Lebanese MPs: 15,000 government employees hired illegally

New government under strain from accusations over past hiring and financial management

Lebanese President Michel Aoun heads the first meeting of the new Saad al-Hariri's cabinet at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon, February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
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Lebanese MPs have accused previous governments of hiring thousands of public servants illegally and wasting public funds, fuelling tensions between parties as a new government begins work on tough reforms.

Roughly 15,000 of the 100,000 people currently employed by the state, excluding the army, were hired under illegal classifications such as "provision of services" and not under categories permitted by law, MP Alain Aoun told The National.

Mr Aoun is a member of parliament’s finance and budget committee, which uncovered the figures on Wednesday as it was reviewing public records.

The committee had set out to investigate the alleged appointment of about 5,000 civil servants in the runup to last year's election. A hiring freeze was put in place in August 2017, before the May 2018 parliamentary election, fuelling suspicion that the jobs were awarded to win votes.

“This is a violation of the law,” said MP Ibrahim Kanaan, who heads the committee and asked for an official audit of the 5,000 appointments.

Mr Aoun said the committee was looking into the two issues separately, as the 15,000 public servants whose jobs are deemed to not match official classifications were not hired during the freeze.

The news is particularly controversial as the new government has vowed to overcome political divides to fight corruption and implement tough economic reforms promised last year in France during the Cedre conference in exchange for nearly $11 billion (Dh40bn) in soft loans from the international community. The country's public debt to GDP ratio is one of the highest in the world.

Pierre Duquesne, the French representative tasked with following up on the implementation of Cedre reforms, is currently in Beirut meeting top Lebanese officials.

However, there is little chance that reforms will be implemented swiftly as recent accusations have increased tensions between allies of President Michel Aoun and supporters of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Both Mr Kanaan and Mr Aoun are members of the Free Patriotic Movement, a party founded by President Aoun.

According to Mr Aoun, who is the president's nephew, 72 per cent of the 5,000 hires were conducted by the previous education minister, Marwan Hamadeh, a prominent political ally of Mr Hariri’s Future Movement party.

Quoted by daily Annahar, Mr Hamadeh rejected the allegation and accused Mr Kanaan of being the "Robespierre of the 21st century", in reference to the politician known for his "reign of terror" during the French Revolution.

Mr Kanaan denied that his committee was targeting a particular ministry or person but warned that the consequences of the illegal appointments would be severe, according to the state-run National News Agency.

In parallel, Hezbollah, which is allied with President Aoun, has launched an anti-corruption campaign seemingly aimed at close political allies of Mr Hariri.

Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said on Monday that “millions of dollars” remained unaccounted for in the finance ministry’s books between 1993 and 2012. “There is organised chaos to lose count of money," he said, quoted by the NNA. “Our goal is to know where this money went and to return it."

On Thursday, Mr Fadlallah handed over documents to the financial prosecutor, Judge Ali Ibrahim, so that he could conduct his own investigation.

In response, Fouad Siniora, the head of the Future Movement bloc in parliament, said he would hold a press conference on Friday to clarify the figures.

Mr Siniora was prime minister from 2005 to 2009 and headed the finance ministry on and off for a total of 10 years between 1992 and 2004.