Fifteen years after the end of its civil war, Lebanon is pushing forward with ambitious programs to rebuild a nation torn by more than 15 years of sectarian strife, an Israeli invasion and 20-year occupation of its border area. Beirut's luxurious new city center that has risen from the rubble of war has come to symbolize the country's rebirth. But it also sparks complaints of mismanagement, corruption and a neglect of basic services for the rest of the country.
Sounds of construction fill the air. The slick new city center symbolizes how far Lebanon has come from the days of destruction and despair.
"We have come out of a shattering war," said Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares. "For 15 to 20 years, the whole country was shattered completely. We have depended totally on our own selves to rebuild. This entailed some burdens on our finances. We have high level of debt."
In fact, the country of four million inhabitants faces a national debt of nearly $35 billion. Some say rebuilding Lebanon has cost the country in other ways too.
Nayla Moawad is a member of Parliament whose husband was assassinated 17 days after being elected president of Lebanon following the civil war. She says too much money has been spent on luxury buildings and not enough on education, health and the environment.
"You should build the human being before the stones," said Ms. Moawad. "Of course, you have to do both but we shouldn't have neglected the building of the human being, first of all in the education programs. Schools have been given a very, very tiny part of the reconstruction."
The over-crowded, war-pocked tenements of Beirut's mostly Shi'ite Muslim neighborhoods and southern villages underscore how far Lebanon's recovery program still has to go.
Economist Kamal Hamdan says the middle class is being squeezed out and young university graduates forced to leave the country to find jobs.
"For the middle and upper middle class, more than 60 percent of their graduates are searching for work abroad," said Mr. Hamdan. "And a major factor is economic. The level of wages, the level of income, the safety nets available, the feeling that there is potential, incentives, all these are lacking for the new middle and upper middle graduate population."
Politicians like Druze leader Walid Jumblatt complain about corruption and mismanagement, which discourage young Lebanese anxious to join the economy.
"It's a question of political confidence because he needs hope for the future," he said. "If he feels there is no hope for the future, he will just leave."
Many university students preparing to graduate in a few months echo that disillusionment.
"I don't want to leave but I think I have to leave if the situation stays like this, the economic situation and the political situation. I love Lebanon. I would like to live here and work here. But you can feel there is something missing. I don't know what it is. If there's work that's available and the salary is good, I'll stay here. If not, I'll work outside," said some students.
Magda Abu Fadil, the director of the Institute of Professional Journalists at Beirut's Lebanese American University, worries about the so-called brain drain and blames what she sees as government mismanagement.
"People are fed up and want better solutions," she said. "There has to be a quantum leap to transparency, to the elimination of corruption, to doing away with nepotism and feudal mentality. All these things still exist with a modern veneer."
Economist Hamdan says a lot of Lebanon's rehabilitation depends on developments beyond its border and its control. He cites the turmoil in Iraq and the never-ending Israeli-Arab conflict.
" We have the indirect losses pertaining to the consequences of the conflict on the overall regional economy, which is not permitting the integration of the whole area into one single common market where the people of the region without exception can benefit and live together," he explained.
Despite the grumblings, political analyst Sami Baroudi says the physical reconstruction of central Beirut has provided an important symbol for the war-torn nation.
"When we see all the signs of destruction removed from the heart of Beirut, we associate that with the rebirth of the capital and the rebirth of Lebanon," said Mr. Baroudi.
Lebanon's rebirth has also become a key source of much-needed revenue. A country once synonymous with war and terror is now experiencing a boom in tourism. An aggressive multi-million-dollar campaign is promoting Lebanon's beaches, mountain resorts and archeological sites to bury memories of its turbulent past.
And Beirut, once dubbed the Paris of the Middle East, again finds its outdoor cafes, trendy nightclubs, temperate climate and liberal lifestyle attracting Western tourists and wealthy Arab investors willing to bet on Lebanon's future.