Lawless in Lebanon: a Society Saddled With the Bad Habits of Wartime

Corruption hits phone rates, military service, national exams. One official calls himself and his peers a 'band of sharks.'

Traffic cops in a four-wheel-drive stop a carload of teenagers speeding down a major thoroughfare in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. After writing a citation, the officers burn rubber as they leave the scene - headed the wrong way down a one-way street, sirens still blaring.

In Beirut, and across Lebanon, law and order is a sometime kind of thing, and disobeying rules a national pastime - even among those charged with enforcement.

Some argue that the lawlessness is a leftover from Lebanon's long civil war, which ran from 1975 to 1990, reducing much of Beirut, one-time "Paris of the Middle East," to rubble - and casting a shadow on the outlook of a generation.

"Young people were exposed to bad role models during the war, and they continue to follow their example," says Khalil Akkawi, a former university professor.

"They came to understand that to become rich you must be dishonest, cheat or steal."

Lebanon's well-connected citizens often resort to wasta - the use of an important intermediary - to get off the hook for anything from taxes, military service, judicial matters, even compulsory exams.

Daily life is becoming ever more frustrating as corruption permeates the Lebanese bureaucracy.

The "telephone mafia" is one glaring example. "Phone company employees are contantly cutting off my line to bribe me for more money," complains Kathy Salameh, a foreign journalist. Where can she report these troubles? Government is an unlikely option.

Walid Joumblatt, longtime leader of Lebanon's Druze sect and now minister of displaced persons, was recently accused by political foes of dipping into his minstry's till. Such charges are commonplace in Lebanon, but Joumblatt's subsequent candor with journalists was stunning: "Lebanon is governed by a band of sharks, of which I am one."

Lebanon's haphazard application of law is even worrying some foreign investors enough to rethink plans about doing business here.

"We had to cut off direct access phone service to the US," explains one official of MCI Communications who asked that his name not be used. "The Lebanese were constantly coming up with new ways to cheat the system."

Even education isn't exempt from corruption. High school students have complained in recent years that bribery is being used to help pass those who would otherwise have failed national exams.

A small clique of government employees was caught selling Lebanese University diplomas earlier this year. So far, no one has been prosecuted.

The existence of many competing centers of authority makes law enforcement especially difficult.

"It's become dangerous, if not impossible for police to do their jobs when important Lebanese or Syrian officials, or even members of influential political parties, behave as scofflaws, [or] even reprimand them for trying to uphold the law," says one official of Internal Security, Lebanon's national police, who asked not to be identified.

But their relative impotence has not stopped police from enforcing an imperious Interior Ministry decision to forbid young people from riding motorcycles after 8 p.m. "They are going after us because we are weak and unable to protest," says Antoine Haddad, a college student.

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