Wrong number, wrong office

Procuring information from Lebanon’s government

by Sami Halabi

Instead, journalists are subjected to a labyrinth of information requests and bureaucratic red tape in order to get information, should it exist, or acquire interviews with government officials who, in theory, should be accountable to the public. Most just rely on anecdotal evidence or the opinions of “experts.”

“I don’t even bother trying to get information from government officials in Lebanon because they just send you from one place to another, tell you to get a paper from here and from there, and in the end you end up with nothing,” says Paul Cochrane, an Irish journalist who has been based in Lebanon for the past seven years. “It’s a bit like Waiting for Godot.”

The lack of transparency within Lebanon’s government institutions does not only apply to foreign journalists; local journalists fair just as badly. “The process is just way too long,” said Nada Nohra, a Beirut-based Lebanese journalist. Nohra described a recent attempt to acquire information from the Director General of Antiquities, the governmental body under the Ministry of Culture tasked with protecting Lebanon’s cultural heritage. In practice, the body has little authority and cannot physically stop the demolition of cultural sites now being torn down across Lebanon to make room for the country’s fledging real estate market. “When I put in a request to interview the head of the office it took them a week to reply,” said Nohra. “When they finally did, they rejected my request ‘because the issue was too complicated for them to discuss’.”

Later that day, Nohra called Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture to ask how long a previous post-war minister had been in office. “I called and they kept transferring me around,” she said. “Nobody could tell me how long he had been the minister!”

The only marked achievement in terms of government transparency over the past several years has been the introduction of websites for Lebanon’s 24 ministries. Though not all of them have websites (such as the Ministry of the Displaced), and some of those that do don’t function, such as the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

With all this in mind, last month I embarked on a journey to gather information about Lebanon’s ‘legal prostitution’. Lebanon currently maintains a policy of effectively legal prostitution of foreigners whereby women are employed as “artists” in what the Lebanese affectionately call “super nightclubs” but are de facto prostitutes with little rights or government protection.  In an example of unintentional irony, the artists are subject to periodic medical examinations by General Security but are not legally permitted to have sex with the club patrons. If they are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease they are deported. Many of these women have their passports confiscated on arrival, are not permitted to leave the clubs during “working hours,” and are usually locked inside their clubs during “non-working hours.”

I began my research by calling the Ministry of Labor who duly informed me that the ministry does not have a media relations office nor do they keep records on Lebanon’s “artists.” Under the Lebanese law, these “artists” are not protected by the country’s labor code but instead by a separate legal framework set by the General Security office, the government body that regulates issues relating to visas and residency status of foreigners. These women’s “rights and obligations” are spelled out in a booklet issued by General Security entitled “Female workers in nightclubs, modeling and non-medical massage – rights and obligations.”

Naturally my next phone call was to the General Security offices.  General Security does indeed have a media relations office but they were not present when I called or when I eventually knocked on their door during working hours. I called the operator back who then informed me that, even if I did reach media relations, to acquire any information I would have to appear in person to fill out an application at the general secretariat’s office.

Not to be put off, I rang up the Ministry of Justice’s offices to find out how many cases have been filed by “artists” for rape, violence or theft. After having called a several times to no avail, an old coarse male voice finally answered and informed me that the ministry did not have a media relations office either. When I asked him whom I could speak to in order to get this information I was put on hold  and then transferred to another office, where a woman informed me that I had reached the wrong office again. I called the old man back and told him he had given me the wrong office. He transferred me to yet another office where another woman answered informed me that the ministry couldn’t help me; but I could speak to a woman named Huda at the Palace of Justice (Lebanon’s public courts). “Does she have a number?” I inquired. “No you will have to go see her,” she said. “What is her office number?” I asked. “First floor,” the woman said and hung up.

Fortunately for me, both the Palace of Justice and General Security’s offices are across the street from each other.  Since there is no official information desk at General Security’s offices, I used the time honored method of greeting a few loitering solder’s with a “God bless you” followed by a request for the location of the general secretariat’s office which I eventually found on the first floor of the building.

When I arrived and informed the soldier behind the desk of my intentions, he told me I was in the wrong place and had to go to the section that handled the affairs of the “artists.”

After blessing a few more soldiers I found the “artists” bloc tucked away in a hallway to the side on the ground floor of the building. Upon entering the section, I asked who I needed to speak to and was led into a room labeled the “questioning room.”  The room consisted of two desks and several filing cabinets that lined the walls. The soldier again asked me to wait. After around 10 minutes, I got up and walked to the entrance of the room where I saw five women– ostensibly of eastern European decent– enter the opposite room from a side door and march single file behind an Arab man holding a wad of papers into a room across the hall. As I watched the procession, along with every other male in the bloc, the soldier who initially had asked me to wait motioned me into another room at the end of the hall.

The office of the head of the artists section, lined on both sides with leather couches and one large desk at the far end of the room, was filled with soldiers. I made my way up to the officer and explained my situation. He refused to speak to me unless I filed a request to the general director through the general secretariat’s office. When I told him they had just sent me to him, he shook his head and told me to explain my situation to them once again.

After much conversation and a few confused facial expressions, the soldier at the general secretariat’s office agreed that I had to file an official request in writing, which included having it stamped to become a legal document.  After I did this he sent me to another office that handled the general director’s mail. The soldier then asked me for the publication’s press ID. When I explained to him that Lebanon’s Syndicate of Journalists would not give the publication a press ID because, as one editor-in-chief explained to me, “if they do, they will have to give it to everyone and they don’t want Hezbollah having them.” I sent the request by standard mail to the director of General Security. About a week later I received a call from a lieutenant at the director’s office who asked for my name and occupation and hung up. I didn’t hear back from their office until 3 weeks later, long after the article was published, when the general director of general security called– only to decline to provide the number of women that have filed cases for rape or mistreatment. He refused to offer anyone for an interview or give me a copy of the booklet given to the workers, agreeing only to give me the number of “artists” in the country: 1,070.

I then wandered over the public courts to find Huda. After many  “God bless you’s” I finally found the door that said “press.”  But when I tried the handle it was locked. I knocked. No answer. I tried the door a few more times then began to walk away when I saw the door swing open. There stood Huda.

Huda was indeed in charge of press relations but insisted that the issue of foreign female workers was not in her department. She gave me the name of another man named Joe and pointed to a door across the hallway.

When I entered Joe’s office and presented my request he laughed and told me that I was in the wrong building and had to go to the general prosecutor’s office and talk to a man named Tarek. Tarek, a short stubby man with a mustache said he couldn’t give me the information because it was “secret.” When I insisted, he told me to take it up with the head of his department, a local magistrate named Joseph.

I entered the magistrate’s office and told the soldier, who doubled as his secretary, what I was there for. He asked me to take a seat. While I was waiting, an old friend of mine who happened to be a lawyer entered and sat next to me. When I explained my situation to him, he asked me to step outside the office with him. “You have to feed [bribe] these guys to get information,” he said. He then walked into another office and introduced me to a man named Ali. Ali asked me to sit on a bench across the hall. I asked my friend if I should pay now or later. He said, later “he’ll tell you the price. If you agree then he will tell you how to do it.” I waited for another 10 minutes until Ali came out of the last door. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows and made a sliding motion with his hand. The deal was off.

Having failed to acquire my information through alternative methods, I made my way back to the magistrate’s office. I sat down and waited for my turn. A deafening bell went off and the soldier/secretary jumped up and entered the judge’s office. When he came back he asked me to enter. The judge introduced himself as Joseph. When I asked him about the figures he shook his head. “We don’t even categorize the lawsuits, so we can’t know,” he said. “It’s not like I even have a computer and can just click a button.”

I could sense an underlying annoyance in Joseph’s voice as he basically told me that he wanted to help me but he couldn’t. Indeed there was no computer on his desk, much less anything else for that matter.

Joseph is not alone. Many Lebanese seek a better and more efficient government. That desire however does not translate into votes come time for elections because there are “no issue politics in Lebanon,” as one MP told me in the run-up to the recent elections. For a journalist in Lebanon to learn about the inner workings of his government or to procure information—of a general or sensitive nature—often requires that the individual or publication develop close ties with government functionaries. Because of the politicized and sectarian agenda of most Lebanese publications, and the patronage system behind them, there is little hope for young or independent journalists to get responses to inquiries without compromising their objectivity. They must make sure that both the their publication’s agenda and their own articles adhere to the interests of the public figures they are using to acquire “public information,” in order not to risk being ostracized by any given public office for the rest of their careers.

Without pressure from the public, Lebanon’s institutions, let alone its media, have little incentive to reform or restructure in order to serve their people. It seems certain that without these reforms, its journalists will continue to ask many questions that will remain unanswered, such as the plight the of the country’s “artists.” In particular when it comes to information that establishment officials can agree should be withheld—such as abuse of migrant workers– even seasoned navigators of Lebanon’s patron system will have a difficult time getting straight answers.

First published in Menassat on August 11, 2009

The party parade

Lebanon’s nightlife industry booms while its regulation lags behind

by Sami Halabi

Beirut party goers take in the night at Gemmayze’s Torino Express

The festival season is in full swing. American rapper Snoop Dogg is scheduled to play Beirut in August. Visits by Michael Bolton and Paris Hilton, despite one’s personal feelings for the crooner or the spotlight-hungry heiress, are indicators that Lebanon’s summer season is, so far, the most secure since 2004.

The country is expecting “the best tourism season we have ever seen,” says Nada Ghandour, director general at the tourism ministry. According to figures released earlier this year by the ministry, the total number of tourists in 2009 is expected to reach two million, with the majority arriving in the summer months. And Lebanon’s political stability translates not just into a party, but also into cash flowing into the coffers of the country’s quickly expanding nightlife industry.
“Given the amount of people that there are going to be [in Lebanon], everybody will benefit from the season, that’s for sure,” says Oliver Gasnier-Duparc, co-owner and manager of Behind the Green Door, a popular lounge bar in Beirut.
Bars and nightclubs began lighting up Beirut’s nightscape in the mid-1990s on one particular street on the fringes of Beirut’s central district, Monot Street. The allure of untapped market space supplemented by the unquenched thirst of a city without a vibrant nightlife was the perfect recipe for an industry boom. Monot came of age around the turn of the century, with new bars and nightspots sprouting almost weekly.
The phenomenon gave birth to a business model that has been replicated by entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck.
“You would have a group of five to 10 friends who were ambitious and party animals, and thought ‘let’s each put in $10,000 and open our own bar, and if each one of us brings in just five people every day we will fill up and make money,’” says Ziad Kamel, co-owner of bars Gauche Caviar and Cloud 9 in Beirut’s trendy Gemmayze district. “You see a lot of these kinds of places shutting down and selling off.”
The bars eventually closed and the Monot of today is a skeleton of the once lucrative nighttime hotspot.
“Monot boomed around 1999 to 2000 and now there are only a couple of places left which were the original ones,” says Mark Mouraccade, a long-time bar manager and co-owner of Ferdinand’s bar in Beirut’s Hamra district.
The neighbors were one reason the district ceased to be the epicenter of Beirut’s nightlife — noise complaints forced many clubs to shut down. And then there was the nightlife migration to an older, quainter neighborhood a few blocks away: Gemmayze.

Gemmayze was once a quiet residential area but now has more than 90 bars and restaurants operating in the district. Makram Zeen, president of the Gemmayze Development Committee (GDC), a collective of bars and restaurants in the district, estimates that total yearly revenues of all the bars and restaurants in the area comes to $36 million, or around $400,000 a year for each venue. Zeen, who also owns Le Gardel pub and La Estancia restaurant in Gemmayze, claims the hospitality sector in the district has created between 1,200 and 1,400 jobs and has generated $15 million to $16 million in investment.
The total revenue generated by the nightlife industry in Lebanon is currently not available. When Executive asked Paul Aris, head of the association of restaurants, bars and pastry shops for figures relating to the industry, he laughed and said, “Figures? You must be joking. Even the Ministry of Tourism waits for General Security to give it figures.”

Real estate on the rise
While the nightlife industry has become a welcome addition to Lebanon’s economy, the economics of proximity have also galvanized the real estate sector in areas like Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael. Property in the Gemmayze area is being sold at around $3,000 to $3,500 per square meter, a significant increase from a few years ago, according to research conducted by real estate consultants RAMCO.

“Real estate in the area was being sold for peanuts,” says Zeen. “Now, because of us, the real estate value has increased three-fold.”
While the rising price of property may be one reason most bar owners in Lebanon prefer to rent rather than own, there are other more technical issues to consider. “It’s very complicated to buy properties because usually a building is owned by 15 or 16 people,” says Paddy Cochrane, a bar owner whose family also owns property in Gemmayze.
Sensible or not, the inability or reluctance to buy property has left bar and restaurant owners grappling with soaring rental costs by landlords eager to capitalize on the industry boom. A source who advises bar and restaurant owners on administrative issues said that when one of his clients wanted to renew their rent in Gemmayze, the landlord increased the yearly rate from $40,000 to $120,000.
“There are no rent ceilings imposed by the government,” says Kamel, who is also the treasurer and head of marketing at the GDC. “So if you rented five years ago in Gemmayze for $200 per square meter per year — which you could have easily done — now that your five years are up, the landlord can say ‘you know what I want is $800 to $900.’ [Rent] goes up 400 to 500 percent and all of a sudden it is not feasible for you to run your business.”

The other Gemmayzes
At present the cost of renting a venue for a bar or restaurant in Gemmayze can be “over $900 per square meter [per year],” according to Zeen. As a consequence many entrepreneurs looking to open a nightspot are opting for the adjacent district of Mar Mikhael. “The place was cheap,” says Gasnier-Duparc of Behind the Green Door, who opened last December at the beginning of the Mar Mikhael district. “Most of the people opening up here are doing so because it is cheaper.”

Right now the going rate for a bar or restaurant venue in Mar Mikhael sells at around $450 per square meter per year according to various sources in the nightlife industry.
Another up-and-coming venue for new bars and nightlife is the Hamra district, which housed many bars and restaurants before and shortly after the Lebanese Civil War.
“I ran away from Gemmayze to open here,” says Ferdiand’s Mouraccade. Despite having to pay less rent than bustling Gemmayze, Mouraccade opened his bar in Hamra because he believes the area is “experiencing a revival” and offers a more sustainable business model than other locations. “Hamra is different from the rest because you don’t feel the effect of high season or low season as much,” he says.
Haytham Nasr, who owns and manages the Juniper bar in Gemmayze, believes that because of the district’s increasing costs, entrepreneurs looking to enter the market are now considering other areas. “Any bar owner should maintain their rent at a maximum of 5 to 10 percent of annual revenue and make the initial investment back in a year,” he says. “I don’t see how they are going to profit in Gemmayze.”
Nasr’s new project, called “myBar,” is set to open on the outskirts of Gemmayze around the end of this year. The project is unique in Lebanon because of its business model, operating somewhat like a private equity fund or a public company whereby investors buy “barnotes” that are valued between $2,000 and $20,000 and carry dividends of 0.2 to 2 percent. Nasr’s expected return on investment for co-owners is 274 percent. So far the project has raised more than $650,000 and intends to raise $1 million. “We are very confident that we will reach the $1 million and we are closing off funding in six to eight weeks,” Nasr says.

Saturation point
Although the nightlife industry is currently booming, not all the news coming out of the sector is good. The sheer number of venues opening up has created a substantial increase in the supply of nightspots while rising costs are forcing weaker business models out of the market space.
“Lots of people see that the market is booming, they think it’s easy, open up, and after six months they see that they are not making money and they sell it,” says Mouraccade. Chafic el-Khazen, co-owner and manager of Sky Bar, one of Beirut’s most prestigious sea-side rooftop venues, agrees.
“You know the Lebanese: It’s all about ‘copy-paste’ so there is no creativity,” he says. “The market is over-saturated because it is a lucrative business and everyone will try to get into this industry to make more [than] a little money.”
When a bottle at Sky Bar costs a patron between $200 and $3,000, more than ‘a little money’ becomes a lot of money. Still, Khazen insists that the prices are not unreasonable given the costs he has to cover, which include “over $750,000 a year on fireworks and entertainment.”
For now the alcohol and the money seems to be flowing in Lebanon. However, the industry’s growth is highly volatile and connected to the political situation in the country. “If I showed you a graph of my businesses, in terms of sales and revenues, it looks like a heartbeat,” says Kamel. “Every single time there is a dip, the reason for that dip is political instability and that is true of all the businesses here.”
If the political situation in the country remains relatively stable however, the growth of the industry will show no sign of abating. “It really doesn’t matter who is in power as long as there is stability, security and both parties are in agreement, then everyone benefits,” says Kamel. “This is what the Lebanese have to get into their heads.”

Neighborhood party
But the sector could benefit from an overhaul of regulations that have caused problems as the nightlife sector has blossomed.
“Gemmayze is a residential area” read the signposts that line the streets of Beirut’s Gemmayze district, where some bars and restaurants operate till the early hours of the night.
The loud music, gridlock and rude valet-parking attendants have pitted angry and politically connected Gemmayze residents against equally connected bar owners. The result is that no one has the connections to trump the other, and the law is weak: the regulations regarding the nightlife industry date back to the early 1970s. Thus, a multi-million dollar industry that is a major pillar of the all-important tourism sector suffers from ineffective regulation at almost every level.
“There is nothing in Lebanese law that constitutes a bar and this is where the issue lies,” says Juniper bar’s Nasr.
Now that the nightlife industry is booming and entrepreneurs are eager to enter the market, the economic growth seems to have overstepped the ability of local authorities to effectively regulate the sector within the confines of the old laws.
“You have so many places that open without any licenses and don’t abide by any regulations or law,” says Sky Bar’s Khazen.

Nobody’s law
The existing law that governs the restaurant sector classifies establishments as either restaurants or nightclubs. The law also prohibits nightclubs from opening in residential areas or within 100 meters of a religious building. As a consequence, many bars located in residential areas operate using a restaurant license without actually serving food but having to fulfill all the requirements of Lebanon’s antiquated restaurant laws. What’s more, this also places the establishments at the mercy of the evaluation of inspectors from the tourism ministry or the municipality.

A string of cocktails line the bar at Mar Mikael’s Behind the Green Door

“It’s very hard to meet the requirements that were set in the 1970s for a restaurant,” says Gauche Caviar and Cloud 9’s Kamel. “You are in this gray area which allows the government to blackmail you to decide whether you are legal or not, which results in corruption, bribery, bad regulation and places being shut down that thought they were safe.”

One of the main causes of these ailments is the process by which restaurants obtain their licenses. Licensing proceeds in stages with the first stage constituting a “feasibility study,” says Nada Ghandour, director general of Lebanon’s tourism ministry, one of the government bodies charged with regulating the sector. Bar owners apply to the ministry in order to receive a first stage license on the condition that they will actively seek a second stage license to make them completely legal.

“The first stage [license] is pretty easy to get but almost nobody has the second stage [license] and nobody knows why,” says Ferdinand’s Mouraccade. “We apply and we wait and wait.”

The official line
Tourism ministry Director General Ghandour says that it is not the ministry’s fault that establishments do not receive their final licenses, and lays the blame on Lebanon’s building code implemented by local municipalities and the intransigence of owners.
“They take the first stage license… open and say ‘merci, au revoir ministry of tourism. We don’t need you anymore’,” she says. “The [other] major problem in Gemmayze and Beirut is the building law, because the places that are open in the old buildings are not places that were made to become restaurants.”
In order to “help” the establishments, Ghandour has in the past given out “temporary secondary licenses.” A legal expert who spoke on condition of anonymity says the practice goes against legal procedures. “The secondary license is your final permit so legally it cannot be temporary,” says the source. “The first stage is ‘temporary.’”
Local municipalities also regulate the health and safety of Lebanon’s bars and nightclubs. However, even these important issues seem to have been neglected.
“The law states that the straws at the bar must be protected but nobody does it and for fire, nobody checks,” says Gasiner-Dupar of Behind the Green Door. “They always find something, but after that you deal with them [financially].”
The lack of adequate legislation and enforcement to regulate the sector finally culminated in the ongoing dispute between Gemmayze’s local residents, bar owners and government authorities. After several protests in April 2008, one of which featured residents in pajamas blocking traffic and demanding their right to sleep peacefully, the former Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis finally acted, issuing a decree imposing a curfew on all bars and restaurants. The move required many establishments to close during some of their most profitable hours of operation, substantially hurting their businesses.
Kamel claims that the law was completely illegal because it was only applied in one area of the country and was enforced without the consent of the interior ministry and the municipalities, who are responsible for imposing closing times.
“These fanatic residents got together and lobbied against the minister,” says Kamel. “The main people who are bothered are the people on old rent and not benefiting [from the establishments]. If the real residents of Gemmayze, who are the landlords, are bothered then why are they renting the space to everyone?”
During that time, many bars and restaurants were forced to close or threatened with punitive action because they lacked second stage licenses or didn’t have any licenses to begin with. The curfew lasted for around two weeks and eventually dissipated, much to the distress of many local residents and organizations.
“We managed to calm them down for a week or so but they just come back and its worse,” complains Georges Abi Khalil, head of management and coordination at the Gemmayze Development Association (ADG), a local non-governmental organization that works on the preservation and development of the Gemmayze district.
Earlier this year, the current tourism minister, Elie Marouni, along with Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, issued a joint decree reinstating the curfew across Lebanon.
The move set off a wave of protests from local bar, restaurant and nightclub owners who blamed the lack of law enforcement in Gemmayze by local police.

No controls
“The street is the busiest street in Lebanon and we don’t even have one security officer in the street, not one traffic cop,” Kamel says of that time. “We don’t have the support of the government to stop double parking or cars going up one way streets and these are all causes of noise.”
After the curfew was reinstated, a delegation of nightlife industry owners visited the interior and tourism ministers and pleaded with them to reconsider. Reports then surfaced about the interior minister standing on the main road in the Gemmayze district asking party goers to reduce their noise levels.

Local band Mashroua Layla performing at the Fête de la Musique in Beirut Central District in June

“We saw him stopping cars, himself,” says Kamel. “Imagine the minister of interior peeps in your window and asks you to lower the music. People apologized to the minister and put their music down.”
Around two weeks after the reported policing by Minister Baroud, the interior ministry issued a clarification to the decree stating that the curfew did not apply to establishments that sound-proofed their bars and restaurants. The party was on again, but the problems didn’t disappear entirely.
On July 10 some residents of the Gemmayze district staged another protest in the main street demanding tougher regulation of establishments.

Problems to solve
“A decision has been taken by the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Interior to let them [entrepreneurs] open as many bars as they like,” claims Fadia Kiwan, a local Gemmayze resident who took part in last month’s protests. The protest eventually turned violent when another local resident, Hadi Souaid, claims he was attacked and beaten by the entire staff of a local bar in Gemmayze. “When the police arrived they did nothing,” says Souaid.
In an attempt to pacify the situation, the Gemmayze Development Committee (which represents the bar owners) has issued a 15 point plan to address the issues facing the district. One of the most important of these is the problem of parking an estimated 1,800 cars that enter the district on any given night. To address the problem, the GDC and the tourism ministry have been lobbying to open the Charles Helou station’s three-floor parking lot and turn it into parking space for Gemmayze’s residents and visitors. Minister of Transport Ghazi Aridi has agreed to the proposal in principle but bar owners say the ministry of transport has yet to act.
“All we hear is talk and empty promises,” says GDC president and local bar owner Makram Zeen.
For now the regulation of the industry remains in disarray and, from the lengthy list of reforms Lebanon’s post-war governments still has to implement, it doesn’t seem likely the sector will receive much attention from any new government. “We are in Lebanon,” says Khazen. “Before [improving the regulation of] this industry, there are so many other things that are [so] much more essential that the [Lebanese] need to do.”

First published in Executive Magazine’s August 2009 issue