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A bullish feeling amid the ruins


There are just nine computer screens, a trading table so small you could not play poker on it, and six steel chairs. Only four companies are listed and the premises are modestly housed in what used to be the local branch of the Iraqi Rafidain Bank. But they call it the Beirut Bourse and we are being encouraged, in the kind of peace-speak that rules here, to regard this tiny room as "the engine of Lebanon's reconstruction." The French ambassador and two officials from the Paris Bourse - fresh from creating similar institutions in Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic - said as much before the television cameras.

So did the Lebanese Finance Minister, Fouad Siniora. "Lebanon is determined to regain its position ... as a financial and economic centre in the region," he told us.

There is, of course, the little matter of the new Bourse's internal regulations, which have yet to be approved by the State Consultative Council. Neither the Lebanese Central Bank, nor the brokers' federation, it seems, was consulted. And in private, bankers express their concern about the Bourse. Will sufficient names be listed in a country where many companies are owned by families which have no interest in sharing dividends with the public? Will there be reputable intermediaries in the market? Will there be what one banker called "transparency in operations"? Or, more to the point, can corruption be kept out of the Beirut stock market?

Given the current economic gloom in Lebanon, any risk seems worthwhile. With the American-Israeli peace bulldozer apparently making no way with Syria - and therefore none with Lebanon - Lebanese entrepreneurs are watching their investments with something approaching anxiety. Solidere, the $1.8bn (pounds 1.1bn) company charged with rebuilding Beirut - and which is not yet listed in the new stock exchange - has still to construct a single building downtown. True, sewage pipes, cables and underground car parks are being positioned through the rubble, and the pre-construction archaeological digs have produced enough Hellenistic statues and Roman mosaic floors to fill a couple of museums.

But Lebanese are asking why, if Rotterdam could be almost rebuilt five years after its 1940 destruction by the Luftwaffe, Beirut cannot be up and running five years after its civil war ended. Is modern construction that much more complex? Or is Lebanon doing more planning than building? Elissar, a public company set up to rebuild the southern suburbs of the city, has published its proposals for a new coastal strip near the airport which will destroy thousands of slums. Linord, like Solidere, a privately- owned shareholding real-estate company, has just received government approval for a $250m development of the coast north of Beirut.

The assumption behind all these plans, however, is that the Middle East peace process will embrace both Syria and Lebanon in the great new Arab- Israeli common market of wealth and development which the world - for which, read the State Department, Israel and CNN - apparently foresees. The trouble is that from Lebanon, this "peace" looks about as fragile and dangerous as the sepulchral ruins which still totter over Beirut's old front line. Syria, which wants the return of all of the Golan Heights, is in no rush to sign up for the kind of "conditional" agreements which Yasser Arafat has accepted in "Palestine". And Israel - through the anonymous "military sources" that journalists like to quote in Jerusalem - is talking about the possibility of future conflict with Syria. Which means a battle in Lebanon.

Of course, Lebanon deserves to recover. And when the top crime story in last Saturday's L'Orient le Jour was a report of a police swoop on a car containing two men having sex with the same girl - the police, the paper told us, arrested the joyeuse troika - things can't be that bad. Besides, the traffic lights are working on the Corniche. Drive down the seafront, turn left for Mazraa and there they are, the first working lights I've seen in Beirut for 19 years. Like vehicle seat-belts - which they routinely cut out of their cars with scissors - the Lebanese regard all safety procedures as obstacles of inconvenience. And at Mazraa, a traffic policeman routinely hustles motorists through the red lights if they are foolish enough to clog the roads by obeying them. Like the Beirut Bourse, first you create facts - only then do you worry about the rules.