Prodigal Son or Unwelcome Fugitive? Carlos Ghosn’s Flashy Return to Lebanon Clashes with a Country in Crisis

January 9, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC

In downtown Beirut, just a few blocks away from Carlos Ghosn’s multi-million dollar mansion, smoke billows out of flimsy tents set up by protestors occupying the center of the Lebanese capital. They huddle around trash can fires to keep warm amid a Mediterranean downpour, holding their ground despite weeks of clashes with riot police and government loyalists who have at times burned tents or tried to clear their presence from the square.

When asked about the fate of Ghosn, the disgraced former CEO of Nissan and Renault who arrived in Lebanon last week after a daring escape from Japan, they are largely apathetic.

“He has nothing to do with our revolution,” says Tony Khoury, 53, an off-duty security guard wrapped in a scarf, stretching his fingers out over the open flames. “We are fighting corruption; the revolution does not protect thugs or fugitives.”

“Look, he might be innocent, but if he is such a successful businessman, why did he come here smuggled and why did the politicians help smuggle him?” asked Ali Chahla, 46, who works in marketing.

The men hail from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, one of the poorest regions in the country. Like many of the protestors in Lebanon’s three-month old uprising, they are demanding basic infrastructure for their villages: clean water, electricity, garbage collection, and jobs.

Battered by decades of war and instability, Lebanon is one of the world’s most indebted countries and is currently facing a renewed financial crisis as global ratings institutions have downgraded its credit ratings multiple times over recent months, citing fears that the state could struggle to repay loans amid dwindling capital inflows.

With an unemployment rate around 25% and a rapidly devaluating local currency, most Lebanese are struggling to survive on a few hundred dollars per month, a far cry from the $17 million annual salary of Ghosn, once one of the highest paid CEOs in the world.

A warm welcome

The protestors’ skepticism of Ghosn stands in stark contrast to the reception he reportedly received from Lebanese officials who facilitated Ghosn’s mysterious return to his ancestral homeland. They assisted Ghosn, a citizen of Lebanon, France and Brazil, despite him being wanted by Interpol after fleeing house arrest in Japan, where he faces corruption charges.

“I respect the authorities in Lebanon and the hospitality they have extended to me,” Ghosn said at a Wednesday press conference, his first public remarks since his arrest in Japan in November 2018. He fled to Beirut on a private plane, reportedly smuggled in a musical instrument case.

His first stop in Lebanon was the presidential palace to meet President Michel Aoun, Reuters reported, although the president has denied the visit took place. (Ghosn himself refused to confirm or deny the meeting, when asked about it by reporters.)

A portrait of Carlos Ghosn on a billboard in Beirut on December 6, 2018, after the former executive was arrested in Japan. Ghosn, who grew up partly in Lebanon, has been held up by some in the country of an example of a successful member of the large Lebanese diaspora.
JOSEPH EID—AFP via Getty Images

President Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who spearheads an annual conference to encourage the Lebanese diaspora to invest in their home country, has often touted Ghosn as a model emigrant. A day after his arrest in Japan last year, Bassil said Lebanon’s foreign ministry would stand behind Ghosn, lavishing praise on the ex-auto exec as “a Lebanese citizen who represents one of the Lebanese successes abroad.”

Bassil, who also heads a powerful bloc in parliament, has emerged as one of the main targets of the anti-corruption uprising. Since October, Lebanon has seen the largest protests in its history, with hundreds of thousands of people gathered in squares across the country, often chanting curses at Bassil and other leading Lebanese politicians, many of them millionaires and billionaires. Wealth inequality is massive in Lebanon, with the richest 0.1% of the population estimated to earn as much as the bottom 50%.

A second act?

Fed up with decades of state dysfunction blamed on corruption, protestors have demanded the resignation of all ruling parties, calling for a government composed of technocrats or independent experts. Credited with turning heavily-indebted Nissan into a profitable company, Ghosn’s name has often been floated as a possible savior for Lebanon’s crippling national debt, which at $80 billion is equivalent to over 150% of GDP.

“Look at Carlos Ghosn’s arrival in Lebanon as a doctor’s visit,” tweeted former Lebanese minister Fady Abboud, noting Ghosn’s reputation as a “cost cutter” whose skills could put the country on a “path of serious reform.”

Carlos Ghosn arrives at the Lebanese Press Syndicate ahead of a press conference in the capital Beirut on January 8, 2020. He used the appearance to rail against the Japanese justice system—and appeal to local sensibilities.
JOSEPH EID—AFP via Getty Images

During his marathon two-and-half hour press conference, Ghosn seemed to rule out a public role for himself but didn’t shut the door completely.
“I am not a political man, nor do I seek political office, but if someone in the government asked for my expertise, I will provide it for the service of Lebanon,” he said in Arabic, responding to a local reporter’s question. Ghosn also answered questions in French, English, and Portuguese, showcasing his cosmopolitan business prowess and multiple nationalities.

“He didn’t sound like a man who was ready to retire,” says Carmen Geha, professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut. “It was very fishy the way he arrived in the midst of a financial crisis . . . and in the context of demands for technocrats to lead the country.”

If not in public office, Geha says Ghosn could emerge as a behind-the-scenes political financier, using his expertise and wealth to influence economic policies. “He has a lot of what it takes to be a politician in Lebanon: you have to be rich and have powerful foreign friends. He fits the profile.”

Speaking the local language

Ghosn’s packed press conference, which drew a scrum of journalists and was broadcast internationally, was pitched as a global exposé of what he dubbed Japan’s “corrupt and hostile” justice system. But, with his frequent remarks in Arabic and nods to Lebanese pride, the target audience may well have been a local one.

“He has never used his Lebanese identity as much as he has this week,” says Jamil Mouawad, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “He needs a safety net in Lebanon, so he is addressing public opinion.”

Ghosn even apologized for a business trip to Israel in 2008; at yesterday’s conference Lebanese journalists raised the possibility of him facing trial over the matter. (Lebanon forbids its citizens from traveling to the Jewish state, with which it remains at war.)

Lebanese anti-government protesters block the Sidon-Beirut highway in the town of Jiyeh, south of the Lebanese capital Beirut, on January 3, 2020. Lebanon is in the midst of widespread protests over corruption, and a deepening economic crisis.

In many ways, Lebanon serves as an ideal hideout for Ghosn, not only because he can speak and travel freely, but because the politically-beholden Lebanese judicial system is notorious for failing to prosecute corruption cases at the highest levels of power.

When the Lebanese civil war ended in 1991, a new general amnesty forgave all past crimes, paving the way for the most violent militia leaders to become today’s leading politicians. And over the last 30 years, billions of dollars have been spent on reconstruction and public works contracts—mainly tied to the political elite—while the country continues to lack basic services, such as sewage treatment, public healthcare, and electricity production. Air and water pollution have reached dangerous levels as citizens resort to rampant dumping in waterways and unregulated private generator use.

Amid the dark streets of the city center, some protesters reacted angrily to what they described as the foreign media’s obsession with the Ghosn saga. “Why are all these reporters coming here asking about him,” said one man, who refused to give his name for fear of retribution. “Why don’t they ask about our problems and the corruption we are struggling against every day?”

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