Beirut Seeks Trade Glory of Prewar Past: Controversies Dog City's Rebuilding Plan

Article excerpt

Tiny Lebanon was a major Middle Eastern trade center until a generation of civil war and regional turmoil pummeled the country into economic devastation.

Particularly in its capital city and main port of Beirut, the widespread property destruction of the 15-year war closed many businesses, caused widespread unemployment and led to a sharp decline in the number of foreign companies and banks that conducted business in the seaside city.

Beirut's central district suffered the worst of the shelling attacks. Once the hub of culture, finance and government, it was reduced to rubble and a few standing buildings at the war's end.

But in May 1994, 80,000 property owners and investors in Beirut became shareholders in a company that hoped to rebuild the city.

The firm, known as the Lebanese Company for the Development of the Beirut Central District (SOLIDERE), pooled $650 million to rebuild the infrastructure and buildings in the 450-acre area.

But the plan is full of controversy. There are allegations that corrupt government officials have profited from a plan that has done very little but barely clear the downtown area of its postwar rubble. Others are concerned that the proposed postmodern buildings will destroy the city's unique Mediterranean ambiance.

SOLIDERE says the $650 million would be spent on initial reconstruction costs, dump-site treatment, sea-wall construction, two new marinas and squatter relocation.

The company is developing, financing and managing the entire 15-year reconstruction project. But some Lebanese say the plan is nothing but "smoke and mirrors" from a government trying to hide Lebanon's problems.

"Behind all the hype about Lebanon's economic recovery and reconstruction is a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign by the Syrian-controlled [Prime Minister Rafiq] Hariri government to obscure the reality of Lebanon's miserable economic and political situation," said Daniel Nassif, the Washington representative of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations.

NO MONEY FROM AMERICANS

"Government projects and contracts are mostly awarded to Syrian-installed officials, their associates or Syrian companies. A large portion of the funds allocated to these contracts end up in the pockets of corrupt government officials and their Syrian patrons; typically less than half goes toward funding of the intended projects."

Mr. Nassif said no Lebanese-Americans were sending money to their native country in support of the project. He will testify tomorrow before a House Appropriations subcommittee and stress that no aid should be sent to Lebanon until free and fair elections are held.

"The former owners of land in the city had those lands confiscated from them," Mr. Nassif said. "Before the war the land was worth a lot, but now they've been paid much less for it."

But SOLIDERE says the plan was publicly approved. They say it adds a modern touch to the 300 remaining buildings in the city, the archaeological sites surrounding it and the regional architecture.

"The vision behind the plan is to reactivate this city core that hasn't been active for a generation," SOLIDERE planning adviser Angus Gavin said. "It was the only unaffiliated part of Beirut, always mixed and pluralistic. If you wanted to do business with every community, this is where you went.

"What we have to do is recreate that kind of pluralist meeting point at the heart of the city. Hopefully, it will be the thing that reconnects Beirut. . . . It's terribly important to get all types of people to come back."

Lebanon's troubles began in 1969 when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began raiding Israeli targets from their bases in hilly southern Lebanon. Israel retaliated, sparking battles between the Christian and Muslim Lebanese over the PLO presence in their country. …