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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Easing security restrictions, Beirut hopes to revive downtown business district

Street fairs and travelling food markets attract thousands 

Beiurt mayor Jamal Itani (wearing sunglasses) at a street festival in downtown Beirut on Jan 21, 2018. Security restrictions that had hurt businesses in the area have recently been eased. Photo by David Enders
Beiurt mayor Jamal Itani (wearing sunglasses) at a street festival in downtown Beirut on Jan 21, 2018. Security restrictions that had hurt businesses in the area have recently been eased. Photo by David Enders

Thousands of people on Sunday turned out for a street fair in downtown Beirut's Nejmeh Square, an event that business owners hope will mark a turning point for the area's largely deserted district.

Though rebuilt to great fanfare in the 1990s after the civil war left it in ruins, political instability and security restrictions in the last decade turned Beirut’s downtown business district into a near-ghost town.

But in a move last month set to bring the abandoned quarter back to life, speaker of parliament Nabih Berri ordered that security restrictions be eased.

The fair follows a New Year’s eve celebration attended by prime minister Saad Hariri and thousands of revelers.

“The prime minister pushed the button on New Year’s eve to revive Nejmeh Square,” said Beirut mayor Jamal Itani as he greeted people in front of the square’s iconic clock tower on Sunday. “It has been dead for 10 years.”

The municipality is planning to offer financial incentives to encourage businesses to return to the area. Nejmeh Square sits in front of the parliament building, where entry to vehicle and pedestrians has been greatly restricted for years. As a result many businesses were forced to shut their doors.

The situation took a turn for the worst after protests in 2015 over the government’s inability to dispose of garbage turned violent.

Hussein Nasrallah, the owner of Café Supreme, a small restaurant near the square, said it had been five years since he last had so many customers.

“We stayed open because we didn’t want to close,” Mr Nasrallah said, noting that many nearby businesses hadn’t survived. “We did our best, but we lost money.”

“We’re glad the municipality is trying to revive downtown,” he added.

Souk El Akel, a travelling street food market set up 35 booths on Sunday selling everything from traditional Lebanese to international fare.

“We are planning to do this each week,” said Andre Abdullah, a partner in Souk El Akel.

Founded a little over two years ago, the souk itself has been a success story.

“In Lebanon, people have many differences,” Mr Abdullah said. “But food is one thing we never fight over. It unites us.”

The event also featured bands and a thousand free bikes provided by the municipality for citizens to borrow.

Greta Chamoun, a resident of Kesrouane, about 20 kilometres from Beirut, brought her two young children to the event to take advantage of the outdoor activities. But Ms Chamoun said she wasn’t convinced that this was the start of better times for Lebanon.

A stone's throw away, a group of protesters in Riad El Solh Square called on the government to make Islamist prisoners part of a proposed general amnesty that is expected take place before parliamentary elections in May.

But even the demonstration and Lebanon's tense political arena did little to dampen the festive mood.

“The political and economic situation is still bad, and it could get worse,” said Ms Chamoun. “But we have to enjoy what we have right now.”

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