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Gunfights on the streets in Lebanon’s electricity Wild West

Two men (unrelated to the shooting video) work on an electricity generator in Beirut Fadel Itani/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect
Two men (unrelated to the shooting video) work on an electricity generator in Beirut
  • Illegal generators supply most power
  • Consumers struggle to pay bills
  • Lack of political appetite blamed

A video is doing the rounds in Lebanon. The clip is not easy to find on social media, but it is being sent from friend to friend – and it’s got people talking since emerging last month. It shows an argument in a Beirut suburb turning ugly when a man pulls a gun on another and fires two warning shots.

Filmed from a balcony in broad daylight, the footage then shows a group of bystanders surrounding the man who is holding the gun, trying to calm him down. The crowd scatters when the second man pulls out his own firearm and, with two shots, kills the other.

This apparent gangland gunfight was not over drugs or protection rackets, but electricity.

The details are murky, but local reports suggest the shooting stemmed from a disagreement over neighbourhood generators – the informal, technically illegal, systems from which Lebanon’s citizens obtain the bulk of their electricity.

The incident, although unusually violent, reaffirms the outlaw nature of the industry upon which the country relies and the difficulty facing a weakened state forced to work with it.

The latest attempt to enforce some control is being led by Ibrahim Mneimneh, a parliamentarian who represents Beirut’s second district.

Last month Mneimneh announced an effort to push generator operators to meet a long-standing demand by the Beirut governorate to offer metered electricity at approved prices.

At the moment, many operators charge a flat rate in US dollars based on the amperes available to each household, rather than the kilowatts per hour they consume.

As customers are now paying more for the energy they get from the state provider, Electricité du Liban (EDL), Mneimneh says they are essentially paying twice.

Since the height of the crisis, which began in late 2019, EDL has increased the electricity available from the central grid from a low of zero hours a day to 6 hours, in some places. In February last year, it raised its tariffs for the first time since 1994 in an attempt to slow its deepening debt problems and purchase larger quantities of fuel.

However, the generator businesses that proliferated throughout the crisis continue to charge the same flat rates, leaving many consumers struggling to pay their bills.

Trying to regulate an illegal enterprise

Mneimneh says encouraging the use of meters in the capital will provide only a small relief for consumers, but it is a step in the right direction.

However, implementing any kind of regulation on what is still a criminal enterprise presents a challenge. 

“Our state is very weak,” says Mneimneh, who is basing his efforts on political wrangling rather than traditional law enforcement.

The plan is two-pronged: Mneimneh says he has agreed with the political allies of neighbourhood suppliers in his district – in order to operate, generator owners tend to have friends in high places – for them not to support operators who refuse to use meters.

Meanwhile, he has presented the generator operators themselves with a pledge to install meters, publishing the names of those who have signed up on social media.

To date, 57 operators in Beirut have taken the pledge, leaving more than two thirds who have either refused or prevaricated. Mneimneh is optimistic: “Once you have one third committing and abiding, it will change the dynamics in Beirut.”

He believes the agreement of some generator operators will empower consumers to demand that the others follow suit.

Generator owners in Lebanon tend to operate monopolies, with the sole rights to supply electricity to certain areas fixed by mutual agreement. Given this captive client base, generator operators may yet prove resistant to pressure from their customers.

Christina Abi Haidar, a lawyer and energy expert based in Beirut, praises Mneimneh’s efforts but says she does not find them encouraging.

The generator operators have long proved resistant to regulation, she says, as shown by their tendency to exceed centrally agreed tariffs. 

Abi Haidar would like to see political parties seeking centralised solutions to Lebanon’s electricity crisis and trying to eliminate private generators. 

An end to EDL’s monopoly and to generators

Abi Haidar worked with Mneimneh last year on just such an alternative. The Decentralised Renewable Energy Law, which she helped draft, would allow private companies to sell renewable energy from plants with capacities up to 10 megawatts.

Its supporters say the law would have increased energy available to consumers, ended EDL’s formal monopoly over power generation and directly challenged the generator owners.

The law was ratified in December, but Abi Haidar says additions to the bill that tied it to an as-yet-non-existent regulatory body have in effect killed the legislation.

“This poses lots of questions,” she says. “This takes you back to the political appetite that they don’t want any law that can open up the private sector.”

That Lebanon is still struggling to keep the lights on, even as sectors of the economy are bouncing back and businesses demand access to a reliable electricity network, suggests a lack of political will more than a lack of resources, according to Abi Haidar.

The efforts of those such as Mneimneh aside, she accuses others in power of protecting their own interests and rentier businesses: “They want the generators to stay and to have this chaos.”

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