Thursday, December 21, 2006

Business leaders put heads together to 'save' economy

Business leaders put heads together to 'save' economy
'We are shouting and screaming but no one seems to notice'

By Osama Habib
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: In what looked like a small political rally, hundreds of bankers, businessmen and merchants held a meeting at Beirut's Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel on Wednesday to condemn the standoff between the government and the opposition over he latter's demand for more influence in Cabinet. The press conference was held under the slogan "Save the Economy, Save Lebanon," and organizers distributed stickers saying "I Love Life" in English, Arabic and French. But despite a rousing speech by Adnan Kassar, president of the economic committee of the Federation of the Arab Chambers of Commerce, the mood in the hall seemed bleak. "I don't think the politicians will budge from their demands. We are shouting and screaming but no one seems to notice us," one trader told The Daily Star. He said a business delegation had met with different political groups to explain the magnitude of the economic problems caused by the massive siti-in in the capital, but that none of the groups showed signs being ready to solve the problem.

The opposition groups behind the sit-in are seeking a greater share of government power and early parliamentary elections. Their demands have been rejected by the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who has called for a new round of dialogue. Last month, business leaders called for a two-day nationwide strike in an attempt to drive home their point with the country's politicians. But most retailers and businesses did not comply with the call to strike, citing the cost of not working in an already difficult economic environment. The deep political division in the country became more visible at Wednesday's meeting when Adnan Fakahni, head of a commercial association in Mar Elias, grabbed the microphone to say that Beirut should not be the battlefront of factions who want to settle scores with the government. The comment prompted a sharp reaction from another participant, who advised Fakahni to keep his political views to himself.

Kassar made a passionate plea to the warring parties to set aside their differences for the sake of the economy. "The business community asks politicians to find a lasting solution to the crisis in Lebanon in a manner that will serve the interest of the homeland," he said in his speech. Kassar reiterated that the business community fully backs the initiative of the Arab League in finding an acceptable solution for Lebanon. He also called on the opposition to spare the economy and end the sit-in Downtown. "We have one message for the politicians: No to divisions and strife and yes for national dialogue," Kassar said. Meeting participants said that the volume of business had fallen dramatically since the sit-in began on December 1.

Leila Karameh, the head of the Women's Business Association, proposed that a group of traders visit the sit-in to attempt to persuade the protesters to call off their strike. "I am not calling for a demonstration, but it would be great if we showed the protesters that the sit-in is harming business activity all over the country," Karameh said. Kassar tried in a diplomatic way to brush aside the call. "This is a good idea but we should adopt other realistic ways to solve the crisis in the country," he said. Kassar later read from a statement issued by the economic committee. Among his points were calls to convene an economic conference that would address all issues pertaining to the Lebanese economy. The committee also said the Paris III donor conference should be held on time to salvage the economy. Some of the participants expressed fear that the political situation may force donor states to delay the Paris III conference. Officials are hoping grants from the conference will provide relief from Lebanon's yawning public debt.

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