August 16, 2006
Government and Hezbollah
Will Each Mount Effort;
Who Will Get the Credit?
A Menu for Foreign Donors
By KARBY LEGGETT
August 16, 2006; Page A1
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- With the fighting here finally stopped, the battle that Nabil Jisr is leading swings into full gear.
Mr. Jisr, a senior aide to Lebanon's prime minister, is in charge of the almost overwhelming task of reconstructing the shattered country.
An estimated 35,000 homes and business places have been destroyed by fighting and Israeli bombs. Perhaps a quarter of the country's four million residents were in temporary housing when the cease-fire took hold Monday. Some 400 miles of Lebanese roadway have been destroyed, along with about 150 bridges and interchanges -- one of every four in the country. Now, as residents pour back into Lebanon's ravaged south, hundreds of thousands will need food, water and shelter in the coming weeks.
And wrapped in the reconstruction challenge is a critical struggle for Lebanon's weak government: seizing the political initiative from a Hezbollah energized by its battlefield performance against Israel. "The postwar period...is the real war," says Jihad Azour, Lebanon's finance minister.
The rebuilding of Lebanon, and who gets credit for it, are part of a larger battle for influence between the central government and Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group so powerful it is a virtual state-within-a-state. Reconstruction is the first real postwar test of wills between Hezbollah -- whose ambush and capture of two Israeli soldiers set off the conflict -- and those in the Lebanese government who want Hezbollah to become purely a political party. How it goes could set the tone for whether Hezbollah emerges from the conflict an even stronger social force, still armed and with continuing ties to Syria and Iran, or ultimately bows to international demands and abolishes its military wing.
If Lebanon's government can gain the political upper hand over Hezbollah, this success could have region-wide implications. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, has become a folk hero in much of the Muslim world. His organization, a militia and social support group with a foot planted firmly in national politics, is the model that Islamist groups in the Middle East are adopting, from Hamas in the Palestinian territories to Iraqi firebrand Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
Even in Egypt and Jordan, where the politically active Islamist groups aren't armed, Muslim Brotherhood organizations use their religion-based charity and humanitarian networks to challenge the government. Lebanon's reconstruction battle thus mirrors one of the region's emerging rifts. It is between, on one side, U.S. allies Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and, on the other, the Iranian and Syrian regimes that provide arms and money to Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia, for example, is already pouring funds into the Lebanese government.
"Lebanon's reconstruction is going to be a microcosm for trends across the region," says Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based columnist and leading political commentator.
Designated a terrorist group by the U.S., Europe and Israel, Hezbollah has seen its popularity soar well beyond its core supporters in Lebanon. The group has ramped up its own formidable aid and reconstruction program, giving it a big role the humanitarian and reconstruction effort among Lebanon's poor Shiite Muslims, who account for nearly 80% of those displaced by the war. Hezbollah volunteers are ever-present even in many government-managed shelters, gathering detailed information on each displaced family, from specific medical requirements to how many mattresses each family needs. "Everyone must enter the battle to rebuild," said Mr. Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, in a televised speech the day of the cease-fire.
During the month of fighting, Hezbollah set up more than a dozen soup kitchens and medical relief centers across Beirut, spending well over $100,000 a day, its officials say. While leaders won't detail where the cash comes from, members say it's raised through direct contributions from Lebanese supporters as well as abroad, including in Syria and Iran.
Mr. Jisr says his Lebanese-government operation doled out more than 6,000 tons of aid, worth tens of millions of dollars, during the fighting. This week he began detailed talks with potential foreign donors for a reconstruction package that he hopes could reach $3 billion. But the effort has also bumped into the kind of corruption and poor execution that have long hobbled the government more broadly and made Hezbollah look better by comparison.
"Lets face it, Hezbollah is working hard, too," says Mr. Jisr. With a thin smile, he adds: "Maybe I'll send them a thank-you note."
A lanky man of 61 with a taste for expensive suits, Mr. Jisr says the Lebanese government has little desire -- or ability -- to limit Hezbollah's role in reconstruction. Like many of Hezbollah's critics in Lebanon, he doesn't want to wipe out the group but rather bring it more fully into the Lebanese body politic. The cabinet of Mr. Jisr's boss, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, includes two elected Hezbollah representatives. They are directly involved in the government's reconstruction plan. One, the energy minister, has authority to approve imports of fuel and sits on the reconstruction committee Mr. Jisr helps manage.
Mr. Jisr also says Hezbollah's efforts can dovetail with the government's, even if Hezbollah winds up with part of the credit. For instance, many displaced Shiites have taken refuge in public buildings in Christian and Sunni areas, including schools that will soon be needed for classes. Hezbollah's efforts to rebuild homes may help ease sectarian tensions.
Even so, Mr. Jisr views the months ahead as a crucial test for government leaders, an opportunity to rewrite Lebanon's history of sectarian conflict. "We need an awakening in our country," he says. "We need people to understand that only the government can fix things."
Mr. Jisr grew up in Lebanon, studied engineering at the University of Tennessee and went to work at the construction conglomerate of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister. At the peak, Mr. Jisr managed 31,000 employees. In the early 1990s, Mr. Hariri recruited Mr. Jisr to help rebuild Lebanon after its 15-year civil war. A Sunni Muslim, Mr. Jisr oversaw construction of a lavish new central business district, a marina and a soaring stone-and-tile compound that houses the offices of the prime minister.
Lebanon entered a new era when Mr. Hariri was killed in a car bombing 18 months ago. The slaying caused a political uprising that forced Syria, which was suspected of involvement, to end its long military occupation of Lebanon. It also brought to power a group of pro-West political reformers. The new prime minister, Mr. Siniora, asked Mr. Jisr to join his team.
The day after fighting between Israel and Hezbollah began, Mr. Jisr was put in charge of the emergency relief effort, and he has been working practically round the clock ever since.
His first step was to establish a central base to collect and distribute aid that began flowing in, mostly food, water and medicine. It arrived overland from Syria and by air from Jordan, the planes landing on the one runway at the Beirut airport that Israel hadn't destroyed. Some was moved about the city in small trucks to avoid being targeted by Israel.
Mr. Jisr ordered public schools and universities to open their doors to refugees. Within days, they were packed. His staff of 70 monitored the 850 sites daily.
Mr. Jisr says his marching orders were to avoid any hint of politicizing the process. That meant aid parcels were handed directly to district government officials -- including many affiliated with Hezbollah. "Our goal was simple: Be completely fair with everyone and help as many people as possible," he says.
In some ways, that policy has been a boon for Hezbollah. The group already had its own extensive relief operation, and in some cases government-controlled aid landed in Hezbollah's centers. Hezbollah also has sent hundreds of volunteers, including dozens of doctors, to the government's refugee centers. There, they've often competed with Mr. Jisr's staff for the loyalty of those being served.
One afternoon last week, an aid truck organized by Mr. Jisr's team arrived at a school in central Beirut. As packages of rice, flour and cooking oil were unloaded, milling about nearby were Hezbollah security guards wearing military pants, with radios strapped to their waists. After the truck left, the Hezbollah members approached families to see what else they needed.
In contrast to the government's bulk drop, Hezbollah's workers spoke at length with refugees. They also handed out medicine. The effort impressed Jihad Klet, a 34-year-old baker from southern Lebanon who was at the school with his wife and young daughter. Already a fan of Hezbollah, Mr. Klet said he supports it even more now. "Without Hezbollah, we wouldn't be able to survive," he said.
Mr. Jisr shrugs off concern that Hezbollah is turning the government's aid program to its own gain. "The entire relief process is managed by the government, and Hezbollah knows that," he says.
In the past two weeks, Mr. Jisr has turned his focus to assessing the infrastructure damage, gaining an understanding that he says will speed the reconstruction and thus score points with the citizenry. He puts the country's total economic loss from the 34 days of fighting at roughly $15 billion. In heavily bombarded suburbs south of Beirut, where Mr. Nasrallah kept an office, an area known as Security Square has been all but flattened. Even buildings still standing are in need of repairs such as foundation work or new windows.
Mr. Jisr is drawing up a menu of specific projects to present to potential foreign donors. He hopes, for instance, that some governments will help finance new high-voltage electric transmission cables and transformers, while others will pay for road work. He says projects that draw the least interest might be farmed out to France, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, all of which have historical and religious ties with Lebanon, particularly its Christian and its Sunni Muslim communities.
"The Saudis are giving a lot," says Mr. Jisr, noting that Saudi Arabia has already provided $1 billion in emergency funding for Lebanon's central bank and has pledged a further $500 million for reconstruction. He says neither the U.S. nor Iran has offered financial assistance so far.
With the cease-fire holding, and signs that Israeli troops may soon leave, Mr. Jisr is setting reconstruction priorities. At the top is Beirut's airport, which Israel struck repeatedly. He aims to have the runways repaired within a week so more relief and construction material can arrive. It will take longer for the airport to resume full commercial operations.
The south of Lebanon is his biggest concern. Damage is so extensive it could take weeks just to clear some areas of unexploded bombs and mortars. Water mains, sewage pipes and electrical wires need repair to avert possible disease outbreaks.
Mr. Jisr says the government will set up temporary living space for the most destitute, with prefabricated homes. When school starts, many children in the area will attend in temporary quarters.
Southern Lebanon's heavily Shiite population has long turned to Hezbollah before the government to meet its needs and to have its grievances heard. Hezbollah has an extensive program to eulogize those killed in the fighting against Israel and pays subsidies to their families, estimated at nearly $100 million a year. The group also helps arrange marriages for widows and new homes for orphans. Now, its activists are pouring in to do their own damage surveys and begin reconstruction. Hezbollah says it plans to offer low-cost financing to rebuild homes.
It says the neediest families of all will have their homes rebuilt free. "We'll never let our people live on the streets," says Abbas Noun, a 38-year-old Hezbollah activist who says he has been running a Hezbollah soup kitchen in Beirut for the past month. The owner of a construction and trade company, Mr. Noun says that he gives 20% of his income to Hezbollah, and this year may hand over all his profits. "We in Hezbollah will do whatever it takes to rebuild," he says.
Write to Karby Leggett at email@example.com