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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: When the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, the central business district of Beirut was an empty shell. Buildings stood empty with walls eaten away by thousands of bullets and artillery shells. But the downtown was rebuilt. American chains like the Nike store and TGI Friday’s opened. Beirut became a destination for tourists from around the world. But now with Hezbollah-led demonstrators camping downtown and the country in turmoil, customers are staying away and business owners are fleeing. Ben Gilbert reports from Beirut.
BEN GILBERT: Beirut’s downtown is not faring well.
I went to find my favorite coffee shop, called Casper and Gambini’s, after an interview a few weeks ago. They have good espresso and free high-speed Internet. But now, my favorite cafe is closed.
On this night, downtown Beirut is almost completely empty, except for a few men going into a nearby mosque. Up the street, Casper and Gambini’s is only one of 33 shops and restaurants closed on one street. Not even the light fixtures remain in the cafA©.
But in a mall about a mile away, another Casper and Gambini’s store is doing swift business. Owner Anthony Maalouf says closing the 8-year-old downtown flagship branch wasn’t easy.
ANTHONY MAALOUF: It brought tears to my wife’s eyes because this is where we met a few years back and it’s really empty. I visited the place last week, and all the memories just gone so it was a tough but needed business decision to take.
The cafe did good business until the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and subsequent political turmoil.
Now, the location is only a few steps from the Hezbollah-led sit-in that’s gone on for the past two months. Armed soldiers and police are everywhere. As a result of security lockdowns and closures, Maalouf says he lost $340,000 over the last two years.
But the downtown branch of the Virgin Megastore is holding out. The owner, Jihad Al Murr, sits in the store’s cafA© and looks down at the CD floor below.
JIHAD AL MURR: Unfortunately now I see there is two customers on the CD floor, but we are now working 70 percent less than 2006 in downtown branch.
Murr says he’s lost $3 million in the last six months. He’s had to layoff 50 employees. And to get to his office, he has to give his ID to Hezbollah security guards, posted to protect their nearby camp.
AL MURR: And they give me a number. So imagine how humiliating this is. Each time I want to go to my office, I have to pass by someone and get a ticket in order to enter to my office.
Murr says he’ll have to close Virgin’s downtown branch if things don’t change.
Downtown business owners have asked the government to give them a tax break, but the business owners’ pleas are just one voice in a country financially paralyzed by the current political deadlock.
In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.
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