Thursday was both a good and a bad day for Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. On the one hand, international donors promised billions of dollars' worth of reconstruction aid for his beleaguered country. But on the other, renewed violence in Beirut raised the specter of civil war.
At a donor conference in Paris on Thursday, international donors pledged $7.6 billion (€5.84 billion) in aid and loans to Lebanon. The money is intended to help the country tackle its huge debts and rebuild its infrastructure after last summer's Israel-Hezbollah war, which devastated the south of the country.
"Be brief, be good, be generous"
More than 40 countries and financial institutions took part in the conference, which was hosted by French President Jacques Chirac. Donors took turns announcing their contributions. "Be brief, be good and be generous," said Chirac, who played the role of auctioneer.
The donations were also intended as a signal of support for Saniora's fragile pro-Western government. Donors warned that Lebanon's problems could undermine Middle East peace efforts if they were not addressed. "Everyone knows that Lebanon's stability is decisive for the entire region's stability," Chirac commented.
Lebanon is one of the world's most indebted countries, with its $40 billion (€31 billion) national debt equivalent to 185 percent of its annual economic output. Last summer's war reversed much of the country's recent economic progress.
"As a result of Israel's onslaught on our country, we are now on the verge of a deep recession," Saniora said.
Germany pledged €103 million towards Lebanon's reconstruction, of which €63 million was earmarked for vocational training and water management. France promised loans of €500 million and the European Union also pledged €500 million in loans or aid for rebuilding the country by 2012. Saudi Arabia pledged $1.1 billon in aid, comprising $1 billion in development funding and an extra $100 million gift to the government.
United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed that the Bush administration would seek $770 million (€592 million) for a new package of grants and loans for Lebanon. The money, which must be approved by Congress, would more than triple US economic aid to the country. Rice stressed that the money was not dependent on a US-backed government staying in power in Beirut. "This is a package that is for Lebanon," she said. "Lebanon is a democracy."
The success of the conference, though, was overshadowed by renewed violence in Lebanon. Four people were shot dead in fighting between supporters and opponents of the government on Thursday, with around 200 people injured. The violence flared up after street fighting broke out between rival student groups at Beirut university.
The Lebanese army imposed a curfew on Thursday night, the first night curfew in Beirut since the civil war ended in 1990. The curfew was lifted at 6 a.m. on Friday but there were fears of increased sectarian violence of the kind which had caused civil war before.
"It's very bad. It's going to be like Iraq here," one Beirut vegetable seller told Reuters.
US ambassador to Beirut Jeffrey Feltman called the situation "quite dangerous" and blamed Hezbollah's main ally, Syria, for the violence, along with Iran. "History has shown that outside powers like Syria have done it before. And I can't give you solid evidence, but one can certainly make a pretty strong case that it's Syria's hands at work again," he said on the US-funded television channel Al-Hurra.
"Nobody should be surprised when things start to spin out of control, when there has been an intentional two (or) three month effort to provoke sectarian tension," Feltman said.
Leaders from all sides called for calm. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued a fatwa calling his supporters off the streets, and Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri urged his followers to show restraint. "I call on everyone to return to the voice of reason," said Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, speaking in Paris.
Earlier in the week, thousands of opposition supporters blocked main roads in Beirut and around the country on Tuesday as part of a general strike. The strike was the latest move in an opposition campaign to bring down Saniora's pro-Western government and force early elections. The campaign, which began on Dec. 1, had been mostly peaceful until this week.