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Lebanon's spirited comeback

Published by Newsweek on 2000-05-01

Lebanon's fratricide between Muslims and Christians lasted nearly two decades, transforming this small Mediterranean country of long beaches and snowy mountains into a killing field. The civil war also drew in Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and virtually every Islamic radical organization in the Middle East, not to mention U.S. Marines and French soldiers. More than 100,000 civilians were killed in a nation of barely 4 million people, and countless more crippled physically and psychologically.

Little wonder, then, that the 25th anniversary of the start of the civil war went unmarked here a few days ago. It is a war that, as Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss told Newsweek in an interview, people here don't much care to remember. It isn't that the Lebanese are in denial, he said, it is simply "that it's time to move on to rebuild our nation so that it can prosper in this era of globalization."

That is proving to be a more formidable task than most people here expected. The civil war formally ended in 1989 with the Taif Accord, brokered by the Saudis. Initially, at least, there was heady hope that 14 million expatriate Lebanese as well as eager multinational corporations would invest enthusiastically. After all, Lebanon still possessed skilled labor, a glorious climate and a liberal social sensibility; the belief was that investors would nourish fledgling sectors such as telecommunications, agro industries, and information technology. Funds flowed in to construct impressive highways and skyscrapers in Beirut and elsewhere. From 1992 to 1998, gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of nearly 7 percent, reaching $12 billion by 1998. In that period, inflation dropped from 145 percent annually to 11 percent.

The rehabilitation did not come without an economic and environmental price. External debt rose to almost $25 billion. Pristine mountains were scooped for their stone, and ugly resorts intruded on sandy beaches. And the tall buildings in Beirut that were expected to be occupied by an accelerated influx of repatriates are more characterized by empty apartments--too expensive, say even rich expatriates.

Now Lebanon is in a deep recession. Foreign investment and aid have slowed to less than $1 billion a year. Prime Minister Hoss acknowledges that investors have been put off by political corruption, a lethargic bureaucracy, and archaic regulations that subject even imported music cassettes to censorship. But Hoss and his colleagues insist that even more than the domestic factors, it's the political uncertainties that hurt. Sporadic Israeli bombing of suspected Hizbollah enclaves in southern Lebanon, said Hoss, "are very destructive in terms of Lebanon's image abroad. These attacks cause direct losses, and you have to re-do what you've done."

Last week, the Israelis said they would withdraw from the area by June 1--some five weeks ahead of schedule--ending a 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon. In separate interviews, both Prime Minister Hoss and his predecessor, Rafic Hariri, said that a fresh economic momentum could be generated soon afterward. In conversations, many Lebanese point proudly to sophisticated Internet connections, to Beirut's huge new airport, to safe streets and affordable grocery prices.

But, for the most part, these tend to be urban viewpoints-and that, too middle class perspectives. A visitor returning to Lebanon after a long absence is struck by how differently people in the countryside feel about their economic prospects. And nowhere is the divergence more striking than in the Bekaa Valley, home to many of the Hizbollah's high priests--and quite possibly the poorest region in the country. Mohammed Ferjani, an agronomist in Baalbeck, the main city in the Bekaa, said that as a result of an international campaign to crack down on drugs, the Europeans and the United States have succeeded in virtually eradicating cannabis and poppy, which once fetched Bekaa peasants some $500 million annually in revenues. But the "aid" given by multilateral organizations to compensate the Bekaa Valley for its revenue losses? Less than $2 million each year. Donors say that Lebanon--where the per capita income is almost $3,000--doesn't really qualify as a poor country and therefore isn't eligible for the kind of aid received by, say, nearby Jordan.

It isn't the Israelis only who're being vilified in the Bekaa, especially by the Hizbollah acolytes; it's the West for contributing to a dramatic decline in income--even though everybody agrees that drugs are bad. To compensate for the revenue shortfall, Bekaa farmers began to grow more potatoes, corn and vegetables. That wouldn't be so bad if there were export markets of any consequence to supplement sales in a relatively small domestic market. But the neighboring Arab states of the Gulf region have raised standards of imports, declaring that Lebanese perishable products aren't of acceptable quality. Meanwhile Syria and Turkey have stepped up their own agricultural production to meet regional standards--and are in effect driving out the Lebanese out of regional markets.

Bekaa farmers are now turning to growing more apricots, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables that can be dried and sold in the region. Agronomists from Turkey have been invited to tutor Bekaa farmers. If the effort succeeds, it could even serve as a model for other developing countries where farmers are forced to cultivate new families of crops in order to earn more foreign exchange.

As he met a Newsweek columnist at his modest sixth floor apartment in Beirut's Hamra section, Prime Minister Hoss said he fully recognized that economic and social development in Lebanon couldn't simply be confined to metropolises such as Beirut. "Our economic vision is for all Lebanese," he said. "There will never be a civil war again between Muslims and Christians. We will strengthen our democracy, and we will continue to be advocates for human rights. But a better economic life for all our people--from Beirut to the Bekaa, from Tripoli in the north to southern Lebanon--must be more than a dream. It's a promise to our people that we are determined to fulfill." Hoss added: "We don't want to be bystanders while the rest of the world prospers."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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