Life in Lebanon: government a mess but private sector booms

The Lebanese-born photographer chuckled as we wound our way up the hill outside Beirut, heading for the president's palace at Baabda. We had just passed a barricade manned by two carbine-carrying Lebanese Army sentries.

"Here it is," the photographer said, nodding toward the palace grounds, "sovereign Lebanon. This is what the Lebanese government controls. . . ." He paused and added pointedly: ". . . on a good day."

When we arrived at the palace itself -- a modern, not particularly exotic building, businesslike Lebanese in style --day for President Elias Sarkis. An artillery round (fired by who knows) had whistled out of the night sky 12 hours earlier, smashing windows in a room on the east side of the building. Workmen were edging through the foyer with big sheets of plate glass.

Not even this little acre of Lebanon, it seemed, was safely in the hands of the Lebanese government.

On the way up to Baabda Palace from west Beirut, we had been waved through checkpoints manned by, in order, Syrian soldiers, Al Fatah soldiers, Syrians again. Then came an eerie section of Beirut known as Galerie Seman, which is a crossing point along the "green line": modern apartments perforated mercilessly by bullets, gas stations charred and twisted, houses with gaping holes. Then came deserted Lebanese Army sentry boxes, red striped with a faded cedar of Lebanon painted on the side. Then Phalange soldiers. More Syrians. And finally the Lebanese Army sentries.

And that was the quick way to the palace! Had we wound around the countryside, we could have passed through areas controlled by militias belonging to pan-Arabists, Nasserites, militant Shiite Muslims, right-wing Christians, Druzes, and any of a dozen Palestinian factions. Another month, another shake of the Lebanese kaleidoscope, and another set of fractured political groupings would emerge.

At the palace, a sincere but rather too relaxed honor guard attempted to lend dignity to the arrival of American emissary Philip C. Habib, who has been trying to keep Lebanon from becoming a battlefield between the Syrians and the Israelis.

Mr. Habib's mission to prevent war is one thing. Healing Lebanon's wounds is quite another. In fact, many diplomats and military men, especially those in Israel, argue that there is really no sovereign Lebanon any longer.

They are both right and wrong. There is little central authority. What remains comes by virtue of the deft juggling performed daily by President Sarkis and Prime Minister Shafiq Al-Wazzan -- and is at the mercy of the artillery officers around town. But few people within the borders of the country actually want it to break up. As a matter of fact, most factions muster and demonstrate not in order to secede but in order to "liberate all Lebanon" from (your choice): imperialism, foreign powers, Syrians, Palestinians, Israelis, Islamic absolutism, Christian hegemony, Zionist expansionism, and all the etceteras that make up the thousand revolutions under the Middle Eastern sun.

Yes, there is still a Lebanon. And thus it undoubtedly will continue -- at least in name. But whether it is respected, peaceful, and capable of governing itself is quite another question.

Because of the lawlessness of the past six years, the central government is barely able to collect enough taxes to cover its own operating costs and relies greatly on foreign aid from Arab nations and from the West (Saudi Arabia, France , and the United States). Because of the decay, the government has had a difficult time assessing its own state of affairs. Independent analyses, however, almost always conclude that the public sector is a shambles, the private sector booming.

Few roads have been resurfaced since 1975, water and electricity are erratic, the telephone system is falling apart. The port and airport are open between periods of hostility, but traffic is minimal. Schools and hospitals, which operate between cannon bombardments (the cannons are aimed at snipers, who often fire from such locations), are run by private charities.

The Lebanese Army is fragmented. Optimistic estimates put its strength at 18 ,000. A force of 40,000 is believed necessary to reassert government control. Even deploying these supposedly nonaligned Lebanese soldiers is a task: A Muslim contingent must be placed across confrontation lines from Muslims (though Shiites must not face pro-Iraqi Baathists, etc.).

"The general fallout [from the latest Syrian-Phalange battles] is that the Army supports the Christians," notes a military observer. "There's a lot of work ahead to make this into a national army."

The government, with American and Syrian approval, continues to pack off Army units to southern Lebanon to try to reestablish control along the border. The Israelis and Israeli-backed forces of Maj. Saad Haddad object but have not actually fought the Lebanese regulars since March.

In the north, deployment is even more tentative. One of the peace points Mr. Habib is thought to be carrying around the Middle East calls for sending Lebanese soldiers and/or policemen into Zahle, possibly into the Sannin Heights, and possibly into embattled central Beirut. Syrians and Phalangists would theoretically pull back for this.

The problem, however, is with the Muribitoun, a leftist Lebanese paramilitary group; SAIQA, a Syrian-oriented faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization; and a dozen other groups set up for arcane reasons. These maintain the Lebanese Army is still too sectarian (too Phalange-oriented) to be given charge anywhere. Syria, in effect, openly accepts the Army's role but quietly encourages the leftist stand.

With all these problems, there is a silver lining of sorts: Lebanese business.

The private-sector boom has occurred largely because of the tremendous underground economy that has arisen since 1975. The Lebanese (descendants of the ancient Phoenicians) still bring in money through legitimate concerns: agricultural exports, banking, merchandising. But much money now is made from the hashish crops of the Bekaa Valley, black-market trade in the ports up and down the coast, gunrunning, and car theft.

The price for having what may be the ultimate laissez faire economy in the world is high. Great quantities of time and expense go to baksheeshm (routine bribery) in order to secure a telephone, a driver's license, a cab ride across the green line, a circumvention of the customs office. The emigration of technicians and professionals has weakened the country. Internal migration has added to social woes. Many international businesses have moved their regional headquarters to safer locations: Europe, the Gulf, Egypt, Cyprus.

Still, there is plenty of capital around, and new banks are being opened every month or so, despite tighter incorporation requirements. But little money is going into productive investment such as industrial or agricultural projects. Mostly the money goes into illegal buildings put up on infringed property to take advantage of the extreme overcrowding of the livable sections of the country.

Over Turkish coffee last week a civil servant talked about Lebanon's problems and then began to recall the country as it once was. He sighed and looked dreamily out the window, ignoring the cacophony of horns and the popping of automatic weapons.

"Ah Lebanon, so sweet. La dolce vita. A small country with such a beautiful nature. It was so good. Perha ps too good to last."

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