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Beirut still reels from war's effects

LEBANON LIVING ON HOPE

November 22, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

Syrian troops now keep the quiet. A 1989 agreement called the Taif Accord virtually turned over the country to 40,000 Syrian troops in a desperate bid to end the bloodshed. The Syrian checkpoints are accepted with weary resignation by the Lebanese, who welcome the peace and resent the peacekeepers.

Most of the militias that fought the civil war have surrendered their heavy armaments. Large numbers of the fighters have been taken into the Lebanese army, and the public wants no more strife.

"I think this is a page of history now," Mr. Hoss, the former prime minister, says of the intramural killing. "There is no more soil for it to grow."

In the unaccustomed quiet, the country thinks of rebuilding. The task is tremendous. Beirut still is crippled. Electric power is on less than half the time. Residents do not bother to stop conversations when their homes suddenly plunge into darkness.

Jury-rigged infrastructure

Many businesses and homes have rigged up generators; the spaces between buildings have become cobwebs of jury-rigged wires that sometimes snare a truck. "This is the city of generators," one home owner says.

Other services, such as telephone and water, are scarcely more reliable. It is a mark of status to have a cellular telephone connected to a number in the nearby Mediterranean island of Cyprus, to bypass the balky Lebanon exchange. No one has bothered to put stop signs on the streets.

Mr. Hariri, the new prime minister, has an ambitious rebuilding proposal. For much of the destroyed central city, he plans to form a giant development company. According to the plan, those who had property in the area will be given shares in the company, foreign investment will flow and everyone will profit.

Already, there are a few signs of optimism. In the ground floor of a ruined Green Line building, Zuhair Sahyoun has installed bright tiles, a generator and propane stove. He has resumed selling falafels in the business his father began in 1948.

A crawl of cars navigates shell holes in the deserted street to buy his falafels. Mr. Sahyoun's hands are lighting-quick, slicing against his thumb to top each fried-bean sandwich with fresh radishes, tomatoes, parsley and mint.

"Come back in a year. You will see this street busy again," he says confidently.

But it is the rich who must be convinced. There are many of them. The war devastated the middle class, whose solid salaries became pocket change of devalued Lebanese pounds. But others profited, legally or illegally.

Sunbathing among the ruins

"The war produced a new class of rich people," said Samir Makdisi, a former minister of economy and trade. At the St. Georges Yacht Club, where the likes of Charles DeGaulle and the Shah of Iran came to relax, the pool stayed open most of the war.

"People took a quick swim between one shell and another," said the owner, Serge Nader. There is still a collection of sleek race boats moored at the dock, and Mr. Nader believes it is the owners of such expensive toys who will revive Beirut.

"Sure, when I look at Beirut I see ruins and garbage and cars driving with no sense," says Mr. Nader, in the midst of restoring his own office. "But in the future, I see a Lebanon that will be over and above what it was before the war."

This image appeals to the commercial spirit of Lebanese and to dreams of fast fortune.

"Everybody used to talk about the war. Now everybody talks about real estate," says a former schoolteacher who quit to be a banker. No wonder: Prime office space that two years ago sold for $500 a square meter now sells for 15 times that.

"This is a country where you can make money," architect Zuhare Abboud says. "You can go to bed with one dollar and wake up with a million."

But any millionaire getting into the game here must be sobered by the change of players. Christians long held the political and economic reins but are losing power. They boycotted this year's Syrian-dominated election, a strategic blunder likely to accelerate their undoing.

The troops of Syria's President Hafez el Assad, no friend to personal liberties, are unlikely to leave soon. Israel still occupies a strip of southern Lebanon, and its constant shelling from that "security zone" has helped boost the popularity of the radical Islamic Hezbollah (Party of God).

Hezbollah and its closely allied Islamic Jihad formed in 1982 to force Israel from the country, but the pro-Iranian group is making inroads in the Lebanese political system.

In the election, Hezbollah won eight seats, and its Islamic allies won another four in the 128-member Parliament. It was considered an impressive beginning.

The Islamic deputies oppose Mr. Hariri's capitalist approach to rebuilding, in which government services -- even the streets -- may be sold to private companies.

Hezbollah outreach programs

The Hezbollah is bolstering popular support by providing social services where the government has not.

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