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Lebanon minister leads anti-corruption crusade

Wael Abou Faour is breaking taboos in Lebanon with an unprecedented campaign targeting everything from spoiled food to bribery
Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abou Faour (C) visits the port in Beirut on 29 December, 2014 (AFP)

By Rana Moussaoui

BEIRUT - Lebanon is regularly ranked one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but one minister is breaking taboos with an unprecedented campaign targeting everything from spoiled food to bribery.

From rat-infested grain silos to rotten meat for sale in supermarkets, barely a day has passed in the last four months without news of a horror story uncovered by Health Minister Wael Abu Faour.

"We're living on a mountain of corruption, the more we dig, the more scandals we discover," the 42-year-old minister told AFP.

The campaign has made the politician a media star, with live coverage of press conferences at which he names and shames restaurants, supermarkets and suppliers accused of breaching health and safety standards.

His inspections have forced the closure of butchers, the seizure of expired goods and even the arrests of businessmen.

They have captivated and divided public opinion in a country ranked last year as the 39th most corrupt in the world by Transparency International.

"For a long time, we closed our eyes to it. Businessmen, often protected by politicians, thought they were untouchable and no one would hold them to account," Abu Faour said.

Bribery and other corruption in Lebanon is thought to amount to some 15 percent of the country's GDP, some $6 billion, with the healthcare sector that is Abu Faour's purview among the worst affected.

"The biggest corruption network in the country" is in the healthcare sector, he said, with 25-30 percent of the more than $300 million budget allocated to hospitals being "siphoned off."

He described five doctors arrested for a case involving false claims of thousands of dollars for treatment of "patients" who were dead.

"They even had a dead person receiving physiotherapy at three different hospitals at the same time!"

Corruption endemic

But in Lebanon, such corruption is routine.

The country's state institutions collapsed during the 1975-1990 civil war and never fully recovered. Electricity and water shortages are common and even the most minor administrative hurdle usually involves greasing some palms.

Abu Faour's campaign started with food safety inspections of restaurants and supermarkets, but has expanded far beyond that.

He has targeted unlicensed operations in a country where cosmetic surgery is big business, closing down establishments that disfigured clients.

He has also gone after private water suppliers, who flourished in 2014 as a drought left homes without municipal water.

"Ninety percent of the home water distributors didn't have licences... they were stealing state water," Abu Faour said.

The campaign hasn't always been easy, with protests by some of those targeted and his inspectors threatened at knife-point.

But he has even revisited old cases: several men accused of promoting a fake anti-cancer drug have had their case sent back to court after, he said, their political patrons had them released from jail.

His work has been an uphill struggle in a country where the finance minister told the As-Safir daily that customs corruption costs $1.2 billion a year.

Abu Faour, a member of the Druze minority, is the protege of the community's powerful political leader Walid Jumblatt, himself the target of accusations for mixing business and politics.

The health minister has faced the wrath of his colleagues, who have accused him of a running a "media circus" and even "terrorism" against Lebanon's famed cuisine.

Critics say he defames his targets, but he has also been dubbed "minister of Lebanon" by grateful supporters.

'A first step'

A 2013 poll by Transparency International found 71 percent of Lebanese thought corruption in the country was a "serious problem".

But a poll by local anti-corruption group Sakker el Dekkene (Close the Shop) also found that more than 50 percent of Lebanese said they were willing to bribe public employees.

The group has created an iPhone app that allows people to report cases of bribery in public administration.

Abu Faour has proposed a food safety law and is working with the justice ministry to create a special prosecutor on health issues.

He has also computerised the audit system for hospitals, which previously inspected just 10 percent of healthcare receipts.

Carole Alsharabati, vice-president of Sakker el Dekkene, welcomed Abu Faour's work.

"Before, talking about corruption was taboo," she told AFP, saying that with the minister "things are starting to move".

But she said the campaign was only a first step.

"We must go beyond the media campaign and establish safeguards," she said. "At the moment, corruption is growing and fewer people are being prosecuted."

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