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Not so long ago, the historic downtown of Beirut was a wasteland of scorched buildings and rubble. Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990, destroyed an area known for its picturesque Mediterranean vistas and Roman and Mamluk ruins.
Now, after a multibillion-dollar reconstruction project, the city center features plush apartments and posh cafes, refurbished Ottoman-era buildings and boutiques by Burberry and Versace.
Yet one element seems to be lacking: people.
“Even the rich people don’t bother coming anymore,” Mohammed Younnes, 27, said on a recent Saturday evening as he gazed at the empty tables of Grand Cafe, an eatery he manages in downtown Nejmeh Square. Businesses in the square, distinctive for an art deco clock tower with “Rolex” written on its dial, are relocating or going bankrupt.
Beirut’s shiny new downtown has struggled for various reasons. Despite the end of the civil war, violence has continued to batter the country. In 2006, war broke out with Israel, damaging Lebanon’s economy and leaving shops and restaurants empty. In addition, persistent sectarian feuds have erupted in bombings and demonstrations in central Beirut. Lately, fighters in Syria’s civil war have launched cross-border attacks into Lebanon. ….