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LCPS Interviews Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ziad Abu-Rish on Electricity in Early Independence Lebanon

[Newspaper headline from 1946 reporting the strike of tramway workers and the government's response. At the time, the Beirut Electricity Company was also the owner and operator of the city's tramway system. Headline from al-Bayraq newspaper. Image by Ziad Abu-Rish] [Newspaper headline from 1946 reporting the strike of tramway workers and the government's response. At the time, the Beirut Electricity Company was also the owner and operator of the city's tramway system. Headline from al-Bayraq newspaper. Image by Ziad Abu-Rish]

In the following interview with the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ziad Abu-Rish discusses the history of electricty in Beirut during the early independence period, and some of the legacies and insights of the period. The interview was conducted over email, and first published on the LCPS website. It follows up on an earlier interview on the history of state instutituions in the early independence period.

Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS): The electricity sector in Lebanon, as both a public utility and as an employer, has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years. Much of what is said about the history of the sector traces the origins of obstacles to adequate electricity generation and distribution to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). What is your assessment of this claim based on your own research into the political economy of the early independence period? Also, in what ways can we speak about the changing nature of the electricity sector between the early years of independence and the eve of the civil war?

Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): There is no doubt that the civil war period, including the various Israeli airstrikes, invasions, and occupations, featured the destruction (if not explicit targeting) of electricity infrastructure in Lebanon. There is also little controversy in asserting that the postwar political settlement(s) and various reconstruction efforts have failed to adequately address this destruction and its consequences for electricity production and consumption.

This being said, it would be historically inaccurate to claim that prior to the civil war the electricity sector adequately met the needs of Lebanese citizens, or that it was free of public criticism, competing private interests, or structural deficiencies. It is worth noting here that electricity generation and distribution in the territories that would constitute the Republic of Lebanon originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was then that the Ottoman government, later the French High Commission, and then the Lebanese government, in collaboration with local municipal authorities, granted a number of specific concessions for the generation, transmission, and/or distribution of electricity in Beirut and other urban areas. It was not until 1964 that the Lebanese government created Electricite du Liban (EDL), which established a state monopoly over the electricity sector in the country.

This history (i.e., the individual concessions, their consolidation under a state monopoly, and its aftermath) has not been written about enough. However, there are a select number of scholars who have shed light on different parts of this history as it relates to broader questions of governance, business, and planning. This has particularly been the case with respect to the late Ottoman, French mandate, and late independence period. My own research focuses on the dynamics of electricity as a public utility in Beirut during the early independence period.

Electricity production in Beirut was initially generated to power the city’s tramway services, as lighting was covered under a gas concession. The original electricity concession was owned by Société Anonyme Ottomane des Tramways et de l’Électricité de Beyrouth (est. 1906), which began running the tramway system in 1909.  Economic and political developments over the course of the next two decades—which I discuss elsewhere, but pivot around World War I—resulted in the transfer of the rights and assets of the original company to a new one: La Société des Tramways et de l’Éclairage de Beyrouth (rendered in Arabic as Sharikat al-Tramway wa-al-’Inara fi Bayrut). The transfer highlights the changing technology of lighting of the time, from gas to electricity, as the new company also took over the original gas lighting concession. More broadly, it was during the mandate period that the company came to be known as Sharikat Kahruba’ Bayrut, an indication that electricity in and of itself had become the primary public utility service the company was providing to a complex array of domestic, commercial, and industrial consumers.

Reading newspaper articles, technical studies, and even general development reports published in the 1940s and 1950s, it becomes quite evident that during the early independence period issues of ownership structure, quality of service, and consumer prices regarding electricity were an important component of the public debate about political independence, economic development, public utilities, and corruption. Two technical complaints during this period were that of unstable voltage supply and frequent power cuts. Also important was the price of electricity. Consumers, reformist politicians, and rival businessmen had different yet overlapping interests in highlighting these issues and pressing for government intervention, which had been almost non-existent vis-à-vis electricity since independence.

So the claim that all was fine with the electricity sector prior to the civil war, or even that it was only after the major waves of rural-urban migration that the electricity sector became a contentious issue is simply not true. Whether it was the introduction of electricity, the uneven distribution and access to the electricity network, or the ownership, quality, and pricing of electricity, the sector was historically a subject of debate, conflict, and mobilization. This is of course to say nothing of the central place electricity occupied in the competing imaginaries that formed the early thinking behind and debates around the Litani River Project, which was the major government development project of the early independence period and which was eventually promoted as the solution to all the country’s electricity problems.

LCPS: Despite the endemic problems in the generation and distribution of electricity in Lebanon, it has been electricity workers and not electricity consumers that have organized the overwhelming number of protests and campaigns making demands of the electricity sector. Is this labor question relatively recent in terms of Lebanese history, and have consumers always had what appears to be a quiescent role?

ZA: This question highlights a number of issues. Historically, the workers in the electricity sector have always been active on the question of labor rights, and their unions have episodically been politically relevant social forces. However, we should note that the demands of electricity workers and forms of mobilizations have changed over time. In particularly, they have taken on a different dynamic in the postwar period, given—among other things—both the effective privatization of the EDL and the changing discourse and practice of sectarian allotments.

If workers’ mobilizations have been consistent across the history of the electricity sector, that of consumers has not. Prior to the civil war, electricity consumers (whether domestic, commercial, or industrial) were a major source of organized mobilization. This was certainly so at least during the late Ottoman, French mandate, and early independence periods. While more ad hoc protests characterized the late Ottoman period, the French mandate period alone featured three major consumer boycott campaigns in 1922, 1931, and 1935. These episodes featured the organization of boycott committees to try and pressure the company to lower its prices and improve the quality of its services. Since the same company provided for both electricity and tramway services in Beirut, in most cases the protests were simultaneously against both—thus seeking to use all available means to bring financial pressure on the company. During the early 1950s, a group of middle-class consumers and political reformers organized a major protest campaign that lasted approximately eight months and only ended when the government intervened to force the lowering of electricity tariffs, which was the main (though not only) demand of the protesters and campaign organizers. Even politicians and businessmen mobilized around the issue of electricity to improve their political standing or expand their economic interests. An example of this is when Camile Chamoun effectively nationalized the Beirut Electricity Company in 1953-54 as a means of bolstering his nationalist and reformist credentials. Another example is how private investors sought concessions to generate electricity and sell it to the company to supplement its below-demand production levels while also offering major profits. The power plants of Nahr al-Ibrahim and Nahr al-Bared were both the outcomes of such efforts and symptomatic of some of their legacies.

LCPS: Much of the debate about the electricity sector parallels the debate about privatization, market efficiency, and state capacity. In what ways does this represent continuity or break with historical debates regarding the electricity sector?

ZA: In the early independence period, the issue was that electricity provision was subject to private interests and therefore should be nationalized given that the state was viewed as the only genuine guarantor of public good. However, this claim itself was rooted in a very different set of normative and theoretical frameworks, when the role of states in managing economic development and securing public interests were valorised. Thus while the call for privatization of the EDL in the 1990s and 2000s has its roots in specific understandings of the capacities of the Lebanese state, it is also important to recognize that mainstream economic development has shifted significantly since the 1950s and 1960s, valorising markets much more so than states.

That being said, I do not necessarily find the debate very productive, especially in light of the mostly informal networks between state officials and private businessmen in Lebanon. For me, the interesting issue is how the discourse on the lack of a state in Lebanon (i.e., wayn al-dawla) is used to buttress an already-existing neoliberal argument about the efficiency of markets. The debate about public versus private ownership also renders the consumer a passive audience and victim of the debate and its outcome. Electricity in Lebanon is a business, and it is a politically salient business. Thus it might be more productive to consider ways of mobilizing consumers—whether against the state or the private sector—to demand better pricing and services regarding electricity, and to buttress this call with collective action that threatens both where it hurts: Incumbency for the government and revenue for the businesses.

[This interview was originally published on the website of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS)]

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