Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Letter from the Levant: Corruption Trials in Damascus; A Popular New Trend?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Letter from the Levant: Corruption Trials in Damascus; A Popular New Trend?

Article excerpt

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

In June 1949, Syria's former President Husni al-Zaiim passed a law enabling the judiciary to bring any government official to court and inquire into the source of his income. First to be questioned was ex-Minister of Finance Wehbi al-Harriri, a self-made millionaire who had held office in the pre-Zaiim era. When Zaiim was toppled in August 1949, however, the trial came to a halt and the law was brushed aside for the next 50 years.

In March 1999 the late President Hafez Al-Assad, in a speech to parliament, declared war on corruption, saying, "If the people riot in the streets against those who are corrupt, I would take to the streets with them."

While praising his regime's accomplishments--which, according to him, were "great achievements in all spheres of life, in building the economy, in social services, culture, science, and the arts"--Assad admitted for the first time in his career that there were wrongs that must be addressed. Acknowledging that corruption and injustice did in fact exist, he said, "I do not want anyone to remain silent. I do not want anyone to cover up for wrongdoings, and I know that there are many."

One year later, Assad delegated his eldest son and heir apparent, Bashar Al-Assad, to lead the anti-corruption campaign "and bring wrongdoers to justice."

Coinciding with Bashar's new assignment was the resignation after 13 years in office of Syrian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zoubi. The much-loathed Zoubi was visibly corrupt. For more than a decade, he had drained the Syrian treasury and relied on a network of associates to amass riches for himself and his family. For years, there had been calls throughout the country for his removal from office.

German-American political analyst Hannah Arendt once noted that there is nothing worse than being corrupt and weak at the same time. Politicians should either be corrupt and strong, in order to defend themselves, she argued, or clean and weak, in order to ward off accusations with an unblemished record. Mahmoud al-Zoubi, however, was simultaneously corrupt and weak--the perfect candidate for inaugurating an anti-corruption campaign. Unlike corrupt military officials, who command a following in the armed forces, or corrupt politicians the country finds nevertheless indispensable, Zoubi was a political nobody unable to fight back, and was sacked in March 2000. There the matter rested until May, when Hafez Al-Assad made his last visit to Cairo. While touring the city, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly informed the Syrian president that Zoubi's children were among Egypt's foremost investors. Annoyed that Zoubi was flashing his wealth, Assad ordered his son to strike.

Charges of corruption quickly were filed against Zoubi and his family. Accused of profiteering at the country's expense, he was discharged from the Ba'ath Party Regional Command and placed under house arrest. His confiscated office files revealed gross embezzlement of a 1996 commercial deal for the Syrian Ministry of Tourism.

On May 21, 2000, shortly before he was scheduled to appear in court, it was officially reported that the former prime minister had committed suicide in Damascus. Apparently, knowing that he would be proven guilty during questioning, Zoubi preferred death to humiliation. On the same day, to prove it was undaunted by his suicide, the state arrested two of Zoubi's closest allies, ex-Minister of Tourism Mufid Abdul Karim and Zoubi's ex-minister for economic affairs, Salim Yassin. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Madrid-based businessman Munir Abu Khaddur, yet he evaded arrest by remaining in Europe.

All were charged with pocketing money from an Airbus deal conducted with a French company in 1996. Abu Khaddur allegedly had served as intermediary between the Syrians and the French. The ministers were charged with, among other things, misuse of public office, receiving bribes, and "damaging the national economy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.