Exuding the confidence of someone who has friends in high places, Joseph Abboud talks freely these days about the illegal port he runs.
Ships from all over the world line up at his stone jetty in Dbayeh, just north of Beirut, to unload cargos of food, consumer goods and industrial supplies destined for Lebanon and other Arab states.
Once a bodyguard and chauffeur for Christian clan leader Camille Chamoun, Abboud today owns half a dozen homes, a yacht and an airplane bought with the millions of dollars' worth of levies on ships that went to him instead of Beirut's official port.
He readily acknowledges that his rags-to-riches story was made possible only with "the protection of a strong leader." As he amassed a fortune, he enriched Chamoun, a former president of Lebanon and the current minister of finance. More recently, Abboud has contributed heavily to the coffers of President Amin Gemayel's Phalangist Party.
So established is his smuggling operation, said Abboud, that Lloyd's of London has insured it. But now the government says it intends to close down the Dbayeh dock and about a dozen other illegal ports along the Lebanese coast that have nearly bankrupted the federal treasury by depriving it of customs duties, a primary source of revenues.
[Reuter reported that official sources said the armed forces had been authorized to fire on ships using the illegal ports following a special Cabinet meeting attended by Army commander Gen. Michel Aoun Saturday. The sources said that both Navy ships and Air Force warplanes would fire shots across the bows of ships heading for the ports in an attempt to turn them away.]
Many are skeptical, however, about whether the government will succeed against the ports -- or even try very hard. Lebanon's major parties, and senior ministers who serve in the Cabinet, stand to benefit substantially by keeping the private docks going.
The largest of the illegitimate ports, the so-called "fifth basin," is managed by the Phalangist-controlled Lebanese Forces militia on a pier next to the official port of Beirut. Abboud's port ranks second in size and income. Other private docks operate north along the coast and in Tripoli.
The Shiite movement Amal is constructing a dock on the southern outskirts of Beirut at Ouzai. So is Druze leader Walid Jumblatt farther south at Khaldah.
What prompted the Cabinet to declare a shutdown of the ports was a plunge in the value of the Lebanese pound, linked to a growing government deficit and dwindling public confidence in the government's ability to restore order.
Since the announcement about the ports Monday, the pound has firmed considerably, from 9 to the dollar last weekend to about 7.5. A circular distributed by the Foreign Ministry to all embassies in Beirut warned that any ship failing to use legitimate ports will face court action involving confiscation of the ship and withdrawal of shipping agents' licenses.
The existence of private ports is just one example of a general absence of legitimate authority here. Most Lebanese have stopped paying income taxes because payment is barely enforced. Few courts bother to issue judgments about anything anymore. Gunmen openly roam the streets past Lebanese Army units.
But the ports are the most visible and, for the government, the most costly illicit activity going.
They operate day and night and, say importers, more efficiently than the official port of Beirut, where shipments get encumbered in administrative red tape.
Merchants prefer the illegal ports because the levies are only a fraction of the customs charges at the official port. Abboud, for instance, said he asks as low as 3,500 Lebanese pounds ($467) per container, which is one-tenth to one-thirtieth what is demanded at the port of Beirut.
"Now and then we receive statements from the chamber asking us to use the official port," said a major east Beirut-based trader who asked not to be named. "But these are pious wishes. Nearly everyone uses the illegal ports, so it becomes a matter of staying competitive."
What little traffic arrives at the official port includes government-subsidized grain shipments and cars, tractors and other vehicles that require certificates of import. Some major international shipping firms also cover themselves by offloading some merchandise at the official Beirut port as well as at private docks.
Losses in government revenues because of the smugglers is estimated by Lebanese officials at between $400 million and $533 million a year, or about a quarter of the current state budget.
Moreover, government efforts to apply quality checks and price controls on imported goods are frustrated by incomplete official lists of what goods enter Lebanon by sea.
"Let's face it," said Roger Mouracade, a shipping insurance agent whose father is president of the Chamber of Navigation. "The situation is beyond the control of those responsible." All it takes to open a private port is money, a militia and political clout.
"A port cannot operate unless it enjoys the protection of a strong leader," said Abboud. "No individual can open a port without the protection of a strong man or party."
Looking dapper in a dark business suit and interviewed in an enormous, plush office on the Dbayeh dock, Abboud conveyed the image of a corporate executive rather than a modern-day smuggler.
Of the 3,500 pounds levied on a container at Dbayeh, Abboud said he keeps 1,000 and gives the rest to the Lebanese Front, a coalition of Lebanon's Christian parties. Recently, he said he spent more than $80 million to build a medical center in Dbayeh that will be named after President Gemayel.
Proceeds from the larger "fifth basin" go directly to the Lebanese Forces militia controlled by Gemayel and his Phalangist Party.
Abboud started his port in 1976 with the blessing of Chamoun's National Liberal Party. The illegal "fifth basin" operation began then too. The civil war that broke out in 1975 had closed the official Beirut port and created the need for alternative sites to bring in food and other essential cargos.
When the Syrians took control of Beirut in 1977, they shut the illegal ports. But private docks sprang up again the following year when hostilities resumed. Gemayel closed them down in 1983, but they reappeared in March this year after the breakdown in February of the Cabinet and Army. The official Beirut port remained closed 154 days from February to July, encouraging illegal ports to flourish.
Abboud said he spent $50 million to build up the Dbayeh operation and opposes its closure. Chamoun also advised against the shutdown of illegal ports, proposing that the government assign customs agents to the private docks, effectively making the ports legitimate. But the Cabinet ordered their closure.