[Published here May 15, 2014]
Driving licenses, university diplomas, and votes: everything’s for sale, even your rights. Such is the motto of Dekkenet al-Balad, which translates to “Country Store,” the newly opened storefront on Beirut’s Gemmayze Street. Neatly stacked throughout the small shop are buckets full of forged Lebanese ID cards, binders labeled “List of government positions for Maronites only,” and stacks of counterfeit Lebanese government paperwork. A young employee hurriedly sifts through a cardboard box to find a customer precisely the document she needs – for a fee, of course.
But Dekkenet al-Balad is a set-up. The store was opened by Sakker El Dekkene, a Lebanese non-governmental organization aiming to collect corruption data on public administration offices in Lebanon, in order to launch their data collection and reporting campaign. Through both on- and offline tools, Sakker El Dekkene wants to shed light on the pervasive levels of corruption in Lebanon’s public institutions.
“The idea came to life through observation and research on how people perceive corruption,” said Ziad Jureidini, the group’s general secretary. “It’s all an economy – it’s supply and demand. And the economy in Lebanon, in its simplest form, is represented by the dekkene.”
In 2013, Transparency International ranked Lebanon 127th out of 177 in its Corruption Perceptions Index, among the world’s most corrupt countries. The international watchdog even noted an increase in Lebanon’s corruption level from 2012. The Lebanese Transparency Association, Lebanon’s official branch of Transparency International, wrote that corruption in Lebanon exists in forms ranging from bribery and nepotism to embezzlement and vote-buying, and that both perceived and real corruption in Lebanon has consistently been high.
Still, with high levels of financial secrecy and little information about Lebanon’s government budget and expenses, there are very few numbers that anti-corruption activists and lawyers can use. This is the void that Sakker El Dekkene is trying to fill with a variety of on- and offline tools.
“We have the website, smartphone apps, our mobile car, campaign boxes, and a call center,” Jureidini told NOW. Lebanese individuals who have had experiences of corruption can anonymously report them online or through the call center to Sakker El Dekkene, which will aggregate and analyze the data to publish statistics on corrupt practices in the Lebanese government. Its website includes this data, tips on how to deal with corrupt officials, relevant legal documentation, and minute-by-minute reports of corruption incidents throughout the country.
The group also conducts its own surveys, one of which included a sample size of 1,600 people throughout Lebanon. “We asked them about their understanding and perception of corruption, and we backed it up with political science studies that have already been done,” Jureidini said. “If you look at five years ago, the findings are almost exactly the same – nothing has changed, and people are suffering from exactly the same thing.”
This morning’s opening for the store drew large crowds, including curious individuals who had seen the group’s graffiti’d advertisements for university diplomas and longer electricity hours. Even police officers peeked into the shop as store employees flitted between tables. “This means there are still people who hope that Lebanon goes back to the days when there was no corruption,” said Carla, a Lebanese woman who stopped by Dekkenet al-Baladthis morning.
But how might the group’s actions actually effect change? Lebanese blogger and activist Gino Raidy thinks it’s about the spotlight. “The only thing elected officials, government employees, and police officers are afraid of isn’t the judiciary system or the ballot boxes,” he told NOW while standing outside Dekkenet al-Balad. “It’s media. When you give bad press to someone who is crooked or corrupt, they’ll do the right thing.”
Jureidini added that the group aimed to bring discussions about corruption back to the forefront of Lebanon’s public sphere and to reverse its normalization. The group’s Sakkera car, for example, will be parked outside municipalities or government buildings where Lebanese have reported high levels of corruption incidents as a “sign of shame” for specific institutions.
“The biggest problem is that we got used to it – we justify it in our daily life and have accepted it as the system,” said Jureidini.
“This initiative is supposed to awaken your anger on this and bring back your will to change the situation.”