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I’m a petty thief, but with a cause   Report this
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Copyright (c) 2011 The Daily Star

Friday, February 25, 2011

In the spirit of popular change that brought down symbols of corruption in Cairo and Tunis, last week I executed my own revolutionary act, namely a pseudo-crime.

I experimented with this calculated, prolonged violation of civil law to highlight three things. First, that unethical conduct among citizens is directly influenced by immoral role models at the top of the rotten Lebanese political establishment. Second, that the prime minister-elect, Najib Mikati, has a golden opportunity to revolutionize the state of public affairs. And third, that my moral checks and balances as a private citizen are sound and kicking! Here are the details.

Robbing the government is usually the specialty of Lebanon’s business-cum-political establishment. Most petty politicians and political leaders at the helm of national power rig the system in order to rob it. This is how rigging and robbing works: bend the rules, get away with it as long as possible, and reap the benefits. If my political so-called leaders can do it, then I can – albeit at great moral cost. In an attempt to try my hand at rigging and robbing the system, I chose a parking meter near my office.

For two consecutive days, I waited around the corner on the street where I usually park my car. Ninety minutes each day were sufficient to observe the routine of the employee supervising the meter. A shoeshine boy kept me company. In addition to parking meter operations, I learned a good deal about the intricacies of shoe shining, but I will spare you the details.

On the third day, at two-hour intervals between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., I bought four legal parking stubs from the street meter, scanned them into my computer with Photoshop, then printed and used the counterfeit copies. Each copy was the exact replica of an authentic stub, the only difference being the expiration time. I then placed the counterfeit stubs on my car’s dashboard, replacing each with another after it had expired. As predicted, the meter man couldn’t tell the difference. I bent the rules, got away with it, and could have reaped the benefits for months had I relinquished my moral standards.

For instance, if I had continued my experiment over the 52 weeks of the year, I estimated that my act of “rig ‘n rob” would have denied the municipality some LL 2.5million. Multiply that by hundreds if not thousands of twisted-minded citizens like myself, and we could have cleaned up the coffers of city parking. Duncan-Nead, the company that manages parking meters and whose chargeable rates to the government are not readily available to the public, would have gone out of business.

This was tempting. However, my internal checks and balances quickly kicked in to remind me that here was an experiment designed to shed light on the broader rig ‘n rob syndrome in the country. That kind of private morality doesn’t figure in Lebanese public affairs.

Take parliamentary elections. Political leaders rig the system through intimidation, by illegally forcing pre-printed candidate lists – in effect pre-selected ballots – into the hands of voters as they go to cast their votes. Personal registrations in the civil registry records are sometimes transferred in bulk from one electoral district to the other to skew the results. Politicians rig the voting process, get away with it, and frequently increase or defend their representation in government. Political power often translates into sweetheart deals of winning or awarding non-bid contracts and managing public utilities and quasi-independent public services, thus robbing the treasury and taxpayers in the process.

Exorbitant prices charged by Sukleen for trash collection are a classic example. Management of duty free facilities at the airport is another. The electricity utility, Electricité du Liban, is a prime symbol of waste and inefficiency. Ogero, with its high cost for telecom consumers, is a black box. A variety of get-rich-fast schemes include the Central Fund for the Displaced, the Council of the South, the Higher Relief Commission, and so on. Like my effort to cheat the meter, politicians play with the numbers and pocket the difference.

Bribery in the government is for everyone. But robbing the government is not. Bribing one’s way through inefficient and corrupt government departments is frequently used by citizens to get things done, whether for business or personal reasons. Bribery feeds the system. However, robbing it is a different game altogether.

Rig ‘n rob is the law of the land in Lebanon, with rational expectations not unlike corporate rules: to maximize profits, political or financial, or both. However, public corruption at the top of the political establishment is a serious burden on Lebanese taxpayers and voters. Mikati, if he can form a government, could make history by attacking corrupt practices head-on, even if this means he will make immediate enemies among key figures in Lebanon’s major political coalitions.

Of course his alternative is business as usual: another prime minister to manage the endless crisis based on a fickle Cabinet program in a fractured country. The Lebanese don’t need more ink on paper.

Lebanon cannot forever remain outside the revolutionary wave breaking over the region. Checks and balances in running public affairs are the key to fighting corruption. Unless the political leadership is forced to observe strict ethical questioning, there is no telling how the Lebanese will humble their 20 odd sectarian dictators, let alone force them out of office hopefully within the near future.

Imad Atalla is head of the Prontis Corporation, a software firm, and publisher and editor of Kazamaza magazine. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright (c) 2011 The Daily Star


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