Who has the power to keep Lebanon's lights on?

The country must pull the plug on corrupt politicians

The Lebanese Electricity Company headquarters in Beirut. The country has just experienced a total blackout. AFP
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In 1881, Thomas Edison constructed the first central power plant, in New York, and it paved the way for the development of the modern world. Within 30 years, a commercial plant opened in Lebanon, to power Beirut’s tramways but also to “produce electricity to light up Beirut and act as a prime mover for industrial employment in the city”.

Now, more than a century later, Beirut finds itself often shrouded in darkness, and industrial jobs, or jobs in any other sector, for that matter, are increasingly scarce.

Lebanon’s two largest power plants shut down production on Saturday, after running out of fuel. The loss of central power led to nationwide blackouts, sparking fears that Lebanon’s ongoing severe economic crisis – one of the worst in modern human history – is set to deepen.

Some power was restored on Sunday, as Electricite du Liban (EDL), the state utility, secured last-minute assistance from the national army, which is providing oil from its own reserves. But those will not last forever.

This round of blackouts has not come from out of the blue. For months, people across Lebanon have had to make do with a few hours of government-provided power a day. Speaking to The National, a senior EDL employee summed up the situation: "I am shocked that people are shocked.”

For residents trying to stabilise their lives after months of economic turmoil, a lack of power puts them into an impossible situation. And for the most vulnerable, it can be a life-threatening one. Until now, even the sickest hospital patients were having to source medication on their own due to shortages, and the facilities treating them already had to contend with unreliable power supply. In August, then head of Rafik Hariri University Hospital and surgeon, Firass Abiad, who is now the country's Minister of Public Health, told The National that "a hospital without electricity is like a car without petrol". Now, medical facilities across the country are at risk of becoming little more than field stations in Lebanon's wider battle to stay afloat.

Economic inequality, and all of the social issues that come with it, is also set to worsen. Many Lebanese have become increasingly reliant on private diesel generators – a short-term, highly polluting fix that has entrenched a black market for fuel that will now be difficult to eradicate. Shortages in global supply chains are only pushing prices up further. For the 80 per cent of Lebanese who now live in poverty, there is little to do but cling to hope.

Short of a complete overhaul of Lebanon’s dysfunctional political system, it is difficult to see how the country can emerge from its state of crisis. Should fuel be pumped into the country from abroad for the sake of ordinary residents, even if it will line the pockets of corrupt elites? Or, should the international community withhold assistance as a means to rid the country of the political rot that perpetually blocks progress?

Lebanon’s allies in the West and the Arab world are exasperated – at a loss for what to do. A popular protest movement calling for reform has achieved little. Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling Lebanon’s economic crisis what it is: “a man-made disaster”.

It is unclear how Lebanon will navigate itself out of the darkness that has taken hold over the country. But it is clear that responsibility for this desperate situation lies with a small circle in Lebanon’s political class, particularly Hezbollah and organised criminal groups. They are the only ones left in the country with any power.

Published: October 11, 2021, 3:00 AM