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Published December 09, 2015
On days like Wednesday, when the Lebanese parliament convenes for yet another attempt at electing the country's president, shopkeeper Jamal Baghdadi cannot get a single client through the doors of his souvenir shop in Beirut's historic city center, a stone's throw from the landmark limestone building.
Every road around the Lebanese capital's Place de l'Etoile is closed off — both to cars and pedestrians, as well as anyone without a valid employee badge for the upscale offices that surround the four-faced Rolex clock tower at the center of the square.
Not even tourists can set foot anywhere in the area during the twice-monthly lockdowns as lawmakers meet. On Wednesday, for the twenty-third time in a row, they failed to elect a president.
"Customers can't get in," says the 57-year-old Baghdadi. "First, they struggle because there's no parking and then they're turned away."
For a year since President Michel Suleiman stepped down after his six-year-term ended, Lebanon has been without a head of state as bickering lawmakers repeatedly fail to agree on a consensus president.
According to the country's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. But the two main party blocks continue to reject each other's presidential candidates, despite 13 months of negotiations mediated by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
And while Lebanon is no closer to electing a new president, the lockdowns are pushing businesses in the once touristic hotspot to the edge of a financial abyss, after what has already been one of their worst financial years on record, mainly due to the Syrian civil-war next door and the regional spillover from the crisis. Lebanon is deeply split along sectarian and ideological lines and divisions have worsened because of the neighboring conflict.
"It looks like a deserted area, many businesses are closing," says Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad. "Each time there is a parliament meeting, the whole area is shut down."
Those that do come through the barricades, lawmakers and government employees are searched as if they are entering a military base — hardly attractive to tourists' eyes, Hamad says.
On nearby Hussein Al-Abad Street, a restaurant threw in the towel without clearing the tables. Behind the grimy windows, glasses and cutlery gather dusts. On Maarad Street, a high-end shoe seller abandoned his unsold stock when he could no longer pay the rent.
Earlier this year, Haagen-Dazs closed what was once its highest grossing ice-cream shop in the Middle East. A sign on the parlor's door says it has moved to the Beirut Souks shopping district.
"We say we moved but we actually shut down," says marketing manager Annabelle Fanj. The Haagen-Dazs shop in the Souks already existed.
In Place de l'Etoile "we were losing money by the day," she added.
The area around the parliament was completely restored and renovated after Lebanon's own 1975-90 civil war. Tourists swarmed to it and Baghdadi opened his souvenir shop here 15 years ago.
"Sometimes I would close the shop at 3 a.m. and there were still people coming in," he says.
After Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005 and the war with Israel a year later, the government put down steel beams, concrete blocks and erected army checkpoints. An 18-month long Hezbollah sit-in blocked the top end of the square.
Tourist number started to dwindle, then sank further with the war in Syria, now in its fifth year. And last year, the families of 25 Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by Syrian Islamic militants pitched their tents on the south side of the square, driving visitors further away.
"When customers move out, that's it, they don't come back," says Hamad, the mayor. Last month he met with the lawmakers to discuss ways to revive the city center. He says the municipality is ready to support any project that would bring visitors back to the area.
But it may be too late.
Even the Saudi owners of the staple "Place de l'Etoile" restaurant, named for the square, are getting tired of bleeding cash into ventures that haven't turned a profit since 2011. Two months ago they closed the nearby Citta café and may close another location on the square, before the end of the year.
They are considering moving to Verdun or Hamra neighborhoods of Beirut, where there is still business to be made, said the restaurant's manager, Ali Abd-Alwahed.
"But we will keep 'Place de l'Etoile' because of Mr. Hariri," Abd-Alwahed added.
For sentimental reasons only — the late prime minister had his last cup of coffee there, minutes before he was killed.