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French Version

French expert says 'politics' stifles e-commerce in Lebanon (Daily Star)

EU project to spend 1.7 million Euros to revive sector
Statistics show Internet access costs up to 460 times less in Europe

E-commerce revenues are surging around the world, but Lebanese firms are plagued by a series of vague and unpredictable obstacles stemming from their government's failure to carry out stated reforms and pass laws drafted by members of parliament.

Eight e-commerce-related draft laws have been blocked since 2000, according to Alain Jean, project manager for Ecomleb, a European Union assistance program attached to the Economy Ministry.

"I don't know why or by whom ... clearly it was a political issue," he says nonchalantly.

In contrast to Egypt - which, like Lebanon, began drafting e-commerce legislation in 2000 - there are no laws covering electronic transactions here, and no protection for online consumers. Thus, "e-contracts have no legal value," he says.

Ecomleb explores a host of other mysterious challenges to sector growth in the debut issue of its quarterly journal that will be distributed for free. It says Lebanon's technology sector lags far behind former Soviet states like Estonia and Arab states that it once led such as Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

A section entitled "Dossier Lebanon: Why is Internet so expensive?" highlights the whopping disparity between the cost of high-speed connections here and those in Europe. The report says a 1024k leased line in Lebanon is priced at $11,500 per month while a DSL connection of the same speed is sold for just $25 per month in Europe - 460 times less expensive.

The report also questions the lack of ADSL technology in Lebanon - which is now available in Syria - despite official promises to release the service in late 2003.

The "blockage" is not a matter of finance or technical difficulties but rather the result of chronic interference, the report repeatedly alleges. It cites the "involvement of politics in nearly any decision, even for the smallest technical issue."

But back at his modest office in the Economy Ministry, Jean, a chipper French national, says he is still optimistic about Ecomleb's mandate. The 1.7 million euro project began in January and is expected to run for 18 months.

In addition to publishing the quarterly journal, it will offer 130,000 euros worth of technical assistance to local e-commerce firms who apply to Ecomleb by Nov. 15 at www.ecomleb.org. Interested firms will receive advice from local consultants on marketing and business development with 80 percent of costs paid for by the EU.

Ecomleb is also in the process of completing draft legislation on 10 critical areas of e-commerce related law, with the finished work passed over to parliament. "What will happen? We do not know," Jean says with a smile.

At least 75 e-commerce sites are operating in Lebanon, but only 27 responded to a recent Ecomleb market survey. Because of local firms reluctance to release sales figures, Jean said it was impossible to put an accurate dollar value on the industry but estimated it to be worth around $1 million to $2 million. Consultancy services will focus on targeting Lebanese expatriates who comprise the largest customer base for local companies.

He touted the efficiency of e-commerce saying it drastically reduced prices for consumers in developed countries, with some online sites offering 50 percent discounts for plane tickets. Ecomleb figures show that e-commerce in the U.K. grew by 125 percent in the first quarter of 2004, and the industry was projected to be worth over $82 billion in the U.S. this year.

"Things are changing in Lebanon," Jean says. "Everyone is realizing we have to work together in the drafting of laws - I'm sure it will work."

Beirut 25-10-2004
Habib Battah
The Daily Star

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