[This is the first installment of a two-part roundtable on electricity in Lebanon featuring Ziad Abu-Rish, Owain Lawson, Joanne Nucho, Eric Verdeil, and Dana Abi Ghanem. Read Part 2 here.]
Introduction (by Ziad Abu-Rish)
Electricity features centrally in Lebanon, both at the level of political discourse and daily life. Residents of the country have long experienced the rationing and unscheduled interruptions of electric supply. In addition, private generator owners charge building and neighborhood residents exorbitant prices to supplement the services of the state-owned Electricite du Liban. Furthermore, regional disparities exacerbate these supply and cost issues. This is to say nothing of the deleterious environmental and economic effects of how the electricity sector is organized.
Almost every single cabinet formed in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War has pledged to resolve the multiple crises and deficiencies characterizing the production, transmission, and consumption of electricity. Most recently, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a unanimously-approved plan that promised twenty-four-hour electricity. This most recent plan, is of course, only the latest iteration of such promises.
In the last several years, a new terrain of critical scholarship has emerged to address the historical and contemporary dynamics of electricity in Lebanon. This roundtable brings together five researchers who have contributed to and/or been inspired by this body of work. They each answer the same four questions, published in two installments (Part 1 and Part 2). Combined, these researchers, their projects, and resultant analyses highlight important elements of the electricity sector in Lebanon, including public discourse and policy research about it. Therefore, this roundtable draws on their individual projects and collective knowledge to reflect on the nature of the electricity sector and the production of knowledge about it.
The participants are Ziad Abu-Rish, Owain Lawson, Joanne Nucho, Eric Verdeil, and Dana Abi Ghanem.
Question 1: Could you describe what your own research interests in electricity have been in the past or currently are?
Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): My research on electricity stems from two different projects. The first is my current book project, which explores the intersections of state building, economic development, and popular mobilizations between 1943 and 1955. Conflicts over the political economy of the country in the wake of independence were central to the changing nature and role of state institutions in that period. In this context, mobilizations around the Beirut Electricity Company (one of many foreign-owned public utility concessionary companies) emerge as one of the key axes of debates and struggles. These first manifested in a major protest campaign (1951–52) and then in the nationalization of the company (1953–54). Such mobilizations featured important continuities and breaks with their French colonial and late Ottoman precedents. They also established legacies that would shape future developments around electricity. The second project from which my interest in electricity stems is a collaboration with artist Tania El Khoury on a research-based installation-lecture performance titled The Search for Power. Premiered in 2018 and currently touring, this project surveys major turning points in the construction, breakdown, and transformation of electricity infrastructure in the territories that today constitute Lebanon between 1906 and 2015. This includes thinking about geographic differences as well as exploring the ways the civil war (1975–90) transformed an existing structural problem rather than created it. The performance is interactive such that audience members learn about the history of electricity in Lebanon and its transnational archival terrain through diverse performance elements (the set, sound, visuals, performers, and the archive itself). We are particularly interested in how the history of electricity can serve as a window into the political and social history of Lebanon, as well exploring why precisely the electricity sector has been plagued with the shortcomings that so many of us are familiar with.
Owain Lawson (OL): My research explores the history of the development of hydroelectric and irrigation infrastructure on Lebanon’s Litani river in the mid-twentieth century. The Litani project (1955–65) was by far Lebanon’s largest development project before the civil war (1970-90), and an immensely controversial process in its day. Yet historians have not engaged it in detail. My dissertation situates the project in a longer series of debates and attempts to harness the Litani for hydroelectric power and agricultural development that began in the Mandate era (1920-43) and extend until the 1978 Israeli invasion. Following Lebanon’s independence, Lebanese engineers and planning boosters had to work and contend with the business and banking elites who had their hands on the levers of power. These engineers pushed for Litani development, and state-led projects more broadly, as part of a broader effort to build a different kind of Lebanese state. They competed and collaborated with French and US experts to design the Litani project, which was a large-scale integrated hydroelectric and irrigation development scheme. The project created new kinds of material and political connections among the Biqa‘, South, and Beirut. The project and the Office National du Litani (ONL)—who managed it—were dogged by disasters, corruption scandals, strikes, and rural demands for reform. I have found the Litani project to be a useful lens to reconsider the recent history of Lebanon and the era of postcolonial development.
Joanne Nucho (JN): My research in Lebanon has focused on the relationships between public services and infrastructure provision, and how these help to produce and recalibrate forms of identification, belonging, and exclusion, as well as ideas about citizenship. As an anthropologist, I am attentive to the ways in which people experience things like water supply and electricity in everyday life. In Lebanon, electricity cuts on a predictable schedule in some places, though certainly not in others. Things look quite different in the working-class Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud, a municipality dominated by Armenian political, social, and religious institutions. This is where I have conducted research. Electricity cuts last for several hours a day and service is generally less reliable than in Beirut. People rely on private electricity generator subscriptions to power a few basic appliances and keep the lights on, but for much of the day cannot do laundry or run an air conditioner. Like elsewhere in Lebanon, people try to plan their day around the cuts. For example, some might wait for the electricity to be on in order to use the elevator in their building before they run an errand (if their building has an elevator!). Or perhaps they would try to time doing the laundry when electricity might be available. It is not only how people live with electricity cuts that is important to look at, but also how electricity is supplied outside of the national grid—through relationships between municipalities, private generator subscription services, and even neighbors who might share a subscription. Electricity shortages and cuts are not unique to Lebanon. So what interests me is what the particular arrangements that electricity provisioning in Lebanon can tell us about notions of citizenship, the way the state is imagined and critiqued, and how people talk about and attribute responsibility for these arrangements.
Eric Verdeil (EV): I have been researching electricity in Lebanon for more than ten years. I was initially interested in the attempts at reforming the sector in the aftermaths of the Paris II agreements, aiming inter alia to introduce privatization and other neoliberal schemes. I wanted to understand their social and territorial effects. But after the 2006 war and the political stalemate that unfolded, the reform projects now spearheaded by the Free Patriotic Movement stalled. I, therefore, reoriented my questions. I now asked how the politically fierce competition resulted in interpreting every policy move according to its sectarian-political dimensions, thus further freezing any progress. I also highlighted the increased reliance on alternative informal systems such as poaching and generators. The use of the latter expanded and became technically, commercially, and politically more complex. This was the case from the individual to the collective levels. At the same time, building and neighborhood-scale collective projects increasingly fell under municipal regulation.
Dana Abi Ghanim (DA): My interest exploring the everyday experience of power outages in Beirut grew out of earlier work I did in the United Kingdom on disruptions to everyday practices with a focus on energy consumption. This work is inspired by long-running research on energy and society, theorizing the interactions between technologies, infrastructure, and society. Power disruptions offer an interesting perspective on understanding these interactions. This starts off with simple questions: how do people assimilate the lack of electricity services into their everyday life? How do they “cope” with service disruptions and how do their everyday lives become entangled in the myriad of artifacts and strategies that enable them to perform their normal everyday practices? The socio-material landscape of power outages offers compelling insights, and the case of Lebanon is no exception. I also grew up in Beirut with scheduled power cuts, so it was naturally the first case study I wanted to explore. I began fieldwork to this end in 2015. On the face of it, Lebanon had an ailing electricity infrastructure that had been destroyed by episodic conflicts—and so that explained the power outages to some extent. However, since studying this issue in more depth, including conducting various interviews with veteran engineers in the civil service and EDL (as well as reading works of other scholars, such Eric Verdeil’s fascinating insight on infrastructure and its impact on the city and Ziad Abu-Rish’s historical account of electricity in Lebanon), it becomes clear that this narrative (although prevalent in the techno-economic literature) is an oversimplification. The history of electricity provisioning since the French mandate, followed by large-scale projects funded through international aid, drove my research in a slightly broader direction. Currently, I am exploring the history of the civil war (1975–90) to better understand everyday post-conflict recovery and how that has shaped the energy landscape in Lebanon today. These issues intersect with multiple sociopolitical realities in the country, and various ideologies of resilience, resistance, and steadfastness that manifest themselves in the everyday politics of energy provision. They have also shaped society’s relationship with electricity and its associated services.
Question 2: Electricity is frequently discussed in policy circles, the press, and in private in Lebanon. What is your sense of what these discussions tend to focus on? In particular, how much of this is both instructive to us in regard to some dynamics as well as possibly obfuscating of some other dynamics?
Ziad Abu-Rish: I find discussions about electricity in Lebanon to be quite diverse, depending on where those discussions are taking place, who they involve, and to what end they are being had. On one level, much of what is published on electricity tends to reproduce particular tropes about political dynamics and economic development in post-war Lebanon. On another level, intimate conversations about electricity reveal a much more complex range of how people experience and understand the country’s electricity infrastructure. There is also a vibrant legacy of investigative reporting on electricity. Because of my research focus, I am particularly interested in how people remember the years prior to the civil war vis-à-vis electricity, and how that period is narrated in the media and policy circles. There can be quite a bit of romanticization of what everyday life was like in both Beirut and the rest of Lebanon prior to the war, including regarding electricity. Such narratives tend to be Beirut-centric, ignoring both other urban areas and (even more so) rural regions. I am also interested in debates about privatization versus public sector control of electricity. There is currently a genuine and legitimate frustration with how politicians have used state institutions (including the Ministry of Power) to hijack the development of the electricity sector in favor of their own political and economic gains. At the same time though, the championing of the private sector by some seems to ignore two key dynamics: first, the years since the end of the civil war are riddled with evidence of how the privatization of state-owned enterprises or services has been equally (if not more) bereft of political and economic profiteering; second, much of the underlying structural problems with the electricity sector stem from its origins in a range of private enterprises. I actually find that the more intimate the level of discussion of electricity, and the further away from centers of political, economic, and cultural power, the more critical the approach to such issues.
Owain Lawson: A major part of what drives the scholarly interest in electricity in Lebanon is that the country’s electricity crisis is such a ubiquitous aspect of life. I draw lessons and inspiration from those who are incorporating electricity into public mobilizations around services and infrastructure. These are issues that facilitate the creation of new kinds of civil and political networks and are a powerful means to oppose corruption and the entrenched, moribund political mainstream. The most powerful critiques of the electricity crisis situate it within Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction dynamics: massive foreign borrowing, state capture, lack of meaningful democratic restrictions on power, and institutional and structural breakdown. Though this might be predictable, coming from a historian, I think the fact that there are so few histories of Lebanon’s electrical and other infrastructure can imply—or at least leave untroubled—a narrative that Lebanon’s pre-war electricity infrastructure was a functioning system, which degraded through war into a malfunctioning and corrupt one. As I have come to understand, although the civil war was unquestionably transformative in terms of destruction of infrastructure and creation of new dynamics, it was not a total rupture. Prior to the war, powerful inequalities characterized the electricity sector, in terms of access to electricity, material distribution of infrastructure, and the capacity to afford electricity. As Ziad Abu-Rish’s work shows, many of the dynamics we see today have much deeper roots that extend back to the Mandate and post-independence periods. These include private sector dominance of utilities, the absence of meaningful business-government boundaries, and political mobilizations around electricity. My research traces some of these longer trajectories regarding Lebanon’s water-power nexus, particularly Lebanon’s intimate and toxic relationship with the World Bank and tensions between allocating water for hydroelectricity or for rural irrigation and potable water.
Joanne Nucho: I think there is great variation between the discussions that happen about electricity in Lebanon. I tend to be most interested in discussions about how the informal electricity providers operate. This is possibly a due to my own thinking about where we can learn the most about the relationships between the seemingly informal and formal systems, and start to consider what they work to produce together, aside from electricity itself. I focus most on the ways in which people talk about electricity in everyday contexts. I find that, in general, my interlocutors understand the actors across the informal-formal divide to be continuous. For example, many people I speak with understand the generator owners as well-connected people who are allies or associates of politicians or other people in power, either within the municipality or beyond. They tend to think of the relationships between the people who run the generators and powerful state actors as part of a continuum of how infrastructures are unevenly provisioned and ultimately enrich the few to the detriment of most. I think this is helpful in unpacking how to think about electricity in Lebanon, as a system that is not really divisible by the binaries of state vs. non-state or formal vs. informal. Those categories can obfuscate relations and meanings that are produced in and through the different ways people receive electricity in their homes, and all the various payments they make to keep the flow of power steady.
Eric Verdeil: The discussions about electricity in Lebanon have heightened along with the increasing power cuts, particularly after 2006. Until then, the political debates focused very much on non-payment and poaching, while additional capacities had resulted in reducing power cuts, that did not affect Beirut anymore—though they persisted outside of the capital for three or four hours a day. Later on, as power cuts increased again, it became increasingly clear among experts that the main issue was the lack of electricity generation. The debate then turned to public vs. private investments, and (if the latter) how to monitor the private sector. However, political leaders never stopped using sectarian rhetoric to assert their legitimacy among their constituency, accusing the other “regions” (i.e., sectarian communities) of not paying their due. Surprisingly, the inequality of supply between Beirut and the other regions has never really become a political issue. Two attempts at balancing the supply, introduced by Alain Tabourian in 2009 and Gebran Bassil in 2011, were rebutted by the Council of Ministers. The Free Patriotic Movement did not insist anymore, nor did the other parties raise this issue. It was as if the privilege of Beirut was natural. Popular gossip, at times fueled by the declarations of political personalities, interpreted the absence of light as an absence of state. It stigmatized practices of corruption among the political and business elites, because of fraught procurement and non-payment of bills. In turn, people’s ability to cope with the derelict grid is often celebrated, even when it is through extra-legal practices, such as the so-called “king of electricity” in the southern suburb of Beirut. Whatever their differences, one common blind point in both discussions is how the lack of electricity was reproducing and increasing inequalities. Two dynamics helped produce this fact. The first is related to generator subscriptions, which disproportionately affect low-income households. The second is the EDL tariff structure, which also disadvantages low-income households, in addition to the imbalance benefitting Beirut’s residents. Far from being felt equally by Lebanese citizens, electricity exposes and widens social and territorial hierarchies.
Dana Abi Ghanim: In the press, discussions can be categorized into two groups. The first is administrative reform, addressing corruption and the management of service provision. Within that is the issue of the day-laborers at EDL, supply augmentation and large-scale investment, the Bassil plan etc. The second is the issue of the informal service providers, the owners of generators and the subscription services they provide. These tend to be dubbed as “mafias” operating in the dark, with questionable connections to politicians. The second group of discussions are anchored in policy circles, where the debate does not differ much. Though they might focus more on partisan divisions within government on privatization, they tend to take a dismissive view of the informal sector. In their view, the informal provision will end or be priced out when services improve, but how and in what form this sector operates is of little interest to them. One interesting shift in these discussions was the question of electricity theft, and how it should not be associated with one particular community in Lebanon (which it typically has been within formal circles). However, one might explain such a shift in policy circles as indicative of changes in control of certain political and administrative institutions. Discussions in private are more interesting, and that is perhaps why I focused mostly on that (certainly in the beginning of my work). There are varieties of informal providers and consequently, the relationships between households and their informal providers are more complex. The discussion is no longer limited to the framing of a generic “generator mafia.” I observed that these informal providers are part of different communities, they share histories with their customers, there are links such as social cohesion, friendship, etc. There are layers of identities and ideologies that colour these connections. In private, the government and its various administrative sections are perceived as the “mafia”. People talk about government failure, corruption, but also that they deserve better and that it is high time they “recover” from the civil war to have twenty-four-hour electricity. Notions of progress and post-war recovery have always been linked to uninterrupted electricity provision, and most of the text and talk follows that vision. This is indicative of dynamics worthy of further research of course. It also means that we do not talk enough or seriously about green energy, decentralized provision, energy conservation, and what it all means when thinking about climate change and climate change policy.
Question 3: The electricity sector, or rather its infrastructure, is increasingly becoming a focus of research in Middle East studies. What are some ways you think Lebanon provides an important basis for comparative analysis?
Answer published in Part 2.
Question 4: There is still so much we don’t know about electricity in Lebanon. What are some questions you’d like to see other researchers take up to help fill in the emerging picture scholarship have thus far created?
Answer published in Part 2.