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On Power Cuts, Protests, and Institutions: A Brief History of Electricity in Beirut (Part One)

[ ["Beirut - Electricity." Image by Ziad Abu-Rish]

[What follows are some preliminary findings on the history of the electricity sector of Lebanon in general and that of Beirut in particular. Such research forms part of a broader project on the history of struggles over the political economy of Lebanon, within which the issue of electric public utilities was and continues to be central. In this first installment of a three-part series, the origins of the electricity sector will be laid out, as well as the popular and elite mobilizations that sector elicited. The second part will cover the consolidation of the electricity sector into Électricité du Liban in 1964 and the effects of the 1975-1990 Civil War on electric production and distribution. The third and final installment will highlight the place of the electricity sector in the emerging post-war political economy.]

Electricity is a central feature of many public discussions in Lebanon. On the one hand, both scheduled and unscheduled power outages are a regular feature of everyday life (with the frequency and severity of such outages being almost directly proportional to how far one is from centers of privilege in Beirut and other urban areas). On the other hand, many Lebanese citizens cast the persistence of this problem as symptomatic of either factional competition at best or deep-rooted corruption at worst. Furthermore, for the past few years full-time and part-time workers in the electricity sector have mobilized for job security, adequate compensation as well as working conditions, and guaranteed retirement benefits—despite a variety of government, corporate, and sectarian forces opposing such claims.

Two themes dominate critical perspectives on the development of the electricity sector. One is that of post-war privatization schemes and their failure to ameliorate the problems of electricity production, transmission, and distribution for Beirut and the rest of the country. Another theme is the destructive effects of the civil war and repeated air raids and invasions of the Israeli military. Whether inadvertently or not, these two themes structure many narratives about electricity in Lebanon. Such narratives invariably take for granted two overlooked aspects of the history of electricity in Lebanon. Prior to 1964, the electricity sector in Lebanon was comprised of more than thirty private electricity companies, some devoted to both electric power generation and transmission/distribution and others to only transmission/distribution. In 1964 the Lebanese government restricted the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity to a single state-owned enterprise called Électricité du Liban. It subsequently began incorporating the various private electricity companies through a variety of process that spanned nearly a decade. The second aspect that many critical perspectives of the contemporary electricity situation in Lebanon take for granted is the existence of a history of grievances against these electricity companies that long predates the civil war and encompasses issues of power outages, irregular voltage, high prices, and inadequate labor conditions. It is thus to these two aspects that this article will attend to in hopes of illuminating the early history of electricity in Lebanon.

The Origins of Electricity in the Republic of Lebanon

The first electricity-generating project in the area that comprises modern Lebanon was established in Beirut during the late Ottoman Empire. As part of a broader set of transformations being put into effect in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, both municipal authorities as well as local and foreign investors sought to establish an electric tramway system in Beirut. The founders of Société Anonyme Ottomane des Tramways et de l’Électricité de Beyrouth (est. 1906) opted to power the electric tramcars via combustion engine, while at the same time expanding their initial development project to include the provisioning of electricity for other uses. Thus in 1909, the company began operating the Beirut tramway system while at the same time providing electricity to a select number of individuals and enterprises.

Two specific aspects of such origins are worth noting. First, the tramway system consumed the majority of electricity generated. This was a reflection of the fact there was yet very limited commercial and industrial use of electricity in Beirut, and even less domestic demand and consumption. The second aspect worth noting is that the company had obtained a concession from the Ottoman government for the exclusive rights to establish, develop, and operate both the tramway and electricity systems in Beirut. This was in keeping with a common practice throughout the Ottoman Empire, the broader Middle East, and the rest of the world regarding the use of concessions to finance and operate infrastructural development projects.

A number of financial and political developments would transform the ownership structure for the provisioning of electricity and tramway services in Beirut. What had initially begun as a primarily locally-owned joint-stock company first became a primarily Belgian-owned business in 1911 and then a primarily French-owned business in 1923. The exact mechanisms of these transformations are beyond the scope of this article. However, it is worth noting that by 1925 the properties, rights, and responsibilities associated with the Beirut tramway system, the provisioning of electricity to the city, as well as the lighting of the city (the latter of which was previously held under a different gas lighting concession) were transferred to a new company, La Société des Tramways et de l’Éclairage de Beyrouth (rendered in Arabic as Sharikat al-Tramway wa-al-’Inara fi Bayrut).

The obviously significant transition in this part of the story is the collapse and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, and the establishment of Lebanon as one of the successor states under a League of Nations mandate and French colonial rule. A less obvious transition is the growth of industrial, commercial, and domestic electricity consumption during the mandate period, and a parallel increase in the availability and use of automobiles. It was thus during the latter half of the mandate period that the service taxi (i.e., shared taxi) and autobus first came into use in Lebanon. It was also then that the company changed its name to Électricité de Beyrouth (referred to as Sharikat Kahruba’ Bayrut in Arabic), reflecting the increasing share of electricity as regards to capital investments, customer base, profit generation, and public life.

Électricité de Beyrouth was one of several companies operating in Lebanon during the French colonial and early independence period. It was by far the largest electricity company with respect to infrastructural investments, power generation, and subscriber base. In addition to Beirut, it directly serviced areas or provided electricity to companies with transmission/distribution concessions in other parts of Lebanon—as far north as Jouineh, as far east as Rayak, and as far south as Dayr al-Qamar. Second to Électricité de Beyrouth was La Société Électricité du Liban Nord—also known as La Kadicha (the French rendering of Qadisha, the area where the company established its first electric power plant). This company provided electricity either directly or through transmission/distribution companies to many parts of the area enclosed between Tripoli, Bakhun, Diman, and Batrun. According to one estimate, in 1952 there were approximately thirty electricity companies that were evenly divided between those engaged in generation, transmission, and distribution and those engaged in transmission and distribution. A combination of local and foreign business interests established many of these companies during the mandate period.

The Shifting Terrain of Protests Against the Electricity Company

The population of Beirut and other areas regularly protested against ownership and policies of public utility companies throughout the colonial and early independence period. Due to the Beirut bias in much of the historiography of modern Lebanon, it is the mobilizations against Électricité de Beyrouth that we know most about. It is worth recalling that the company operated both the electric grid and the tramway system in Beirut. Sometimes, Électricité de Beyrouth would be targeted for specifically economic reasons such as high prices, low quality of service, or dismal working conditions. This was very much the case in 1922 and 1931. At other times, the company would be targeted as part of a broader mobilization for particular political demands such as independence or the evacuation of foreign troops. This was the case in 1936, 1943, and 1946. In either case, a central protest committee of sorts organized such mobilizations. The protests primarily took the form of Beirutis boycotting company services by refusing to consume electricity or ride the tramcars. Such collective action had at times the capacity to financially cripple the company as protest campaigns lasted for several weeks. Ad hoc committees would break the windows of homes and business that violated the electricity boycott, attack individuals who would ride the tramways, or vandalize the offices and installations of Électricité de Beyrouth. But such protests were not restricted to those that identified themselves as consumers. Many times, rival politicians and businessmen would also mobilize around the issue of electricity in hopes of further advancing their own political and corporate ambitions.

The tactic of boycotting the use of electricity, however, only made strategic sense in so far as the number of electricity subscribers remained relatively small in size and electricity consumption continued to be peripheral to everyday life. Thus by early independence, the idea of refraining from the use of electricity for an extended period of time was a much more difficult task to mobilize people around. Between the early 1930s and early 1950s, electricity production for Beirut increased by a factor slightly higher than six. During the same period, the number of electricity subscribers in Beirut increased by more than a factor of four. A cursory survey of newspapers from the first ten years of independence reveals a bombardment of advertisements for various electrical consumer goods. In addition, tourist guides from the period boast a critical mass of hotels, cafes, and cinemas. This is to say nothing of the industrial boom Lebanon featured during the depression era and World War II, which resulted in both increased production and an expansion in the number of industrial firms.

The proliferation of electricity in Beirut was certainly uneven, both in terms of class and geography. It nevertheless began to play an increasingly integral part in the life of the city, whether by means of lighting (for streets, other public spaces, and commercial establishments), domestic use of household electrical items (such as radios, refrigerators, and washing machines), or motive force (the power necessary for the operation of commercial and industrial equipment). However, beyond such unevenness, the provisioning of electricity was plagued by a host of problems that consumers took issue with. On the one hand, power outages in different parts of the city were a regular occurrence despite not being officially scheduled. On the other hand, voltage was frequently unstable when supplied—thus compromising the performance of domestic appliances and commercial/industrial machinery. Even more troubling was the perceived expensiveness of electricity, which was understood to be above the means of the average person or business, and in the interest of profit maximization rather than public good. Furthermore, electricity rates were priced via a complex matrix that was inaccessible to the non-specialist and privileged certain categories of subscribers (defined by the type and quantity of electricity consumed). Also important was the fact that there was only one office in all of Beirut, thus making it very difficult (in terms of time and cost) for potential subscribers to submit applications for service and existing subscribers to submit complaints. This is, of course, assuming that such applications and complaints were responded to when received. In short, the company was operating at a high rate of profit, while urban consumers were paying too much and getting too little.

These dynamics culminated in an eight-month protest campaign between December 1951 and July 1952 that demanded the company address such grievances and that the government intervene on behalf of public interest. In what was a remarkable display of strategic targeting and collective action, the protest campaign centered on a refusal to pay electricity bills rather a boycotting of the service itself. So successful was this campaign that it mobilized over fifty percent of Beirut electricity subscribers, thus rendering the option of discontinuing service for those unwilling to pay a futile strategy that would only incur further losses for the company. However, to prevent the threat or reality of service interruption from discouraging participation in the protest campaign, the central protest committee provided hotline numbers in newspaper and cinema advertisements for the campaign, promising to dispatch technical teams to reconnect electricity to those homes and business whose service was discontinued by Électricité de Beyrouth.

The company showed immense intransigence in the face of public mobilizations, repeating a litany of arguments about the fiscal integrity of Électricité de Beyrouth, the technical reasons for power outages, and the good intentions of shareholders and managers. For its part, the government initially publically distanced itself from the status quo, claiming to play the role of an arbitrator between the people and the company, all the while siding with the company through a variety of back-channel negotiations and stalling tactics that tests the discipline and commitment of the protesters. The government rejected calls for intervening in the pricing structure of Électricité de Beyrouth, let alone nationalizing the company altogether. Nevertheless, such reluctance on the part of the government—represented most clearly by the Council of Ministers, the Council of Deputies, and the Ministry of Public Works—eventually gave way to protester demands due to a host of factors that need not to be elaborated here. Consequently, between July and September 1952, the government intervened to implement a new electricity pricing system for Beirut subscribers—lowering prices by more than twenty percent for each of domestic, low-voltage motive force, and high-voltage motive force subscribers.

The Implications and Legacies of the 1951-52 Protest Campaign

The conclusion of the 1951-52 protest campaign by no means resolved the entirety of issues characterizing the problem of electricity in Beirut. In fact, despite the victory on the issue of prices there remained a number of unresolved problems—among them that of adequate supply, stable voltage, and responsive customer service. However, both the campaign and the eventual government response had important consequences for the future of the electricity sector.

Prior to September 1952, power outages were not publically scheduled and instead experienced as irregular service disruptions. In reaction to the government intervention in prices during the summer of 1952, Électricité de Beyrouth implemented the first official electricity-rationing program (i.e., regularly scheduled limits on electric power supply). This program stipulated that the street-lamp lighting on the “Khalda Boulevard” (which led to the Beirut airport) would be turned off throughout on-peak hours, and that during that same time the number of circulating electric tramcars would be reduced as needed. It also limited the use of electricity for irrigation purposes to a total of twelve hours a day, with specific time slots in which its use was permissible. The company claimed such rationing was necessary given that the decrease in prices had increased consumption levels and thus necessitated scheduled service disruptions. Electricity is a commodity that must be consumed as it is being produced. Thus Électricité de Beyrouth claimed firstly that its production capacity could not keep up with the new consumption levels, and secondly that lower prices meant less available revenue for capacity enhancement. It was at this juncture that regularly scheduled power outages became routinized as a fact of life in the electric public utility landscape of Lebanon. The government would build on this precedent after establishing provisional control over the company in 1953. It thus put in place a more elaborate rationing program. This time, electricity would be cut for three-hour intervals on a rotating basis throughout the suburbs of Beirut during on-peak hours. Electric power would also be cut for thirty-minute intervals in Beirut and two-hour intervals in the suburbs during the daytime, also on a rotating basis. This is not to say that company or government justifications for the scheduled outages were valid. However, like many other policies: once implemented, they began to take on a life of their own as they increasingly routinized the power relations they sought to maintain.

Another implication of the 1951-52 protest campaign has to do with rendering the targeting of Électricité de Beyrouth a legible nationalist and populist act. Not all political groups that participated in the protest campaign uniformly adopted calls for nationalization. However, the idea that a genuinely independent (read nationalist) government must attend to the problem of electricity (as part of an overall development strategy) and that such a government must safeguard public interest (against the infringements of corporate profit or international treatise) was given concrete expression through the targeting of Électricité de Beyrouth in a way it had not been before. This helps explain why, despite his own involvement in the protest campaign and his later shunning of the reformist coalition and populist allies that helped bring him to power, President Kamil Sham‘un turned to Électricité de Beyrouth as he sought to bolster his dwindling support base. In March-April 1953 the Lebanese government established provisional control over all production, transmission, and distribution facilities of Électricité de Beyrouth. Approximately one year later, in 1954, the government and Électricité de Beyrouth reached agreement for the reclamation by the government of all of company concessionary contracts and their associated facilities. The agreement included both electricity and tramway systems.

A final implication of this early history of electricity in Beirut has to do with the institutional origins of the present-day Électricité du Liban and Ministry of Power and Water. I will address the bulk of this history in subsequent parts of this series. For now, it is worth mentioning that the nationalization of Électricité de Beyrouth resulted in the creation of an Electricity and Public Transportation Authority within the Ministry of Public Works for the management of the former’s facilities and services. It is this authority that represented the institutional origins of what would later become a state-owned enterprise and independent ministry, currently known as Électricité du Liban and the Ministry of Power and Water, respectively. Much of the contemporary debates about the failure to adequately address the electricity problem highlight the overlapping and conflictual prerogatives of different government entities that entangle the ability to take decisive action regarding the electricity sector within bureaucratic and political webs of competing influence. A close analysis of the structure of the Electricity and Public Transportation Authority established in 1954 and its subsequent metamorphoses highlights some of the reasons behind such entanglement. But that institutional genealogy and the parallel reasons for the persistence of the electricity problem in Lebanon despite nationalization are the subject of future installments.

Bibliographic Note

This article is drawn from both primary and secondary sources as part of a broader research project. As such, primary sources have been excluded pending the completion of the project. Readers interested in the origins of tramway and electricity services in Beirut and the broader Ottoman context they were established within should consult relevant sections of Jens Hanssen’s Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Ottoman Provincial Capital (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). For a discussion of the place of electricity and tramway services in the political economy of French colonial rule in Lebanon, readers should consult relevant chapters in Simon M. W. Jackson’s “Mandatory Development: The Political Economy of the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon, 1915-1939” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2009). For a survey of major protests concerning electricity and tramways during the mandate period, see Carla Edde’s “La Mobilisation ‘Populaire’ à Beyrouth à l’époque du Mandat, le cas des boycotts des trams et de l’électricité,” published in Nadine Meouchy’s edited volume France Syrie et Liban 1918-1946: Les ambiguitiés et les dynamiques de la relation mandataire (Damascus: IFEAD, 2002). All facts concerning the 1946-1954 period are drawn from press coverage, development reports, and other primary sources found in various archives in addition to oral history interviews conducted by the author.

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