Five years ago I wrote in The National that the Lebanese people had been promised 24/7 electricity in “three to four years”. Those were the estimates given by Gebran Bassil, the energy minister at the time, who, like his many predecessors, claimed he would be the one to roll up his sleeves and resolve the nation’s chronic electricity drought, a situation that is arguably the biggest scandal in Lebanon’s post civil-war history.
When the guns fell silent in 1990, Lebanon had been in virtual darkness for at least 10 years. When I came back to the country in February 1992, we were still using, candle, gas lamps and even car batteries and strip lighting to illuminate our homes when the government power was off, which could be for as much as 18 hours a day. When my wife and I moved into our marital home in Ras Beirut, we made sure to buy two huge lorry batteries which, when charged, could run the fridge, TV and one light bulb for six hours between 6pm and midnight every other evening.
Things have improved in the past 25 years in as much as most buildings are connected to secondary generators, which can power entire homes when the government supply is down, which in Beirut is for six to eight hours a day. In the rural regions, such as my village, residents can be without power for up to 16 hours.
And since the war, every energy minister says the same thing. Give us three to four years and we’ll be on track. It’s easy to say because the chances are that a) the minister won’t be around for the deadline and b) even if he is, he can blame those members of the cabinet from opposing parties for hampering his grand plan. There is always an excuse and no one is to blame.
Back in 2011 Mr Bassil’s idea was to build at least one, possibly two, power stations to increase Lebanon’s annual capacity to 2,100 megawatts from 1,500. But even then experts pointed out that with demand growing at about 6 per cent a year, Lebanon would still be 300 megawatts short at peak periods such as the middle of summer.
Indeed, one only had to look at the slew of massive new buildings going up in and around Beirut at the time to realise that the government was always going to find itself playing catch-up. And then there was the issue of maintenance. Electricité du Liban (EDL) is stuffed to the gills with political appointees and ageing workers who can’t be fired. In the meantime, EDL costs the government somewhere in the region of $1 billion a year.
But Mr Bassil, who was and still is the son-in-law of Michel Aoun, the former head of the army, but by then the leader of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (imagine a Lebanese Donald Trump), was playing it smart. He knew that all he had to do was outline what it was he needed to fix the problem and watch his plan flounder in the cabinet. And guess what? His request for the $1.2bn he said he needed to pay for his new vision was met with protests within the government and the FPM bloc threatened to walk out. In the end, it was agreed to give it to him in instalments. But today, one year after his deadline, nothing has changed. And Mr Bassil? Oh, he’s now foreign secretary.
The other night, I was at a dinner in Batroun, a district that Mr Bassil represents in parliament, when we were all plunged into darkness. My hostess, an elegant lady whose family has been living in the area since the mid-18th century, got up from the table and asked who was wearing rubber soled shoes. I was and so we went into the night, walked down her drive and on to the new road Mr Bassil is building past her property and stopped at an electricity pylon. Could I reach up to reset the trip switch? she asked, handing me a long wooden stick, presumably for me to prod with. “Best not take any chances,” she smiled, and shone her torch at the little plastic contraption.
The lights came on again, but as a nation we’re still very much in the dark.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton
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