Just when Beirut thought life couldn't worsen ...

The current political crisis in Lebanon has raised fears that living conditions in Beirut could become even worse than they already are. With rival governments in Christian east Beirut and the mainly Muslim western quarter vying for control of government ministries, many people fear that vital services, already severely strained, may be used as a pawn in the struggle.

So far, leaders on both sides have said they will try to avoid actions which will harm the people.

``We will try to insulate government bodies from the current political struggle as far as possible, because it's not in our interest to split and destroy the surviving state administrations,'' said Selim Hoss, prime minister of the Syrian-backed West Beirut caretaker government.

``But if we fail, it'll be a disaster,'' Mr. Hoss added.

As the Israeli siege demonstrated in 1982, west Beirut would likely suffer most. Situated on a coastal promontory, most of its vital services depend on the Christian-controlled hinterland.

Living conditions, particularly in west Beirut, are already depressing. Electricity and water are cut frequently. Telephones work sporadically, and often not even with nearby exchanges.

Shortages of vital commodities are also frequent - at the moment, it is bottled gas, used universally for cooking. Street corners are piled with uncollected garbage, on which rats and wild cats thrive. Buildings and cars all show the effect of neglect and demoralization: peeling, grubby facades, littered sidewalks, and battered, unwashed vehicles are the norm.

Those who can afford to, have managed to find a way of living even with power and water cuts. Many of the smarter apartment blocks have their own generators which even operate the elevators. The owners have also dug their own artesian wells to provide water independent of the state supply.

Most restaurants and many stores have their own generators, too, often placed outside on the sidewalk. A walk down once-fashionable Hamra Street during a power cut can be a noisy experience.

But many ordinary people cannot afford such items. And even those who can would be ultimately hit by a real economic war, since even generators and pumps depend on fuel supplies.

The electricity company announced good news last week: six hours of power cuts a day, on a rotating schedule. For many, this was a considerable improvement on what they had been getting.

``In our area, we were until recently only getting three or four hours of electricity a day,'' said Lillian Dagher, an office worker and mother of three. ``We could not run the refrigerator. That meant shopping every day, and throwing a lot of food away. My mother-in-law says she's longing for a glass of iced water.''

``Water used to come only for a few hours every six days,'' she adds. ``It's just not enough. Now we've moved to a new building with a well. But the water is getting increasingly saline, so we have to buy bottled water to drink.''

The collapse of the Lebanese pound to undreamed-of levels has also introduced rampant inflation which has hit ordinary people hard. Until recent years, the pound was surprisingly firm at around six to the US dollar. Now it is about 400.

To keep pace, the Central Bank has issued new bank notes worth 500 and 1,000 pounds.

On top off all these daily worries, the collapse of the Lebanese presidency and the threat of partition have taken a heavy toll on morale. Many people had been hanging on, hoping that the presidential election would be a turning-point in Lebanon's seemingly endless crisis.

``Everybody was waiting for the election before doing anything like decorating the house, buying a refrigerator, getting married or taking a vacation,'' said Doris Haddad.

``Now everybody feels lost. They are just taking things day by day. But we adapt very quickly. At first we thought: no president, two governments, partition - my God. But in practice, things at the moment are still much the same.''

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