Thursday, March 01, 2007

Downtown merchants lose patience with standoff

Downtown merchants lose patience with standoff
By Agence France Presse (AFP)

BEIRUT: Three months after the launch of an opposition sit-in in central Beirut, the area's once vibrant shops and cafes are struggling to cope with a drastic fall in passing trade and diving sales. Streets are nearly deserted and storefronts are plastered with signs that sum up the situation: "Total liquidation," and "Sales: 70 percent off." "We are at the end of our tether," said Diana Batergi, who runs a children's clothing store. "My business has fallen to 5 percent of what it was last year and despite it all I still have to pay $1,000 a square meter for rent."

The Downtown area has returned from the brink before, and many of its buildings' bullet-riddled facades, pockmarked from artillery scars incurred during the 1975-90 Civil War, were refurbished in the late 1990s. The massive reconstruction project run by Solidere, the brainchild of former Premier Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in a February 2005 bomb blast, transformed the area into a luxury pedestrian sector with 500 upscale boutiques and 120 restaurants and open-air cafes. But now, with opposition protesters maintaining a sprawling tent city on a square in the heart of Downtown since December 1 in a bid to topple the Western-backed government, business owners are facing an unprecedented struggle. "It's a plot against Beirut and the work done by Rafik Hariri," said Jamal Baghdadi, blasting the Hizbullah-led opposition for choking the shopping district where his craft shop has stood for decades. "I run my father's shop, which he inherited from his father. The family opened it in 1926 under French Mandate. It survived the bombardments of the Civil War and now vile politicians want to force me to pack my bags."

Not so long ago, seats on the cafe terraces were filled with wealthy visitors mainly from the Gulf indulging in Lebanese dishes and puffing on water pipes. Now, on Maarad Street, bordered with archways dating to the early 1900s, all that can be seen are scores of empty tables. "Our orders used to be in the hundreds, now they have fallen to around 20 a day," said Hussein Mukashmar, a waiter at Starbuck's who is counting on his wages to pay for his studies in hotel management. "If I am laid off, that's it for my future," he added. Seventy businesses have already closed their doors, leaving around 400 laid-off employees in the streets, according to restaurant union chief Paul Ariss. The Solidere renovation area has been divided in two by the protest, with a full one-quarter occupied by Hizbullah demonstrators and their Christian opposition allies who are demanding a new government and a greater say in it. The result of the political deadlock is anger and desperation for many business owners. "We should throw stones at the politicians from all sides," fumed children's clothing boutique owner Batergi. "I hope God's wrath descends on them and their children."

Patrick Khoury, a supporter of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian opposition group, tried in vain to reason with the angry business owners. "We have nothing against you. We are putting pressure on this corrupt government. Just be patient awhile longer. If we get rid of them everyone will win," he told them. Indifferent to the controversy, an elderly gap-toothed merchant ambled by, holding out - by force of habit - tourist flyers to attract invisible shoppers to his wares. He called out in a twangy voice that echoed as if from beyond the grave, and his words rang like a premonition. "Souvenirs of Beirut," he said. "Souvenirs of a bygone Lebanon." - AFP

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