BEIRUT — In a nation living in the shadow of war, Wael Abu Faour has become a celebrity by going after purveyors of rotten fish and crooked nose jobs.
The health minister has led a high-profile campaign in this small Arab country to clean up restaurants and slaughterhouses, lower prescription drug prices and shutter shady plastic surgery clinics.
Seen as sleaze-free in a country steeped in corruption, Abu Faour has become increasingly popular, regularly appearing on television talk shows and the front pages of newspapers. But he also has accumulated enemies who charge that his campaign is political opportunism and deflects attention from more pressing issues, such as the influx of over a million refugees from war-torn Syria.
Abu Faour says he harbors ambitions beyond just holding public-health violators to account. He pledges to strengthen government institutions against a political system that many Lebanese complain is hobbled by powerful and unaccountable religious groups and Mafioso-like leaders. Launched in November, the campaign may even serve as a model for other countries in a region that struggles with feeble institutions, he says.
“It’s to change the system, to try to convince people to trust in the state,” Abu Faour said in a recent interview in Beirut, the capital.
“We are in a system where your protection is increasingly not from the state. It’s not from the government or the army. It’s from your sect, your party, the politician that you know,” he said.
Boyish-looking at 42, Abu Faour bears a strong resemblance to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. In a region dominated by political strongmen and geriatric kleptocrats, he is seen by fans as a refreshing change, a youthful champion of accountability.
Last year, Transparency International ranked Lebanon as the 39th most corrupt country in the world. The watchdog has described corruption as “the main challenge” facing Middle Eastern countries and a driver of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere that began in late 2010.
“What this gentleman has done is something that we were hoping that one day an official would do,” said Yahya Hakim, general secretary of the Lebanese Transparency Association. He described corruption as a serious drain on Lebanon’s economy, citing practices such as nepotism and the demand for bribes to “finalize any formality, like even getting a driver’s license.”
Under Abu Faour’s watch, the Health Ministry has closed dozens of unlicensed beauty clinics, butcheries and restaurants and seized expired cosmetic products sold in supermarkets. In January, he boasted of how his campaign had led to the arrest of four businessmen — including a sugar tycoon — over food violations.
Last month, the transportation minister vowed to improve standards at Beirut’s international airport after Abu Faour accused the facility of storing shipments of medicine, meat and fish in unhygienic conditions. Some of the food had expired two decades ago, health inspectors said, the containers apparently lost or forgotten. Abu Faour told local media that the airport warehouses were equivalent to a “dump.”
Nabil Boumonsef, assistant editor in chief of an-Nahar, a Lebanese newspaper, said the minister’s campaign has kept businesses and officials on their toes. It has created hope in a place where citizens have long complained of elites acting above the law, he said.
“The people very much welcome this,” he said.
But many politicians don’t.
The economy minister has accused Abu Faour of “terrorizing” local business and promoting a “circus show” by using news conferences to name and shame eateries for such violations as serving food tainted with E. coli and human feces.
Some political figures note that Lebanon struggles with more urgent problems, including its dysfunctional political system and attacks by radical militants near the border with Syria.
“Abu Faour is going after the food industry, but corruption is far worse in other sectors,” said Albert Kostanian, an official in the Christian-dominated Kataeb Party.
Rivals see the campaign as part of a political maneuver by Abu Faour’s patron, Walid Jumblatt. The most powerful leader in Lebanon’s roughly 300,000-strong Druze religious minority, Jumblatt also heads Abu Faour’s Progressive Socialist Party. He is close to retirement, and many officials speculate that Abu Faour’s campaign may be an attempt by Jumblatt at last-minute legacy-polishing before handing power to his son, Taymour.
Abu Faour flatly rejects the criticism, saying, “I’m not doing anything except for my duty, my responsibility as a minister of health.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge to his ambitions is Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system, which centers on balancing relations between 18 officially recognized — and quarrelling — religious groups.
So politically charged are the demographics that officials have refused to hold a census since 1932. Instead, they staunchly abide by a 72-year-old pact that assigns the presidency to a Christian, the premiership to a Sunni Muslim and the house speaker position to a Shiite Muslim.
Many Lebanese say that this system has enabled nepotism and corruption. The health minister owes his own rise to the patronage of Jumblatt, one of the militia leaders during the 15-year civil war who went on to play a significant role in Lebanese politics and in the business sector.
Few think Abu Faour would dare go after his boss’s wheeling and dealing. “I have no doubt that the campaign led by Mr. Abu Faour would come to an end if Jumblatt’s personal agendas are threatened or undermined in any way,” said Randa Slim, a nonresident fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute.
Abu Faour, a Druze from southern Lebanon who has a long history of advocating pan-Arab and socialist-leaning causes, certainly recognizes the irony of using Jumblatt's protection to fend off opponents of the health campaign. But it may be the only way to effect change, he said.
“I’m playing inside the system, by the rules of the system. Through this we are trying to break the system,” he said.
Most Lebanese probably don’t expect the system to be broken. But many see Abu Faour as a champion on a smaller scale — helping them get relief from expired food, defective products and more. One women reached out to him on Twitter this month with a plea for help over a sour stomach: “poisoned [frown face] @WaelAbouFaour do something please [frown face].”
Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.