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Middle East
Politics stall Lebanon recovery
Amid growing instability, rebuilding Lebanon is in itself a divisive issue.
Last Modified: 16 Jul 2007 11:29 GMT
The proposed economic reforms has further
deepened the political divide   [EPA]
Lebanon's reconstruction after last year's devastating war is being hampered by a crippling political standoff between the government and the opposition, and it is ordinary citizens who are paying the price.
The government is continuing reconstruction in the aftermath of the 34-day war last summer between Israel and Hezbollah that killed over 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians.
This involved donor conferences held in Europe, asking numerous countries for immediate assistance.

According to government figures, the total cost of recovery, rebuilding infrastructure and compensating those who have lost their houses during the war is estimated at $1.75 billion.

"We are still in the cloud of war. How can changes happen in a country when we are still in conflict?" 

Louis Hobeika, professor at Notre Dame University, Beirut

Immediately after hostilities ended, the Swedish government hosted a conference in Stockholm, raising $900 million in humanitarian assistance.

However, the rebuilding effort is aimed at wider changes enabling the government to assert its authority over a politically divided country.

In order to obtain financial aid and grants, the government approved an economic reform package presented at the Paris III donor's meeting in January, attended by Western countries and Gulf states that back Fouad Siniora, the prime minister, and the so-called 'March 14th forces'.

Jihad Azour, the finance minister told Al Jazeera that reforms are needed for Lebanon’s economic recovery.

"The objective of the reform programme is to stimulate growth, create employment, reduce poverty, and maintain social and political stability," he said.

The package includes the privatisation of state assets, lay-offs in the public sector and tax increases.
 
After last year's war, Lebanon's external debt reached $41 billion – second-highest in the world, in relation to the country’s population.

Accumulating problems 

A restaurant owner in Beirut, who did not want to identified, said she has not seen any of the assistance trickle through.

"No one is helping me. Beirut used to be a good place for business. Now it's empty, and the government is not helping business owners," she said.

The proposed economic reforms prompted strikes in the country, highlighting the financial pressure exerted by the political deadlock. 

The opposition backed these protests, claiming the reforms were part of a "Western-backed plot" to further divide Lebanon. 

Divided opinion

Ghassan Ghosn, a trade union official told Al Jazeera that low income earners won't be able to deal with new taxes that come with the reform package.

"We need greater focus on social changes here, not an increase in taxes for people who can’t afford it," he said.

Louis Hobeika, professor of economics and finance at Notre Dame University in Beirut says the political instability has to end first. 

"We are still in the cloud of war. How can changes happen in a country when we are still in conflict?" he asks.

Hobeika said that greater transparency is needed from the government to take the country forward.

"There is government inefficiency, and the public are not properly informed. If they are not informed, they will be angry."
 
Popularity contest?

Meanwhile, the lack of help from the government has forced many in southern Lebanon to turn to the opposition Hezbollah for help.

About 500,000 residents lost their homes in the Israeli bombings but one month after the war, Hezbollah contributed millions of dollars and pledged that they would rebuild the south of the country on their own.

Jihad Azour said that the government is not in competition to gain popularity amongst its citizens.

"We have been the biggest contributor ...we will not compete with other political entities," he said.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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