For all the optimism expressed during President Amin Gemayel’s North American and European travels last week, Lebanon’s problems remain mountainous. The mood of the majority of its people is downbeat. One of the most complex and intractable issues is reconstruction. For all the millions of dollars of aid already pledged to rebuild the country as the Switzerland of the Middle East, it is becoming clear that the task is being tackled in a highly selective manner, favoring the business community over the poor and homeless victims of war.
Foreign businessmen are flooding battered Beirut, competing for quick deals. The price of real estate, even damaged sites, is soaring. The Lebanese pound has increased in value by 18 per cent against the U.S. dollar in less than a month. The mood of investors is so buoyant that the British Bank of the Middle East, site of what the Guinness Book of World Records claims is the biggest heist in history—in excess of $20 million—plans to reopen the branch that was gutted after the robbery seven years ago.
But on the capital’s southern out-
skirts, Ahmed Etawi and his children, ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years, are living in a one-room shack, behind a pile of rubble that once was their home and his garage workshop. The building was razed by Lebanese army bulldozers two weeks ago,without warning and despite a three-hour fight by Etawi’s children, who formed a hu-
man barricade to prevent demolition.
The government says the Etawis, as well as several thousand other squatters in the predominately Moslem suburbs of Ouzai and Rami al Ali, must make way for new homes and businesses. Last week Moslem leaders’ charges of sectarian persecution led to a temporary reprieve. But the order remains: the squatters must go—with no oflfer of alternative homes.
Beirut bankers admit that the poor have few options. The major foreign banks deal mainly with commercial transactions, and the lending rate at local banks averages between 15 and 18 per cent. There are no soft-loan programs to help them restart their lives.
Instead, priorities set by the newly formed reconstruction and development council call for restoration first of the economic infrastructure: the ports, which brought in 49 per cent of government revenues in pre-civil war days; Beirut’s central commercial quarter, destroyed in 1975-’76; roads and communication services; tourist facilities (tourism was one of Lebanon’s four major foreign exchange earners); and massive sums for the army. So far, there are few, if any, provisions for the small farmers and self-employed workers whose lives, now that the fighting has stopped, seem even more dismal than before. -ROBIN WRIGHT in Beirut.
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