It is a mafia with no secret code or tattoos, with no structured system of rules and norms. The Lebanese mafia "Al Cossa Kella" is unlike any other well-known traditional/hierarchical mafia and has an exceptional structure.

Mafiosi within "Al Cossa Kella" don't share any profit through a communal fund. They are in continuous rivalry over the country's resources and budgets. However, it is in their best interest to recognize and, under certain political circumstances, protect each other's profits. They are interchangeable, and political agreements - usually before elections -dismantle and create new groups of mafiosi inside "Al Cossa Kella" — a mafia with a never-ending structure modification.

The term "Al Cossa Kella", meaning "The Whole Story" in Arabic, is solely used for the purpose of this article. It is usually used by people who have things under control and are (or believe they are) in power. In this article, it refers to the groups and families of mafiosi that currently run and have run Lebanon for decades, even centuries. This is the "whole story" behind the destruction of a country and the captivity of a people.

The Dominance of "Al Cossa Kella"

The first hand-drawn flag of Lebanon sketched on Nov. 11, 1943. Source: Lebanon Traveler

The origins of "Al Cossa Kella" are traced back far in history. Lebanon has been under the rule of many different foreign powers, from the Arabs (636-1110), Crusaders (1110-1289), and Mamluks (1289-1516) in the Middle Ages, to the Ottomans (1516-1920) and the French until the declaration of independence in 1943 and the withdrawal of all their troops at the end of 1946. All these rulers were distant sovereigns that relied on the local/sectarian bosses to maintain power. These bosses or nobility acquired more and more power and became the real authority.

Under feudalism, the nobility dominated most of the land and enforced their own law through their private circles of devoted partisans, growing into armies in some cases. The transition from feudalism to capitalism during the 19th and 20th centuries in Lebanon was not accompanied by any reforms or redistribution of wealth. 

The same political system continued after the independence and every political transition had its new political actors, introducing new names or groups to "Al Cossa Kella" and, of course, removing some others.

This long-lasting mafia penetrated the structure of the state at every level. It's a deep collaboration directed by the constituents of the bureaucratic society (state political engine, political parties, banking network, public and private sectors, etc). These non-traditional mafiosi are strongly rooted in their communities and sustain their power by using bribery as a means of corruption in all areas: judicial, political, police, and the private sector. They are the force that shaped the behavioral norms in Lebanese society. They are behind the psychology of Lebanese society.

The Efficacy of "Al Cossa Kella"

Every mafia has, at some points, periods of collaboration with the state and periods of conflict with it. Yet, one of the main characteristics of "Al Cossa Kella" is the completely established collaboration with the state political league (structural roots of the mafia), making it the only important designer and enforcer dominating the realm of corruption at all levels without any competition and with minimal opposition. It runs under corruption's Modus Operandi: "Corruption is the main operative tool."

All mafias significantly prosper during political instability and transition periods … a never-ending process in Lebanon.

The three factors that make the political transition a favorable period for organized crime and corruption are: lack of law enforcement, new political actors, and new sources of wealth.

Lebanon is unstable politically and has been through many transition periods (Independence from the French mandate 1943, Civil War 1975, Ta'if agreement 1989, withdrawal of Syria 2005). The constant weakness of law enforcement after Lebanon's civil war allowed the new political actors (Lords of war) to maintain their role of protectors until now. They are the law. 

Right after the civil war, new sources of wealth emerged but the revenues generated by these financial and real estate sectors, as well as trade activities and luxury tourism between the years 1990-2005, have only benefited a minority of the population. This minority just happens to be "Al Cossa Kella" and its tributaries.

Lebanon, on one hand, has a very old liberal market system and has constantly opted for laissez-faire economic policies since its independence. On another hand, the country is characterized by crony capitalism based on rental activities. Cronyism is widely used in the practice of employing only political parties' members to government jobs or to jobs in state-owned establishments. Businesses cannot be started or maintained without the existence of a close relationship between entrepreneurs and government officials. There is often favoritism in the authorizing of building and other sorts of permits, government grants, special tax breaks, etc.

Add the fact that Lebanese organized crime has an exclusive feature that no other mafia can acquire. It is the submissive support of a majority of the population through political parties mainly established around sectarian power and communal interest.

Since independence, politicians maintained their positions by protecting the weak ethnic/sectarian political system in Lebanon. They consistently used their influence on their supporters through ethnic, religious, even tribal speeches which systematically recalled communal conflicts. This has always been their strategy to prevent the harmony and solidarity between the diverse Lebanese communities of Islam (Shia and Sunni), Druze, Alawite, Christian (Maronite, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian…), etc.

The combination of the rentier structure of the economy with the confessional system of governance enables sectarian elites to capture and redistribute most of the resources through communal clientelism.

"Al Cossa Kella" easily share the resources and the budgets of the country with their immediate circles of accomplices under the pretext of protecting their communities from other sects. These groups of mafiosi, indeed, frequently exploited and still exploit the Lebanese population for their own businesses.

The Caliber of "Al Cossa Kella"

Measuring corruption and organized crime is extremely difficult. Concerning Lebanon, it is clear that corruption is excessive and spread to a degree that assessing it has no significance. Corruption has become omnipresent, it is now a way of life for a part of the Lebanese population. Studies showed that income distribution in Lebanon is highly unequal, with the top 0.1 percent of the adult population (around 3,000 individuals) receiving approximately the same amount of national income as the bottom 50 percent (1.5 million individuals on average) throughout the period 2005-2014.

"Al Cossa Kella" embezzled the revenues and resources of Lebanon for centuries and invested a lot of the profit into all kinds of commercial real estate, creating pseudo-legal empires in Lebanon and abroad. They often stored much of the non-invested profits in off-shore accounts. The amount of money stolen during, and specifically after, the civil war and combined with corruption is dramatic and sad… we could have built a state-of-the-art state.

Throughout the years, only a modest minority within the parliament expressed serious preoccupation about the level of corruption that the Lebanese system is guilty of. There was never a serious attempt to implement any reforms to improve the system. In fact, the system is very well corrupted. The rulers (mafiosi) are busy securing their shares… and reforms are far from their agendas and concerns.

Short of the proposed measures, inequality in Lebanon is at risk of widening further over the long term with the introduction of the capital-intensive petroleum industry into the economy, and lack of action could risk further expansion in income inequalities. Here, regulatory reforms to limit any potential rise of sectorial monopolies will be essential on a larger scale.

It is at this stage difficult to establish whether the extreme concentration of income observed in Lebanon is structural and due to the long-lasting specificities (such as corruption) of its political economy and/or whether it is more circumstantial, following economic crises and the policies undertaken at the end of the civil war.

The Genesis of a Revolution

Riad El Solh, Oct. 17 protests, Lebanon
"If we wanted to leave, we wouldn't have been millions on the street demanding for a better Lebanon." Riad El Solh on Oct. 26, 2019. Photo Credit: Sarah Trad | StepFeed.

The larger part of the Lebanese population did not benefit from the "economic miracle" between 1990-2005 and still live in extreme poverty. Consequently, the need to address income inequality and ensure that it does not widen further could prove a major challenge for Lebanon.

The problem of widely spread and systematic corruption, and its proliferation during the past three decades (after the civil war), is due politically to its weak institution and socially to the rule of silence.

The latter is the result of the long history of oppression and control over the locals who produced a sense of reliance and dependence on local/sectarian bosses.

The Lebanese are now revolting against the rule of silence. They are breaking the obstacles that have been built and carefully fortified by "Al Cossa Kella" to prevent their unity over the course of countless generations through centuries of oppression and exploitation.

Lebanon is undergoing a chapter of liberation and critical consciousness that might lead to great social and political change. The direct and confrontational activism used in the current Lebanese revolution since Oct. 17, such as marches in protest and blocking roadways, is a step towards taking what is owed to the people in terms of social equality and rights to health, well-being, and social justice. It is a step towards inhibiting corruption and hopefully reclaiming the country's wealth by holding "Al Cossa Kella" accountable for their crimes.

*This post was written by Ziad Wadih Moussa, a guest contributor to StepFeed.