Beirut residents feel the heat amid ‘arbitrary’ power cuts

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A man checks on his building's generator in Beirut amid growing power cuts. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Firas Abou-Mosleh

Published Monday, September 8, 2014

Residents of Beiruti neighborhoods, affected by the disruption at the UNESCO power station, are beginning to feel what their fellow citizens living outside of Beirut’s administrative borders have been suffering. Will people look in amazement at the reactions of those who now must suffer like the rest of us for a few days? Or will this be a catalyst for [Lebanese citizens] to awaken from their stupor, in light of the persisting crisis of contract workers and the extension of power cuts to all areas. However, rising up is seemingly out of the question for now.

Residents of Beirut are beginning to feel what their fellow citizens living outside the privileged areas of the country had felt for the past two decades. Their counterparts had become accustomed to see the harsh and arbitrary rationing of electricity as something normal. However, in the most affected neighborhoods of Beirut, people are still in shock of the new situation that began a few weeks ago.

Attempts to adapt have yet to become common and people’s reactions are characterized by aversion and despair over the whole situation in the country. There is also political bias, which functions by blaming the crisis on political opponents, or the sectarian “other” while denying the origin of the crisis and absolving one’s own political side from any responsibility, although it had been one of the main pillars of power for the past two decades.

According to Aicha Bakkar's municipal representative Saeb Kalash, his neighborhood – close to the center of Beirut – has been getting one hour of electricity for each five hours of power cuts. "After following up the issue of [power] cuts with Prime Minister Tammam Salam, the electricity company (EDL), and the daily workers" it became clear that "the cuts are deliberate and systematic to target the people of Beirut," he declared in all confidence.

Kalash believed the cuts have nothing to do with a real problem in the network, maintaining they are a type of political "malice" and that "EDL's general director had deliberately prevented fixing the malfunctions." He added that are likely "made up," pointing to the responsibility of the "beneficiaries" from power cuts.

The municipal representative elaborated on the increased sales of small generators, whose prices increased "between 20 and 30 percent" recently, in addition to a high demand for diesel. He described the return of private power generators, whose owners impose a price of $50 per five amperes. Their businesses are protected with arms, he added, and they have become "electoral keys" (Al-Akhbar could not verify this information, although this is the usual situation outside the boundaries of municipal Beirut). "Those politicians need thugs like this, to chain the good people," he said.

He called for an investigation of EDL director Kamal Hayek – "alone" – for his responsibility for the power crisis. "He is fighting the workers by cutting electricity from homes." Kalash also asked to investigate all those "responsible for the damage by creating the malfunctions and their indifference to the suffering of citizens."

An owner of a small cafe in an adjacent neighborhood complained about the protests by the daily workers and its impact on the electricity rationing adopted in Beirut for many years, whereby cuts did not exceed three hours a day. Shortly after the daily workers' strike, his neighborhood started getting 3 hours of electricity followed by 3 hours of cuts. Today, they get a maximum of 10 hours of electricity per 24 hours.

The cafe owner indicated that subscriptions to private generators are "old" and denied that those types of networks, which sprung up all over the country, existed in Beirut. There are some cases, however, where people with a relatively big generator would extend lines to some of the neighboring shops and homes. One month ago, he explained, the price was $50 per 10 amperes, but recently it doubled to $100 when the cuts became more regular.

"The main problem is in the clergy, who keep inciting people against each other," he said about the political situation that led to Lebanon’s state of backwardness and chaos.

Each day, dozens of people visit the office of Mar Elias neighborhood mukhtar Elias Ghassan Majdalani to complain about the persistent power cuts. Some start cussing the "nation's MPs," but reserve the brunt of their curses for EDL. At the beginning of the daily workers' action, the electricity's frequency became three hours of electricity, followed by three hours of no electricity. But after the "sabotage" of the UNESCO station, the three hours of electricity became interspersed with cuts ranging from 30 to 45 minutes.

Effectively, electricity is only available for five hours a day in total at most in the neighborhood, according to Majdalani. He explained that power lines from private generators began springing up with the intensification of the crisis a few weeks ago. Private electricity providers are getting between $67 and $100 a month for 5 amperes. However, he said their scope was still limited.

Neighborhood residents are demanding that Majdalani follow-up on their complaints. He called the EDL, which "did not answer." Then he called KVA – the private company charged with power services in Beirut and the Bekaa. The people on the other line read out a list of malfunctions. Majdalani called the head of the Public Works, Energy, and Water Committee in parliament, MP Mohammad Qabbani, who told him “that’s life.”

Many of the city's residents refused accept the current situation. Some began to block roads, such as what happened in different neighborhoods of Beirut on Friday and Saturday night. Others wanted to go to EDL to clash with those who have shut it down. But Wata al-Moussaitbeh's municipal representative Rifaat Zouhairi does not agree, saying nothing useful will come out of such actions.

Zouhairi maintains that his neighborhood does not posses private generators, repeating that some people with bigger generators are extending lines to their neighbors' homes or shops and that he is one of them. Zouhairi gets paid $50 for each 5 amperes he provides. He explains that diesel expenses rose from $1,000 to $3,000 after the crisis, but he does not want to raise the price, since the situation is "exceptional." However, he is thinking of stopping the service if the situation continues, to "discuss" with the subscribers the available options in case the "arbitrary" rationing continues, where electricity gets cut for one and a half hours within the three hours of supposed feed.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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