideal-type. It is here that most existing analysis on “public sector reform” ends. Yet I argued that the qualities of such corruption-prone institutions should be viewed as the outcome of the political decision-making process. I referred to these complex mechanisms through the shorthand notion of the “political settlement.” Before demonstrating its effects on institution building in each individual institution under study, I examined Lebanon’s post-war political settlement for its main features.
In this context, I argued that since the Ta’if Accord, Lebanon’s political settlement entailed five main and interrelated traits: 1) high levels of inclusiveness and an extreme dispersal of power, resulting in quasi-permanent gridlock in the decision-making process; 2) the predominance of the “troika,” or the elites holding the country’s key political positions, and their politics of apportionment (muhasasa); 3) continuous attempts to circumvent the built-in stalemates of the formal political arrangement enshrined in the Ta’if Accord and the constitution; 4) weak popular support for political elites, which generally resulted in the vulnerability of those filling high political positions; 5) the overriding role of the Syrian leadership’s interests in Lebanon, and particularly its manipulation of the country’s internal differences. In the book, I hope to have demonstrated that these features, taken together, go a long way in explaining that public institutions became exposed to high levels of corruption.
J: What is there to gain in using the notion of a Weberian ideal-type of a bureaucracy for this analysis?
RL: I did not expect the criteria of bureaucratic organization to fully apply in Lebanon. I ultimately hoped to be able to better conceptualize how Lebanon’s state institutions operated as they did. As a professor at SOAS, Sudipta Kaviraj, put it once in a different context, “by using a familiar concept, and by carefully observing the processes and reasons for its disconfirmation, we can begin to inflect or change the concept, or see that in its logical place we need some other concept, not the one we have used.” In my book, I suggest that this “other concept” may be captured by the notion of a muhasasa state, or an “allotment state,” in which fierce struggles over the building of state institutions and their significance coexist with an utter disregard for the universal application of bureaucratic rules. This apparent contradiction is reflected in the initially puzzling views that both praise “laissez-faire” in Lebanon and in the same breath denounce stifling statism.
Furthermore, what I found striking is that not all Lebanese state institutions failed to pass the test of a Weberian bureaucracy. The Lebanese Central Bank, for instance, presents a positive but relative exception to the failure of Lebanon’s state institutions to meet basic bureaucratic criteria. At the same time, the Central Bank managed to curb or prevent the corruption thriving elsewhere. I argued that following a short period wherein Lebanon’s political elites also eyed the Central Bank for their corrupt schemes, it managed to insulate itself from the otherwise incapacitating effects of the post-Ta’if political settlement. This was due to some unique circumstances that failed to emerge elsewhere. With the expansion of the market in treasury bills that financed Lebanon’s bulging public debt, political elites gained a positive and personal interest in upholding the Central Bank’s independence and institutional safeguards. This, I argued, can be explained by these elites’ own purchase of treasury bills, the vast returns involved, the critical role of the Central Bank in this context, and its reputation of integrity on which Lebanon’s debt market crucially relied. Ironically, therefore, Lebanon’s political elites were in strong agreement when it came to creating and sharing in Lebanon’s debt burden, but otherwise their fierce differences undermined virtually all state institutions, their policies, and their services.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RL: First of all, I hope that ordinary Lebanese readers, as well academics, researchers, and policymakers, will read the book. As debating corruption scandals is a favorite past time in Lebanon, the book probably will not tell these readers much that is new about the scale and intricacies of corruption in their country, but it may invite them to develop some new perspectives on it.
For one thing, I noticed that many Lebanese adhere to mono-causal explanations of rampant corruption as they variously blame “sectarianism,” “the war,” “clientelism,” “a culture of corruption,” or, at least before the Syrians pulled out, simply “Syria.” These explanations on their own fail to shed much light on all the corruption cases that I looked into. At the same time, they seem to suggest that very little can be done in terms of countering corruption. As I argued in the book, the groundwork for serious anti-corruption reforms—and more generally, for establishing a genuine peace—will have to involve a redesign of Lebanon’s post-Ta’if political settlement. Short of that fundamental change, flawed state institutions and corruption will continue to flourish. Of course, this will be a herculean task; indeed, a lot more is at stake than combatting corruption. Yet continuing to repeat the World Bank’s mantra of “administrative reform” without addressing its essential political underpinnings is not going to do the job.
In hindsight, I think my study gained some additional relevance thanks to the Arab uprisings since 2011. Certainly, a wide range of grievances has prompted mainly leaderless crowds to take to the streets and public squares of the Arab world. But, arguably, popular anger over pervasive corruption has been at the root of the uprisings. Regime crooks personifying corruption, like the Trabelsi clan in Tunisia and Ahmad ‘Izz in Egypt, were among the first to be targeted by protestors. Mass mobilization in Lebanon, of course, was much less successful for its own reasons, but not because Lebanon did not share the astounding levels of corruption that elsewhere helped to ignite mass anger and collective action.
Even though corruption should be studied and understood in its specific context, I believe that my book’s approach and methodology could be useful in the study of high levels of corruption throughout the entire Arab world. In any case, we should not content ourselves with economists’ quantitative surveys to understand corruption in the region, or indeed beyond, and leave them to prescribe remedies that often ignore the “political” in political economy. The injustices challenged by Arab protestors necessitate political solutions and alternatives, not managerial stopgaps.
Finally, my book may be uncomfortable reading for those who insist that liberal power-sharing strategies in conflict management and resolution provide some sort of panacea for divided societies hoping to recover from armed conflict. If one accepts my assessment that post-Ta’if Lebanon shares some important traits of “consociational” engineering, both widespread corruption and the unstable respite of a truce may well be its collateral costs. Time and time again, postwar countries pursuing “consociationalist” or inclusive political strategies have witnessed extraordinarily high levels of corruption and, associated with this, shaky postwar recoveries. Think, for example, of post-1995 Bosnia-Herzegovina, post-2002 Afghanistan, and, of course, post-2003 Iraq. Thriving corruption in such “post-war” countries has often been blamed on the capital-intensive and inherently obscure features of the construction sector. Other times, it is argued that massive foreign aid used to bankroll postwar recovery caused widespread rent-seeking. Yet in Lebanon, construction was only one sector wherein corruption flourished and foreign aid has been negligible. In Lebanon, and I suspect in other “post-war” countries as well, virtually all state institutions are riddled with corruption because their creation and functioning depended on a debilitating, “consociational” political settlement aimed at dividing up the cake instead of jointly baking a new one.
J: As Lebanon faces an escalating political crisis, what lessons can scholars and policy makers take from your work?
RL: Clearly, Lebanon’s current problems are not all of its own making. The ferocity and spillover of the civil war in neighboring Syria and, more specifically, the fact that now one-fourth of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees, would put serious strains on any political system. Yet it can be argued that the crippling effects of the country’s political settlement, shaped in Ta’if and by and large confirmed in the Doha agreement of 2008, cause Lebanon to be particularly exposed to such pressures.
For one thing, Hizbullah has fully entered the political game and has turned to this cumbersome political settlement in order to shield itself from pressure to disarm and, more recently, to substitute for Lebanon’s foreign policies vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis. Not so long ago, Hizbullah officials lambasted Lebanon’s pork-barrel politics and the established elites’ petty politicking, and contrasted these with the supposed integrity and empowerment of its own resistance agenda. Today, Hizbullah firmly banks on the gridlock built into the country’s political settlement that not only brings about unbearable levels of corruption, but also grants Hizbullah ample leeway to pursue its narrow interests.
Against this background, state institutions continue to be fully exposed to corruption, which currently holds back foreign donors from providing Lebanon with the financial support that it needs to cope with the refugee crisis. In short, the need and urgency of serious reforms, if not a complete overhaul of Lebanon’s political settlement, have only been underscored. In this respect, although I do not want to come across as the all-knowing Middle East “expert” telling the Lebanese what to do, Lebanon should work toward a new political settlement that de-emphasizes the diktat of the “national unity government” and instead encourages the dialectics of government and opposition. It needs to modify and clarify the powers held by the country’s “three presidents” to allow not just for political balance, but first and foremost for policymaking. It needs electoral reforms to foster confident and representative elites. And it needs a new national pact on how Lebanon, its leaders and citizens alike, should relate to its neighbors and to the region at large.
These daunting imperatives, in my view, will continue to haunt Lebanon, no matter what strategies are devised to postpone or circumvent them, whether by way of the politically sterile universe of “administrative reform” or by joint Saudi-Western efforts to bloat the country’s security forces.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
RL: When I was Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group between 2002 and 2005, I started visiting Syria and conducting research there. When I came back into academia, I embarked on a research project with Steven Heydemann that resulted in an edited volume, Middle East Authoritarianisms, comparing Syria and Iran and involving a number of excellent scholars. When the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, I developed, together with other researchers on the region, a renewed interest in social movement theory. I tried to learn from it to first make sense of the onset of the mobilization in Syria, and then to analyze the origins of violence and the militarization of the uprising. At the same time, I have tried to map out and explain the Syrian regime’s responses to the uprising and, later, its ruthless counter-insurgency campaign. In this project, I take issue with a common notion, echoed in discussions on the Syrian crisis, of authoritarian regimes as being inherently myopic, unimaginative, anachronistic, irrational, or even “stupid.” I hope to explore these and other themes further in a research project on the role of Syria’s borderlands in both the uprising and the insurgency.
But the topic of corruption, and related governance issues, still interest me. I am currently working on a research assignment from the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies on the possible implications of Lebanon’s recently discovered offshore oil- and gas-fields in terms of governance and corruption. After having done some research on the use of the judiciary in authoritarian Syria, I have also turned to the Lebanese court system to explore how corruption and its lack of independence affected the routine reproduction of power in what Farid El Khazen once called Lebanon’s “authoritarianism by diffusion.”
Excerpt from Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon
From Chapter Six: “Corruption and the Primacy of Politics”
Corruption and Its Causes through Lebanese Eyes
I have already noted a strong congruence between the conceptual understanding of political corruption proposed in this book and the ways in which many Lebanese understand the notion. It may be instructive to compare my findings on the causes of rampant corruption in postwar Lebanon with some key Lebanese voices on the subject. Such opinions—obtained from media sources, interviews, personal encounters, and a few academic works—do not constitute a scientific or representative sample. Nevertheless, a brief discussion may be useful.
As many Lebanese have similarly associated corruption with the quality of state institutions, it may come as no surprise that many causal explanations for rampant corruption have focused on matters related to bureaucratic organization. Two criteria receive special attention. The lack of oversight mechanisms and external controls has been commonly lamented for facilitating impunity among corrupt officials. Yet even more attention has focused on politicians’ conflicts of interest and their detrimental effects on administration. Hariri’s considerable wealth and his involvement in countless business enterprises both in and outside Lebanon fostered the general impression of political elites in ruthless pursuit of self-enrichment at the expense of a “state of institutions.”
Furthermore, some Lebanese observers pointed at the political process following Ta’if as being responsible for the general failure to build solid bureaucratic institutions that could withstand the lure of corruption. The politics of the troika and muhasasa have been particularly blamed for undermining the “rule of law” and “the public interest.” Yet most such analyses were presented to condemn—rather than analyze—such practices. In this context very few established a link between the peculiar politics of the troika and the formal political arrangement originating in Ta’if. On the contrary, common disapproval of the troika’s politics of muhasasa was generally accompanied by a call to respect the constitution and honor the Ta’if Accord (Mansour 1993). Much closer to my approach is Da’ud as-Sayigh’s article “In Search of Authority [sulta] in Lebanon” (AN 7 April 1999), which blames the volatile and unconstitutional politics of the troika on the constitution itself. That document, he argues, failed to identify clearly a workable balance of power or “center of gravity” in the decision-making process. Yet Sayigh does not explicitly make the connection between these flaws and muhasasa or corruption. Finally, some Lebanese observers also have suggested ways to characterize the Lebanese state against the background of failing bureaucratic institutions and rampant corruption. Although the discourse on Lebanon’s “weak state”—and its opposite, a (strong) “state of institutions”—prevails, Albert Dagher, a Lebanese economist, suggested a categorization that, at least outwardly, approximates my suggested notion of the allotment state. The Lebanese state, he argued, should be viewed as a “distributive state” wherein effective policymaking is surpassed by a game of fromagisme (a French term akin to the expression “dividing up the pie”) that impels decision makers “to be content with simply spending public resources without paying attention to their origins” (2002, 24). Accordingly, Dagher concluded, state policies to promote economic productivity have been conspicuously absent.
At least at a general level, a few Lebanese observers and commentators therefore appear to share my own analysis of corruption. Yet one-dimensional causal explanations—whereby corruption is linked to just one phenomenon believed to capture Lebanese politics—have been much more common. Widespread corruption has been exclusively blamed on, variously, engrained sectarianism (ta’ifiyya), the country’s long-established politics of patronage (mahsubiyya) and clientelism (zaba’iniyya), its (civil) wars, the massive wealth accrued by businessmen-turned- politicians, Syria’s occupation, the lopsided nature of the Lebanese economy, and a culture that condones corruption. I do not have enough space to take issue with each of these diverging views. Indeed, they are often advanced with aims different from those of an academic account of the causes of corruption. Yet a few remarks may help clarify the main arguments of this book.
Most important, while some of these claims may have explanatory value when it comes to individual cases of institution building and corruption, none of them suffices to explain all cases and associated institutional qualities. An exclusive focus on war-related factors and their legacies, Syria’s role, or sectarianism may be echoed in my analysis of this or that particular institutional setting. Yet they certainly do not cover all cases. Thus, for instance, sectarianism indeed played an important role, but it did not determine institutional outcomes and corruption levels in all cases. Sectarian differences were only one way in which elites diverged. Other fault lines included regional conflicts, competition between old and new elites, and contests between elites in control of certain state resources versus elites with private assets and interests. Indeed, political alliances frequently formed between elites from different sectarian backgrounds, as, for example, in the oil business.
Common to most if not all of these arguments is that they do not differentiate among specific forms of corruption. Consequently, they do not follow the distinction proposed in this book between high and low political corruption. Indeed, if the manifestations and underlying mechanisms of different forms of corruption are similar, then the differentiation may not be warranted. On closer examination, however, it turns out that many Lebanese arguments on corruption deal only with low political corruption. This seems particularly true for analyses that lean on patron-client approaches or “(neo-)patrimonialism” (Hamzeh 2001). Such approaches emphasize the particularistic nature and vertical structure of Lebanese politics, which one can indeed argue resulted in “patrons” providing state jobs, services, and/or favors to their “clients” and involved corruption. Yet patrimonialism does not focus or reflect on intra-elite relations, whether these are of a conflictive, cooperative, or collusive nature. As shown throughout this book, most high political corruption in postwar Lebanon originated at this level and much less so at the level where “patrons” catered to the needs of their subservient “clients.” In this context corruption in postwar Lebanon differed in nature and scope from the patronage-induced corruption in Lebanon’s First Republic prior to 1975, as analyzed by Michael Johnson (1986), Marun Kisirwani (1971, 1974, 1978), Michael Hudson (1985), Samir Khalaf (1977), and others. This is not to say that patron-client relations in postwar Lebanon had no significance. Surely one of the features of the postwar political settlement—vulnerable elites—provoked processes that resemble those of patrimonialism. Yet none of the corruption cases explored in this book can be reduced to these terms, and patrimonialism does not explain all or even most of them.
As my own analysis has been informed by New Institutional Economics, it may come as no surprise that an approach closely matching my attempt to conceptualize Lebanon’s allotment state (Dagher’s “distributive state”) was developed by an economist. Otherwise there is little affinity between my analysis and economic or indeed economistic understandings of corruption. Most economists (both Lebanese and foreign) commenting on unbridled corruption seem more or less to agree that Lebanon’s state apparatus is excessively large as elites stuff the public administration with their followers and supporters, which in turn fosters corruption. Yet this claim is questionable even if one accepts the proposed correlation between excessive public sector employment and corruption. Measured in terms of the number of public sector employees relative to the labor force in general (12.5 percent in 2004), postwar Lebanon’s public sector employment does not stand out as excessively large, certainly not in comparison with other Arab states (Ministry of Social Affairs 2007, 85; Schiavo-Campo et al. 1997, 38; Garner 2003; World Bank LQU second quarter 2005). Of course, the right or optimal size of public sector employment in any economy is a matter of fierce debate, as are the ways to measure it. Yet the available data tell us that Lebanon simply does not have a bloated bureaucracy. The elites’ reliance on getting their supporters appointed to state jobs played a qualitative role in fostering corruption, not because it resulted in state obesity. Furthermore, many Lebanese economists also echo the dominant view that excessive and unproductive state interference in the economy is the main cause of corruption. This argument cannot be corroborated in the Lebanese context either. The corruption cases explored in this book were not limited to incidences of statist excess, and indeed I encountered patterns of corruption in areas where the state did not interfere heavily at all. Wasteful or interventionist policies may incidentally have prompted high levels of corruption (as, for example, in the state’s major subsidies for IDPs). Yet as we find corruption in policy areas where the state did not interfere (or, depending on one’s perspective, failed to do so), “statist” excess cannot be regarded as a prime cause of corruption.
A final fundamental difference with economists’ readings is that I believe that corruption is rooted in the ways in which politics, not economics, is conducted. Because of this fundamental divergence, the correspondence between Dagher’s “distributive state” and my characterization of Lebanon as an allotment state ultimately breaks down. Dagher views the main source of national income—external rents—as the chief causal factor in his analysis of failing developmental policies and corruption, not the country’s political settlement (Dagher 2002, 25). In the Lebanese context this argument seems hardly persuasive. After all, the country’s external rents—consisting mostly of remittances from the sizeable Lebanese diaspora—accrue not to the state but rather to private households. In short, Lebanon’s society may arguably be a rentier economy, but it does not follow that a rentier economy inexorably generated a “distributive state.”
[Excerpted from Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon, by Reinoud Leenders, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2012 by Cornell University. For more information, or to buy this book, click here.]