Lebanon’s Communications: A One-Man Bottleneck

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A technician installs a 3G base station at the rooftop of Lebanese mobile operator MTC Touch in Beirut September 30, 2011. On October 1, 2011. (Photo: Reuters- Jamal Saidi).

By: Bassam Alkantar

Published Thursday, December 5, 2013

For three months, the installation of fiber-optic cables in North Lebanon has been suspended. Elsewhere in the country, other important communications maintenance work is experiencing delays. The reason? A communications ministry official with conflicting interests has overstepped his boundaries, insisting that all maintenance work must go through him – and Ogero.

When Lebanese cellphone carriers Touch and Alpha need to conduct maintenance work, they must first go through the Ministry of Communications. Here, Abdul-Monem Youssef, the general director of investment and maintenance at the ministry, has decided that all permits allowing access to the ministry’s DSL and phone switchboards must pass through him. The ministry’s switchboards are further managed by Youssef’s other employer, Ogero.

This new approval process, which began last July, is an indication that Ogero – ostensibly contracted for the benefit of the ministry – is acting as if it owns these facilities and that the ministry does not have the right to interfere.

This process has led to delays in permit approval for contractors and consultants setting up Lebanon’s fiber-optic network. Lebanese taxpayers have been paying an additional charge due to these delays, plus additional costs to the contractors estimated at $149,000 a month.

Until Youssef finds the time to sign the permit, Lebanon’s communications face further risks: In case of a malfunction in the Internet lines operated by private companies, subscribers would need to wait at least 10 days to be relinked.

Further obstructive measures are carried out by Youssef under an administrative cloak. He puts down the Ogero pen and picks up that of the Ministry of Communications, replying to himself, asking Mr. Youssef-Ogero not to allow anyone inside unless the permit is signed by Mr. Youssef-Ministry.

The details of this scandal unfolded in correspondence between Youssef and Naji Andraos, general director of installation and equipment in the Ministry of Communications. Andraos warned that the obstacles put in place by Youssef could disrupt the implementation of the fiber-optic network conducted by Ericsson. For the past three months, Ericsson workers have been consistently denied access to various phone centers.

Andraos also complained about the failure of ministry and Ogero staff in North Lebanon to follow up on contracted electricity works in Batroun and Akkar. The equipment installed in the Batroun switchboard had been put out of service by a third party and the fiber-optic cables linked to them were removed. This led to a stoppage in the works related to linking Batroun with the central switchboard.

Andraos indicated that the engineer in charge of the north, Amin Nabbout, had prevented Ericsson employees from entering the premises. Youssef had called Nabbout and told him to stop all Ericsson employees from entering the centers under his supervision and to await further orders.

Andraos concluded that the situation has resulted in additional monthly charges of $149,000 from Ericsson. Andraos reiterated his complaint in another letter, indicating that the entry ban has also been imposed on Alcatel-Lucent and al-Ittihad Engineering and Commerce Group (CET), which are also ministry contractors.

Youssef replied to Andraos' by accusing him of lying. Youssef wrote that Nabbout merely refused to implement the works, which do not fall in the framework of maintenance and operations. Youssef wrote that Ericsson had previously done work without Nabbout's permission and could continue to do so under its own responsibility.

"In light of the current security situation and various warnings, the entry of foreign workers into phone centers cannot be permitted. They work for the contractors and do not carry identification cards, sometimes not even an ID or legitimate work permits," Youssef explained.

To avoid any security breaches of strategic public installations, Youssef wrote that he requested from the Directorate of Installation and Equipment to provide the Directorate of Investment and Maintenance with a timeline for the works conducted by the contractors, a list of working teams, the names of workers, and their nationalities.

Meanwhile, Nicolas Sehnaoui, minister of communications in the caretaker government, issued decision No.1/713 on October 24, which prevents access to technical departments in phone centers, except for those who have work there, such as ministry and Ogero staff.

In form, this decision repeals former procedures set by Youssef to regulate the access of all private companies to phone centers to conduct installation on behalf of the Directorate for Installation and Equipment. However, facts on the ground indicate that Ogero's security personnel have been denying access to all representatives of private companies, even if escorted by someone from the ministry. The concerned party is then informed that it needs to receive a prior permit from Youssef.

Al-Akhbar obtained a document of transfer issued by the Directorate of Investment and Maintenance indicating that one ISP had to wait 10 days to be permitted access to the Hazmieh center to fix a customer's line. Although this falls under the emergency maintenance category, Youssef issued a decision to commend this procedure "in light of the urgent security situation."

Al-Akhbar also found out that a cellular operator had reported a fire at its Achrafieh center. However, Ogero's security department prohibited the staff of the company from entering the premises since they did not have Youssef’s permission.

Minister Sehnaoui maintained that such actions will result in the continuous failure of Lebanon’s cellular and Internet networks. Sehnaoui, who has filed numerous lawsuits and complaints against Youssef to Central Inspection, the Audit Bureau, and the State Shura Council, seems unable to change the administrative and political formula that has placed Youssef in such a position of authority.

Youssef continues to correspond with himself, issuing administrative decisions from Riad al-Solh that will end up in a bottomless drawer in his office in Bir Hassan.

Eight New Criminal Proceedings

Though Youssef deals with Sehnaoui’s decisions by ignoring them completely, 21 complaints have been filed against him in the Central Inspection Directorate, which issued decision 19/2012 recommending a review of Youssef's employment status, due to his combination of three official positions.

A table prepared by the communication ministry's legal department indicated 52 complaints, lawsuits, warrants, and warnings against Youssef, including seven pending reviews at the State Shura Council.

Central Inspection, on the other hand, looked into 11 of 21 complaints and issued penalties ranging between one and two days salary deductions. The Audit Bureau decided on three accounts, two of which were in Youssef's favor.

Recently, Sehnaoui filed eight new criminal procedures against Youssef, which were received by the courts two weeks ago. Some are related to legal and financial disputes regarding Ogero's credit at the ministry.

Follow Bassam Alkantar on Twitter.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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