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    Lebanon’s Real Ills

    Lebanon is accustomed to life on the edge. Recent political standoffs and increasingly feisty rhetoric has left the country in a somewhat familiar place.

    But as the Cabinet impasse prolongs still further, and regional tumult ripples the waters around Beirut, Lebanon finds itself teetering over a new abyss: the economy.

    Investments and bookings are down, deficits and shortages up. Each week the inevitable and incremental increase in the price of fuel and gas is announced without fanfare, without explanation as to when rises will stop or where, exactly, the money is going.

    Banking has taken a hit, as neighborly troubles continue to take their toll on Beirut’s financial hub. The jazz age of positive investment post-2006 is running out of steam; developments lay half-finished while illegal construction blossoms.

    A disastrous agricultural situation has led to a decrease in homegrown exports and an increase in imports. Lebanon, traditionally one of the main regional producers of fruit and vegetables finds itself in 2011 ruing regional instability, as produce originally destined for places such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq and the Gulf ends up rotting on shelves. The last thing they need in Cairo right now is more Lebanese apples.

    In addition, the decline in the number of foreigners visiting Lebanon should be cause for drastic concern. With airport arrival and hotel occupancy rates taking year-on-year nosedives, it is difficult to argue (try as some bluffers might) that 2011’s tourist season will dig the country out of the red. There is no reason to assume that foreigners will flock back to a country that is chronically overcrowded, increasingly prohibitively expensive, wracked by traffic jams and paralyzed by roving blackouts. These are not new problems, but their current severity makes tackling each more pressing than ever before.

    While the cause of such neglect is widespread, its effects are not uniformly felt. As always, it is the poorest who are suffering most, irrespective of sect. As usual, wealthy decision makers seem to care least. Those at the highest echelons of power carry on as if nothing has happened, either unable or unwilling to notice the poverty from within their blacked-out windows. They will.

    History and recent regional events show that the hungry and neglected will remain cowed for only so long. Economic unfairness and mismanagement were major contributing factors to the wave of Arab protests which have already unseated two erstwhile dictators, once similarly unmoved by the poverty of plain folk.

    For all its political ills Lebanon’s real disease looks increasingly to be its economy. Fail to take immediate action and even rich decision makers will not be immune to the pain.

    The Daily Star
    28.04.2011

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