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New Premier Fosters Lebanese Confidence

Billionaire tries to buff country's image, forge trade ties

WHEN the Israelis dumped more than 400 expelled Palestinians on the edge of their south Lebanon "security zone" last week and sent them north toward the area controlled by the Beirut government, they must have assumed that Lebanon's government, as it has in the past, would put up only token resistance to taking in the deportees.

But something has changed in Lebanon. Instead of letting the Palestinians through, Lebanese Army forces went on the alert, blocked the road with armored vehicles, and firmly turned the Palestinians back.

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They were obeying strict orders from Beirut: Under no circumstances were any of the Palestinians to be allowed in. If anything happened to them, it would be Israel's responsibility.

The orders came directly from Lebanon's new prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. They reflected his determination to set the country on its feet again.

The government's act of national self-assertion over the expulsion issue won praise from every corner of the country's diverse political arena, from Muslim fundamentalists to hard-line Christians. It also reinforced the feelings of many ordinary Lebanese that, with Mr. Hariri, there is hope for the country's future. "I am very proud of what our government has done," says Munir Shamaa, a specialist at the American University Hospital.

A 48-year-old self-made multibillionaire, Hariri is Lebanon's Ross Perot who made it to office.

His appointment to the premiership by President Elias Hrawi on Oct. 22 was enough to cause a dramatic reversal in the disastrous downward plunge of the Lebanese pound. From a historic low of 3,000 to the dollar, the pound has pulled back to around 1,850, and continues to improve at a gradual, measured pace.

The upturn of the pound reflected the perhaps dangerously euphoric hopes triggered by Hariri's arrival in office after the troughs of depression into which the country sank earlier this year.

"He's a good man, he's clean, he's already rich enough not to want to rob the country like all the others," says Hamid Ghandour, a shopkeeper whose views are echoed by just about any ordinary Lebanese you talk to. "He knows how to get things done," he adds. "If he can't do it, nobody can."

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A new wind is also blowing through the corridors of power. The 29-member Cabinet formed by Hariri at the end of October contains many figures respected for their competence and honesty. And a new bill is near completion which would lift the traditional immunity from prosecution enjoyed by government officials. Those found guilty of corruption - which was rife under past administrations - will be dismissed.

The new spirit is already being reflected in the streets of Beirut. The huge garbage heaps which used to pile up on many corners have been removed. Traffic police are out in force. Double-parked vehicles are towed away for the first time in memory. As a result, traffic is flowing much more smoothly than before.

But other problems of daily life inherited from 17 years of civil strife will take longer to tackle. The infrastructure can provide only about six hours of power a day, water supplies are sporadic, and only about half of the country's telephones work.

Hariri has set himself a target of roughly six months to overhaul and improve the existing infrastructure. But his ambitions go far beyond that. He wants to prepare Lebanon for the 21st century by building an infrastructure capable of meeting all the demands of a vibrant, renascent regional center, which he firmly believes Lebanon can again become.

All that will cost a lot of money - at least several billion dollars over the next five or 10 years. Lebanon's efforts to raise reconstruction money over the past two years of relative peace have met with little success. The Beirut government's own lack of credibility and corrupt image were seen as a major problem.

Hariri is putting all his considerable energy into changing both the image and the reality. He wastes no time on words. He works an 18-hour day and expects his staff to do likewise.

WHEN he made vital trips to Saudi Arabia and France recently, Hariri typically staged them as "private visits" in order to avoid wasting time on speeches and ceremonies. He came back, aides say, with tangible results; but equally typically, nothing is being talked about publicly until it happens. The only figures mentioned were unofficial reports that Saudi businessmen had agreed to invest some $550 million into various projects in Lebanon.

One of Hariri's few public dictums is that the country is not bankrupt and that its credit is good. He firmly believes that as things improve, private capital will flow in - not out of charity, but out of self-interest.

Even skeptics - who are a distinct minority - admit that Hariri, who was born into a poor family in the southern city of Sidon and made his billions as a contractor in Saudi Arabia, is worth giving the benefit of the doubt.

Their main worry is that, financially involved as he is in virtually every major project currently under way in the country, "he himself has become the economy," as one private banker puts it. "What happens if he goes bankrupt, or fails, or gets killed?" the banker asks.

While Hariri's main emphasis has been on reviving economic life, he has also played an adroit political hand, cultivating a strong working relationship with Syria and opening up links to the hard-line Christian opposition groups which boycotted the recent general elections.

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