Beirut, once Paris of Mideast, loses heart

Issam Omari gazes out from his recently reopened food store in the war-ravaged heart of Beirut toward a symbol of hope he wants very much to believe in.

An army of construction workers in yellow overalls has begun restoring the former commercial heart of a Mediterranean capital, once called the Paris of the Middle East.

But Issam, like many other Lebanese these days, seems finally to have lost the capacity to hope: ''For almost nine years, since the civil war started in 1975, I've hoped for it all to end,'' he says, grilling skewered lamb and rolling it into Arabic flatbread for the construction workers' lunch break.

''But now I have set a final deadline for myself. If things are the way they are now at the end of the year, I am taking my family and leaving Lebanon.''

Never has there been a sadder New Year's season for the Lebanese, or for all those who have watched them watch as their nation was bombed and shelled in a crazy quilt of internal and external conflicts. For the first time since fighting began, Lebanon's almost irrational capacity to bounce back with each new cease-fire, to find hope in each new shift in alliances, is weakening.

The evidence comes not just from acquaintances like Issam Omari, nor from much closer friends who, like him, finally talk of packing and leaving.

Even the nation's economy, which has weathered the years of war with a marvelously illogical strength, is showing signs of decline. Although exact figures are not yet available, informed economic analysts in Beirut say that at least one key barometer of economic confidence - cash remittances from Lebanese overseas - has declined sharply this year for the first time since the war erupted.

The Lebanese pound has also experienced its greatest slippage since the war began. This is in large part a spinoff of Israel's economic crisis next door, some local economists say. Israelis have been doing a fair amount of commerce in Lebanon, if less openly than in the immediate aftermath of Israel's invasion of Lebanon last year. When the Israeli shekel was devalued this fall, Israeli businessmen seemed to buy up sizable amounts of the stronger Lebanese pound in south Lebanese banks, helping downward pressure on the pound.

There are also concerns that the city's traditionally solid private banking network may be in for trouble, should a recent decline in local business activity go on much longer. ''The banks have been rolling over bad loans in hopes of a revival,'' says one local business analyst. ''This can't go on forever, especially if economic and political problems start really reinforcing one another, as the decline in remittances implies is possible.''

Civilian Beirut, meanwhile, seems in shell shock. During the worst of the fighting, the city instinctively found ways to survive. On both sides of Beirut's Christian-Muslim divide, the civilian majority sought a measure of sanity by steadfastly refusing to believe there was a war on.

But in the last year all that has changed. It is not so much because what Beirutis euphemistically call the ''security situation'' has gotten worse. It is more that, with Israel's invasion and the arrival of the peacekeeping mission afterward, the city let its psychological guard down. Then, this fall, a sudden Israeli redeployment ushered in battles and massacres in the Shouf hills near Beirut.

Another blow to Beirut's morale coincided with this: imposition for the first time of a relatively strict evening curfew, as the central government sought to reassert control over local militias.

As the fighting in the hills hit important electric installations, power outages hit the capital on a scale greater than at any time in the past few years. To stroll down west Beirut's fashionable Hamra Street nowadays, as gasoline-powered generators roar in front of almost every shop, is to wonder whether you've stumbled into the midst of some weird moto-cross rally.

''We had always somehow assumed,'' says one prominent Beiruti, ''that if and when a more powerful outside force - particularly the US - intervened, our country would be jolted back into peace.

''Now what else is left? The Israelis invaded. The Palestinians have largely been driven out. The Americans have sent their marines. The French and Italians are here. If that fails - if, as seems more and more likely - the West, too, gives up, we are condemned.''

This Beiruti, though a Christian, has long since joined most other civilians here in losing faith in Lebanon's political godfathers and militia chiefs. He does credit President Amin Gemayel with a genuine effort to transcend his own roots in an attempt to reconstitute Lebanon.

Many other Beirut civilians - Muslim and Christian - credit the President with good faith, although the longer the fighting continues, the thinner Mr. Gemayel's credibility seems to have worn among the Muslims.

But many less well-to-do Beirut Muslims are most embittered by what they see as progressively smaller likelihood of reform to give Muslims a greater voice in running traditionally Christian-dominated Lebanon. Yet on one point large numbers of ordinary Beirutis do agree: The President's task is almost impossibly enormous.

One Christian tries to explain why: ''The President is trapped. He cannot control the Phalangist fighters. He cannot risk the concessions to the poorer Shiite Muslims and other communities that must form the basis of any genuine national entente. And the foreigners - Israelis, Syrians, Americans, or others - are less interested in helping President Gemayel than in either furthering their own interests or protecting their own forces here.''

''My fear,'' says one newspaper editor, ''is that the Americans are soon going to turn their back on the whole thing, and get the marines home before US presidential elections'' next year.

The President has been trying to piece together some formula for stability in contacts with the United States, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and various internal power brokers. He has also implanted what one economist terms a ''reconstruction infrastructure'' - including various new decisionmaking bodies and deficit-spending works projects - that ''in the event of peace, could in fact lead to a rather prompt and impressive take-off.''

But meanwhile, he has been left to start with symbols, not substance, of the ''national entente'' key to any stable peace. The idea, clearly, is to use whatever limited means are at hand to recreate a sense of nationhood.

Traffic police, who for years ventured only an occasional assault on parking violators by letting the air out of their tires, are again issuing tickets. Some civilians - ''my contribution to the idea of Lebanon,'' says one woman - are even paying them. The growl of garbage trucks has also resumed, although they still seem to be fighting an uphill battle against refuse and rats.

Posters of the President are everywhere. But in the east, portraits of his younger brother Bashir - the Phalangist militia leader who was assassinated shortly after his election as president - still seem to dominate.

The bid to rebuild the old commercial center is another important symbolic move. The multimillion-dollar project, spearheaded by Lebanese-born Saudi businessman Rafik Hariri, is aimed at reviving an area that embodies the more peaceful days when the capital was a Mideast business center.

Also, it was the old downtown - now a grid of shell-pocked facades - in which Lebanese of different faiths and classes mixed with one another, even as the slide toward national distintegration began in the 1970s.

The greatest symbol of all is the Lebanese Army. After an overnight artillery assault this fall, it retook much of Muslim west Beirut from the leftist militiamen who had ruled the city since 1975. The President also negotiated the Army into the Christian east of the city.

The rival militias are suddenly invisible. And one not insignificant accomplishment of Mr. Gemayel's reconstituted national Army is that, despite some defections, it has not so far split into rival religious components as it did during the main 1975-76 civil war. Yet Beirutis say the militias' arsenals survive, hidden rather than seized or scrapped. And this, above all, is what is driving Issam Omari abroad.

''I have a wife and three kids. The oldest is nine years old. Sometimes I tell them that these are play bullets and play bombs, that they're just testing the planes that fly over. But my oldest daughter I can't tell such things any more. . . .''

Arching an arm toward Beirut's reconstruction crews, he adds with a sigh: ''They can build it all over again, maybe even better than before the war. . . . But we have learned. A few hours' shelling and fighting and it can all be torn down again. When there is a political solution to the crisis, then that is something different.''

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