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French Version

Merchants bemoan latest damper on customer traffic

'Who's going to decorate a tree now?'

Lebanon's capital ground to a halt on Wednesday following the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel. Streets emptied of traffic, shaken residents stayed indoors and shops remained shuttered from Achrafieh to Hamra.

The few merchants who did resume business braced themselves for economic fallout from the latest incident of political violence and prepared to sacrifice yet another consumer season to the perennial and elusive forces of instability.

Malek Halawi, the manager of Snoopies toy store on the Old Sidon Road, had no choice but to stay open in the hopes of making enough money to offset his summer losses, though he planned to close Thursday in honor of Gemayel's funeral. If Halawi cannot pay his landlord the $2,000 he owes by the end of November, he fears will be forced to vacate the shop he has resided in for the past nine years, he said.

"If I can't pay my rent I should have to leave, but business has been bad since the war," he said, miming a nosedive with his arm to illustrate the point.

Snoopies lost virtually all of its income for the months of July and August and has yet to receive indemnity payments from the government, Halawi said. He had been banking on the Christmas season to give the toy market a much-needed boost, but his hopes were dashed on Tuesday.

"The only new shipments we got [since the August 14 cease-fire] were ornaments and Christmas trees last week," Halawi said, gesturing to a row of plastic pines on the sidewalk. "But who's going to decorate a tree now, when a Christian leader was just assassinated?"

Sales in the retail sector decreased an average of 10-15 percent during the 34-day conflict, according to a survey of economic losses by private statistics tracker Infopro. Luxury products not only suffered the biggest blow from the conflict, but have been the slowest to recover. About 70 percent of toy and car retailers have defaulted on loan payments during the fourth quarter of 2006.

Though more stores in Muslim and mixed neighborhoods remained open on Wednesday than those in predominately Christian enclaves of Beirut, patrons were scarce across town.

One building materials shop in Sin al-Fil conspicuously went about business as usual to deliver tile orders to clients on time.

"The economic situation obliges us to stay open, and we have clients who still want materials today," said owner Saleem al-Asmar. No one had asked him to shut his store as of Wednesday morning, and in any case he said he would refuse to comply with such a request.

"The Kataeb are a part of the people," he said, referring to the Christian political party, which asked some Beirut businesses to close after Gemayel's assassination on Tuesday. "Since they are not a public institution they cannot compel anyone to stay open or not," Asmar said.

But almost all retailers, restaurants, and shops remained shut in Achrafieh on Wednesday. Starbucks in Sassine Square opened its doors at 2:00 p.m. at the instructions of the company's MENA corporate headquarters.

A few Gemmayzeh markets and one restaurant, Le Chef, resumed operations despite the Kataeb's Tuesday evening request that they remain shuttered until Thursday.

Charbel Chemile, the head waiter at the neighborhood's most famous greasy-spoon diner, said they had almost no Lebanese customers come in to eat - although they received more delivery orders than usual - and that most of their lunch-time patrons were French expats, since all restaurants in Achrafieh were closed.

"Everyone closed out of respect for the Kataeb, because his father and grandfather started out here, this was their area," Charbel said, before gesturing to a photo of the late Pierre Gemayel now hanging level with the images of Gibran Tueni and May Chidiac strung between the buildings on each side of Gouraud Street.

"Look, that photo used to be down here, but they moved it last night."

Paul Ariss, the president of the Restaurant, Cafe and Hotel syndicate, said he did not direct members to close, but expects most to do so on Thursday in keeping with the request of the March 14 ruling coalition. Ariss was more optimistic than most about the fate of Lebanon's hospitality sector.

"Listen, We've been affected since 2005 and we keep on sinking deeper and deeper. First the war, and then everyone has been waiting for a clash between parties," Ariss said.

"If the martyrdom of Pierre Gemayel brings all parties back to the hiwar (dialogue) table than maybe it won't have been in vain, but if we go back to the way things were than the entire tourism industry is doomed."

Beirut 23-11-2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star

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