While corruption may have reached new heights in the post-civil war era, the phenomenon is not new in Lebanon. Despite attempts at administrative reform since the 1960s, corruption and poor governance remain hallmarks of the Lebanese state.
While the Lebanon of the pre-war era is often remembered as an idyllic haven of free enterprise and commerce, the reality was far from rosy. Despite a dearth of data, it is estimated that in 1961 half of the country’s population was living on incomes below the poverty line. The government of the country’s first post-independence president, Bechara El Khoury (1943–52), was characterized by nepotism, poor governance and a high degree of administrative corruption. El Khoury’s administration was accused of recruiting cronies into the public sector, allowing familial ties and sectarian loyalty to prevail. His successor, Camille Chamoun (1952–58), hardly fared any better: both presidents were supported by the country’s important business elites, oligarchs and banking sector, all of which favoured minimal state intervention in the economy, while not necessarily seeing a corrupt public sector as a problem to be solved.
Chamoun’s successor as president, Fuad Chehab (1958–64) had a fundamentally different view regarding the role of the state. Chehab and his administration, dubbed the ‘Chehabists’, tried to introduce genuine administrative reform, root out corruption, and formulate policies to bring about socio-economic development (see Annex, Box 1). However, these efforts were ultimately overturned by Chehab’s successors, and by the time the civil war erupted in 1975, few of Chehab’s attempts at reform had borne fruit.
The civil war in Lebanon led to dramatic socio-economic and political transformations. By the end of the war, in the early 1990s, the country’s infrastructure was badly damaged, disrupting the work of countless public servants and leaving several key ministries and offices inoperative. When sectarian warlords shed their military fatigues for suits and became ministers and parliamentarians, corruption proliferated through much of the public sector, with the warlords-turned-politicians, their cronies in the private sector and their Syrian partners plundering public coffers to sustain their own interests. The public sector lacked trained personnel and proper managerial supervision, and despite the establishment in 1993 of an Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), tasked with capacity-development and improvement in the Lebanese public sector (see Annex, Box 2), the Lebanese state has remained poorly managed, dysfunctional, and rife with corruption, where transparency is the exception rather than the norm.
In 2018, 91 per cent of Lebanese citizens believed that corruption was prevalent in the public sector to a medium or large extent.
While corruption is difficult to measure due to its nebulous nature, studies have relied on measuring the perception of corruption as a useful indicator. The Arab Barometer research network’s 2019 Lebanon Country Report reveals that in 2018, 91 per cent of Lebanese citizens believed that corruption was prevalent in the public sector to a medium or large extent; a bribe in order to receive better public health services was perceived as necessary by 41 per cent and as highly necessary by 26 per cent; and a bribe in order to access better public education services was perceived as necessary or highly necessary by 63 per cent.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranks countries globally based on the perceived prevalence of corruption in the public sector. Scores close to zero indicate a high perception of prevalence of corruption. Since the CPI methodology was revised in 2012, Lebanon’s score and ranking have consistently been among the lowest in the world. Table 2 presents Lebanon’s CPI scores and rankings from 2012 to 2020; in the latter year, the country’s CPI score slipped by three points, causing its ranking to fall from 137th (out of 180) in 2019 to 149th out of 179 in 2020.