A string of high-profile arrests related to the awarding of fake degrees has put government corruption in the spotlight once more in Lebanon.
First coming to light last summer when Lebanese soldiers were discovered to be applying for promotions using forged university diplomas, a network of corrupt universities and government officials has since been exposed.
Over 40 people, including both civilians and military personnel, have been imprisoned since the scandal hit the headlines, according to local TV station LBCI.
The most high-profile arrest occurred in mid-March, when the director-general of higher education at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education was arrested, alongside a staff member who was in charge of validating university diplomas. They were held on suspicion of accepting bribes in exchange for issuing valid diplomas to people who were not students.
The full names of the suspects have not been disclosed for legal reasons.
The amount of money received was not specified, but some media suggested it could be as much as several thousand dollars per diploma.
One of the universities, Saida University College, has been shut down, a government source confirmed. Two others, the American University of Culture and Education and the Lebanese French University, did not respond to calls.
A fourth university, the Arts, Sciences and Technology University in Lebanon (AUL), is still under investigation, according to the government source, and local media reported that its president had been arrested.
Just a few days before his arrest, he told local TV station Al Jadeed that AUL had been reporting the existence of fake diplomas to the education ministry for over 10 years. The university did not respond to requests for comment.
The scale of the scandal has sent ripples through the Lebanese university sector, which includes 41 universities and some of the best in the region.
“I’m not surprised by corruption in the public sector, but this goes beyond anything imaginable and really undermines the credibility and values of education”, said one university professor, who also asked to remain anonymous.
Some officials have nonetheless attempted to defend those arrested. Saad Yassine, a co-ordinator in the Bekaa region for the Sunni political movement Future Movement and mayor of the village of Majdal Anjar, staged a protest a few weeks ago in solidarity with the arrested director-general, who is originally from the same region.
"There is no proof against him. He should be released from prison", he told The National.
A prominent MP and member of the Future Movement, Samir Jisr, however, denied that his party had any interest in defending employees involved in the scandal. “We do not support corrupt people. Let justice take all the necessary steps”, he said.
Lebanese parties have mutually accused each other of corruption since the new government was formed in late January. One of its main goals is to increase transparency in public affairs.
Lebanon was ranked 138th out of 180 countries in Transparency International's latest Corruption Perception Index.