New Leader Cracks Whip To Restore Order in Lebanon
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Bewildered Beirutis are seeing things they haven’t witnessed for nearly two decades - merchants who made fortunes out of Lebanon’s misery being rounded up, policemen towing away illegally parked cars.
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s two-week crackdown on corrupt officials, greedy merchants and tax dodgers is aimed at restoring discipline in Lebanon after the anarchy of its 1975-90 civil war, and on replenishing government coffers.
Dozens of supermarkets, department stores and pharmacies have been shuttered or fined for bookkeeping violations, selling outdated medicines or illegally marking up prices.
The measures appear to have worked. Officials at the Consumer Protection Committee said stores were lowering prices and dumping outdated food and medicines.
″Merchants have been given until March to file returns and I expect the majority will do so,″ said Jean Assaf, who heads the government tax office. ″Things are really moving - at last.″
Businessmen who for years exploited Lebanon’s chaos and paid no taxes, illegal operators of telephone systems linked to nearby Cyprus and the United States and the tens of thousands of people who steal electricity by hooking into overhead power cables are all targets of Hariri’s campaign.
Officials say Hariri, who took office Oct. 22, soon will begin pruning the civil service, where employees have been virtually immune from dismissal and many show up at work only to collect their salaries.
Hariri, a 49-year-old Sunni Muslim and self-made billionaire, declared in a Nov. 21 speech that the country could start growing again with planning and government guidance.
″By the end of spring, a new day will have dawned on Lebanon,″ he said.
The United Nations estimates that Lebanon needs around $25 billion for reconstruction, an unattainable figure unless Hariri can restore international confidence.
Hariri, whose reputation as an aggressive businessman recently has boosted the Lebanese pound, hopes to bring back an estimated $20 billion held abroad by Lebanese businessmen.
″We’re not a bankrupt country,″ Hariri declared in a recent newspaper interview. ″We’re a country that needs management and that’s what the government is introducing.″
Lebanon always had a freewheeling economy. Bribery was endemic in this former financial center of the Middle East, but everyone prospered.
During the war, central government fell apart as the country was split into sectarian cantons run by militias. The warlords blocked government reforms to safeguard their fiefdoms and the lucrative rackets they ran.
None of the three governments installed since the war ended in October 1990 was able to restore state authority.
But Hariri may be different. He has the support of Syria, Lebanon’s master, and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, where he has close ties with the royal family.
Hariri is popular among the dispirited Lebanese because he’s not part of the largely discredited political establishment. His wealth - an estimated $3 billion - puts him above corruption.
Hariri plans to rebuild Beirut’s war-shattered downtown quarter. He must contend with crater-pocked streets, an often-overflowing sewage system and a power grid usually strong enough only to provide electricity three hours a day. Hariri has restored the primacy of the police, who throughout the war were sidelined by the heavily armed militias.
Gray-uniformed traffic cops in red municipal tow trucks are now a daily sight, hauling away cars from the city’s narrow and crowded streets.
″I’m stunned. I’ve never seek traffic cops actually doing their job before,″ said bank clerk Samer Khoury, 25, as he watched the ″red monsters″ towing cars last week on Hamra Street, in west Beirut.
″Maybe this really is a new start.″