One of the most important articles I have ever read about Lebanon.
For most Westerners, the words “downtown Beirut” conjure up two distinct images: a farrago of bullet-scarred buildings, car bombs and machine-gun-toting militiamen, and a glitzy, picturesque pedestrian mall. Nobody remembers Wadi Abu Jamil, the old Jewish quarter of downtown Beirut, a warren of winding alleys, antique Ottoman and French Mandate houses, and a lonely crumbling synagogue. By the mid-1990s, it was home to everything the Lebanese government would rather forget. Most of those who lived there were Shiites from the south of Lebanon, routed from their homes by the Israeli occupation and shunted into the neglected neighborhood by a city that didn’t want them.
But somebody wanted Wadi Abu Jamil. Solidere, the private company that had the contract to rebuild the city center, was determined to raze the old downtown by any means necessary. So when the Ayad family refused to leave their home in February 1996, Solidere dispatched a crew of Syrian and Egyptian guest workers to begin tearing down the four-story building–with the family still inside. As the laborers began to dismantle the building, not surprisingly it collapsed. Seven workmen and six of the Ayads, including a 2-year-old boy and a 3-month-old baby, were crushed to death by the march of reconstruction.
Rafik Hariri, the billionaire prime minister who founded Solidere, expressed his “sorrow” while attending a banquet at a five-star Beirut hotel.
Instead of letting the rebuilding founder amid the factional infighting and corruption that curse the Lebanese state to this day, Hariri proposed an alternative: A private company, not subject to civil-service hiring requirements, would use the authority of the state to seize several hundred acres of privately owned land. Freed from the shackles of bureaucracy, this new company would revitalize the shellshocked old city center. And if the 20,000 or so souls who lived or owned land downtown were upset at being forced to render it up, the company had a plan for them: The value of their claims would be determined by special committees–paid for, indirectly, by Solidere–that would award them compensation in the form of Solidere stock. If Kenneth Lay had been governor of Texas and granted Enron sweeping powers to seize Texans’ homes and land, giving the homeowners nothing but Enron stock in return, it would have been something like Solidere.
The deal was negotiated between Hariri’s company, Hariri’s government and one of Hariri’s former employees, who was head of Lebanon’s reconstruction authority.