Lebanon crisis stalls reconstruction

Kai Ryssdal Jan 24, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is on his way to Paris today. He’s headed for an international donor conference to line up support for the battered Lebanese economy.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice will be at that conference, too. Before she got on her plane this afternoon, she announced the U.S. will chip in $770 million.

Lebanon’s been shaky at best since the Israeli invasion this summer. Hezbollah-led protests and general strikes have been going on for months. Violence yesterday essentially shut down most of the country.

Anthony Shadid’s the Washington Post’s correspondent in Beirut. Mr. Shadid, good to have you with us.

ANTHONY SHADID: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

RYSSDAL: Protests, as you wrote in the Post this morning, shut down the whole country yesterday. What’s happening now?

SHADID: It was kind of a remarkable day, when contrasted to what happened yesterday. The opposition decided last night to lift the blockades that it imposed on hundreds, perhaps thousands of roads. Life pretty much returned to normal today. The airport was reopened and passengers were leaving as usual. The biggest sign of what had happened yesterday were the trucks and bulldozers that were moving rubble and piles of dirt, uprooted trees that had blocked roads the day before. You know, given the violence that we saw yesterday, given the tension that was in the country, it was pretty remarkable how quickly the country bounced back.

RYSSDAL: How much of what’s happening do you think is the result of the war this summer?

SHADID: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with the war, and in fact it’s probably a direct consequence in some ways. It remade the landscape, the political landscape in Lebanon. And Hezbollah, at least in its perception of the situation in the country, thought it had to act. I mean what we’re seeing in so many ways in the country today is an existential conflict. Both sides see the victory of the other in existential terms. If the other side loses, they win. And that’s how the battle is being fought. What we’re seeing is Hezbollah fearing that the country is falling within the American orbit, that the government is not confrontational enough with Israel. That its status as an opposition group, an armed opposition group, is being threatened. Basically, what both sides are contesting is the identity of the country and the direction of its future politics. There’s I think a certain cynicism in Lebanon today that it’s gonna take a lot more bloodshed for there to be a break in the deadlock.

RYSSDAL: There’s a big international donor’s conference in Paris tomorrow, as you know. How much of what’s happening in terms of getting Western aid into Lebanon . . . is the West and the United States playing catch-up financially with Hezbollah, who’s on the ground and who can put roofs over peoples’ heads?

SHADID:There was a huge amount of aid that did come in in the first weeks after the war ended last summer. Some estimates are that Hezbollah had as much as $300 million ready for reconstruction. What we’ve seen in more recent months, though, is actually kind of a . . . almost an interruption in reconstruction. There isn’t all that much being done, either in Beirut or in Southern Lebanon, which was devastated during the war.

I was driving through parts of the southern suburbs of the capital, which serves as Hezbollah’s stronghold. And although you’ve seen rubble removed, you really haven’t seen much reconstruction going on. And I think a lot of that is because the country is wrapped in this crisis, and it’s a crisis that’s deepening. And in a lot of ways, it’s a crisis probably as important as any since the civil war ended in 1990. The government has staked a lot of its reputation on the success of this conference in Paris. On getting as much as $5 billion in grants and loans. In some ways, it’s become the government’s only priority. I mean, it’s a government that’s pretty much looking to ensure its survival at this point. So to the government at least, Paris, and what happens in Paris, is of utmost importance.

RYSSDAL: What happens if Prime Minister Siniora doesn’t come home with $5 billion?

SHADID: It’s unlikely that the government’s allies are gonna create a situation like that. The United States has promised support, the European Union has already pledged $500 million in grants and loans as part of this aid package. I think you are gonna see those allies try to at least make this successful in some level, because it’s a statement of support for the government. Political support as much as economic support. And the government’s allies see this as a confrontation or crisis that goes beyond Lebanon’s borders. The United States clearly sees this as a struggle with Iran, with Syria, over who has more influence in Lebanon, and by default, in the region.

RYSSDAL: What’s the government promising in return for this money? Economic reforms, I’d imagine, and other things too?

SHADID: That’s right. The government’s unveiled a pretty ambitious reform package. A lot of it has to do with privatization, with new taxes. With a way of reducing the budget deficit. It’s a reform program that’s been controversial here in Lebanon. A lot of people see the taxes as regressive, as adding to the public debt in the country, which already is more than $40 billion. So you are seeing a lot of controversy over exactly what the government program is going to do.

But I think on another level, wrapped in this crisis as it is, it’s difficult to see the government pushing ahead with too ambitious of a program. Like I said, its headquarters right now is behind barbed wire. There’s a sit-in that’s been going on for two months, and scores of tents outside its doors. For it to do something all that ambitious would be difficult, given the circumstances on the ground these days.

RYSSDAL: Anthony Shadid with The Washington Post in Beirut. Mr. Shadid, thank you so much for your time.

SHADID: My pleasure.

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