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Beirut rejuvenates after protesters pack up

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Latest update : 2008-05-22

The famed nightlife and teeming sidewalks of downtown Beirut are set to make a comeback in the Lebanese capital, after the Hezbollah-led opposition ordered the dismantling of a tent camp that had brought the city to a virtual standstill.

Restaurant owners in downtown Beirut prepared to reopen their businesses with a splash after government opponents ended an 18-month protest that had turned the area into a virtual ghost town.
   
Workers frantically cleaned windows and trucks delivered supplies after the Hezbollah-led opposition ordered the dismantling of a tent camp on the heels of a deal clinched on Wednesday with the Western-backed government.
   
"Today is cause for celebration," said a beaming Hassan Jaffal, 31, who manages Klub's restaurant, as the last of the tents were being removed on Wednesday night.
   
A festive mood took hold in Beirut, as thousands of balloons were released into the sky  and cafes and restaurants teemed with people celebrating the end of the sit-in that had choked off the heart of the capital since December 2006.
   
Among those celebrating was Bilal Bandakji, 36, who owns five restaurants in the area and like many of his fellow businessmen, had to let go staff or relocate in order to weather out the political storm.
   
"We will work out of one kitchen for all five... hire and train new staff. We need to start from scratch," said Bandakji, adding that he had sent a quarter of his former employees to a restaurant he has opened in Dubai.
   
Bandakji said he had spent 1.5 million dollars in rent for his five restaurants, certain that life would return to the heart of central Beirut and that the tent protest near the prime minister's office would end.
   
"We never expected this to last 550 days. Israel's attacks only lasted 33 days and we didn't even shut down for all that time," he said referring to the war between Hezbollah and Israel in the summer of 2006.
   
Statues laid on a dusty floor of the popular restaurant and night club Buddha Bar amid a deafening silence. But the back office bustled with activity.
   
"We are hiring 200 staff for Buddha Bar and another venture we are opening up," said 28-year-old entrepreneur Fadi Karam.
   
Karam chose not to abandon his downtown location, because he says: "We believe in this country... And those who left will return."
   
Karam himself left the country for five months and returned in December, thinking the crisis would be resolved.
   
Some cafes reopened their doors although they were unprepared. Tohmeh who works at the Michaud Cafe said they were only serving coffee and water but they would be ready with a full menu in two days.
   
Many Lebanese made their way to downtown Beirut at midday on Wednesday when the news first broke that the tent camp would be dismantled.
   
Some were tearful. Others hugged while church bells tolled in the downtown area as people walked about smiling and businesses began reopening their doors for the first time in over a year and a half.
   
Cleaning crews from the government-contracted private firm Sukleen in their distinctive green trucks descended on downtown Beirut to help the protesters ged rid of mattresses, panes of wood and other belongings.
   
Motorists along the "Ring" bridge overlooking the area honked their horns as they drove by. Passersby, and Lebanese army soldiers alike, looked down in relief and disbelief.
   
"Finally there is hope, it seems our political leaders woke up and felt a real sense of responsibility towards the people. Finally there is hope," said Elias Rashed, in his 50s.
   
Sanaa Osman, an employee of the Solidere real estate firm that rebuilt the devastated city center after the 1975-1990 civil war, sighed with relief.
   
Before "it was just us and the cats. Now look, the people are coming back," she added standing in front of her nearby office.
   

Date created : 2008-05-22

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