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Lebanon’s electricity was down for a day, but the crisis was years in the making

A power outage is just the latest political nightmare for Lebanon.

Power lines in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, run from a pole to nearby buildings.
A tangle of raised power lines runs along a street in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on June 23, 2021.
Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Lebanon’s electricity failed over the weekend, plunging the country into further difficulty on top of economic collapse, political corruption, and a deadly port explosion in Beirut last year.

Though limited power was restored Sunday after about 24 hours of outages, the collapse of the state-run electrical grid on Saturday is just the most extreme manifestation of a chronic fuel shortage that has plagued Lebanon for the last year and a half.

Lebanese citizens have struggled with the state’s electric company, Electricité du Liban, for years, and its shortcomings mean that private generators are common, at least for those who can afford them. Even in an ordinary week, it’s common for people to have as little as one or two hours of daily electricity from the state grid.

But the crisis came to a head Saturday when the nation’s two largest power stations ran out of enough diesel fuel to provide even a few hours of electricity in a country already confronted with multiple crises.

The Deir Ammar and Zahrani power stations shut down in quick succession over the weekend after fuel ran out, leaving Lebanon’s population of more than 6.8 million people without public power. The blackout comes just over a week after the government allowed a contract with a Turkish company supplying power via two barges off the coast of Beirut to lapse, cutting off that energy supply.

Though common, private generators proved insufficient during the outage — as Beirut-based journalist Bel Trew pointed out on Twitter Saturday, not only are such generators incredibly expensive to run and equally subject to Lebanon’s fuel shortages, but they do little to keep essential services like hospitals running.

According to Washington Post reporters Nader Durgham and Liz Sly, even before the weekend’s outage, chronic fuel shortages meant that hospitals have been “forced to suspend operations or halt vital procedures,” among a slew of other issues.

“It is drastic, and it has been drastic for a while,” Lebanese Energy Minister Walid Fayyad told the Post. “With a few hours a day people can go about their basic needs for a couple of hours, and of course it is better than nothing, but the situation is dire and we need more than a few hours a day.”

But Lebanese citizens put the situation in starker terms.

“We have forgotten what electricity means,” Abdul-Hadi al-Sibai, a Beirut taxi driver, told the New York Times.

A 6 million-liter fuel donation from the Lebanese armed forces brought power back on Sunday, ahead of the schedule originally predicted by Lebanon’s central government. However, it’s not a permanent solution — according to Reuters, the new supply of fuel will only be enough to keep the lights on for three days. A shipment from Iraq is set to boost the fuel supply later this month, according to Al Jazeera, and the energy ministry announced Sunday that it had received a $100 million fuel credit from the central bank of Lebanon, so that the country can again pay to import fuel.

Lebanon has dealt with energy problems for decades; hours-long outages have long been a part of everyday life. But the country’s current economic crisis, combined with political corruption, has turned what was once a serious, but for many, manageable inconvenience into a far more acute crisis.

“There is no fuel and limited generation, so the variation in frequency is ruining the grid,” Marc Ayoub, an energy researcher at the American University of Beirut, explained to Al Jazeera.

Lebanon’s power outage is just one of multiple crises

The shutdown comes as Lebanon is experiencing shocking hyperinflation; the Lebanese lira, which is pegged to the dollar, has dropped 90 percent in value since fall 2019 and is currently trading about 18,900 lira per dollar on the black market. Prior to Lebanon’s 2019 economic implosion, the exchange rate was 1,500 lira per dollar.

That astronomical inflation makes ordinary goods like medicine hard to come by, much less enough fuel to power an entire country.

Critically, the compounding crises have serious political implications, both internally and outside of Lebanon. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militant group — which is part of Lebanon’s government, although the US has designated it a terror group — brought in gasoline fuel by the truckload from Iran via Syria, according to a New York Times report last month, apparently flouting US sanctions.

Currently, according to the Washington Post, those US sanctions are also a major obstacle to a plan for Lebanon to import gas from Egypt via Syria, which could improve the long-term outlook for Lebanon’s power grid. That could soon change, as US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea confirmed in August that the Biden administration is seeking “real, sustainable solutions for Lebanon’s fuel and energy needs.”

For the time being, however, the Lebanese government has been conspicuously absent in responding to the interconnected crises facing the country, despite the fact that Lebanon formed a new government last month. That absence has only served to highlight Hezbollah’s ability to deliver basic goods where the central government fails, potentially giving the group a larger foothold in the country.

Lebanon’s new government is also its first functional administration since a major explosion rocked its capital, Beirut, last year, according to the BBC. In the aftermath of that crisis, the existing government resigned, creating a stalemate that took 13 months to resolve.

Lebanon’s political system has enabled chaos for years

In June, the World Bank identified the collapse of Lebanon’s financial system as “in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century,” adding that there’s no sense of how the nation will recover from such a catastrophe.

Despite that severe diagnosis, global actors like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have thus far largely declined to step in due to a lack of faith in Lebanon’s government and its disinclination to deal with any of the several interconnected and deeply rooted crises facing the country.

Specifically, Lebanon’s 2019 financial collapse sprang from decades of bad economic policy: Ultra-wealthy, deeply entrenched public servants have long benefited from a peculiar political system and enriched themselves further by helping themselves to public funds. From 2018 to 2020, the country’s GDP fell from $55 billion to $33 billion — a precipitous drop typically associated with the outbreak of conflict, according to a recent World Bank report.

Calls for the resignation of the whole government, with the rallying cry, “All of them means all of them,” erupted in October 2019, after attempts to raise money by taxing the use of WhatsApp, the messaging service widely used both within Lebanon and to communicate with the rest of the world, including a large Lebanese diaspora.

That resignation did eventually occur — but not until August 2020, after a massive explosion in Beirut, caused by more than 2,700 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, killed hundreds, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The explosion also destroyed Lebanon’s major grain silo, leaving the country with less than a month of reserves at the time. It also destroyed Beirut’s port area, which handled about 70 percent of the food imports in a country that imports about 85 percent of its food.

Despite the popular outrage that drove Lebanon’s previous government to resign, there are signs that the new administration, led by Najib Mikati, a billionaire and Lebanon’s wealthiest man, will be more of the same. Mikati, who is now prime minister, has held the position twice before — meaning he comes from the exact system that plunged the country into its current upheaval.

That government, as Faysal Itani, adjunct professor of Middle East politics and security at Georgetown University, wrote for Vox last year, is deeply entrenched, making it difficult to change, despite its many and obvious problems. As Itani explains:

Lebanon’s political system is the product of a decades-old power-sharing arrangement among leaders of Lebanon’s 18 religious sects, the most important being the Sunni and Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians. This system, known as confessionalism, parceled out political power according to sectarian quotas, with each sect usually led by one or several members of prominent political families.

Despite the lack of public services and the blatant corruption of those in power, Lebanese politicians have generally proved adept at playing up sectarian disputes and doing just enough to keep their constituents satisfied.

However, the depth of Lebanon’s current crises, exemplified by the outright collapse of the state power grid Saturday, means that the status quo of previous Lebanese governments might not be good enough going forward. Already, Mikati, the new prime minister, has pledged to end the fuel crisis and restart talks with the IMF to shore up the economy, a potential lifeline for Lebanon — if he keeps his promise.

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