August 2008


The disastrous Électricité du Liban (EDL) is unable to keep up with the country’s demands for power – a crisis exacerbated by fuel prices – so Jordan and Egypt are lending a helping hand. It is a travesty that a country so rich with water cannot find the long-term will to harvest hydraulic energy to supplement its needs (or provide clean drinking water! – but that is another story).

But of course, it already has been done with even more disastrous results. al-Barid Electricity Company (شركة كهرباء البارد), involving the Khuri family, has a concession from the Lebanese government to operate a small hydraulic power plant which supplies villages in the north with electricity.

In 2004, al-Barid’s workers went on strike to demand some overdue payments. The company at the time claimed that EDL owed it money which needed to be payed before it could pay its employees. It turns out that the company actually owes money to the Lebanese government. The company has not paid its dues since 1995, thereby breaking the law that grants it the concession. When in 2007 Salim Nakat, head of concessions at the Ministry of Energy & Water, tried to get the company to pay its dues, he was removed from his post by Muhammad Safadi – then acting Minister of Energy & Water, today Minister of Economy and Trade. Apparently, Mr. Safadi had electoral considerations.

The issue with al-Barid Electricity has been standing at least since 2002 and so have others, such as Aley Electricity and Jbayl Concession, both for power distribution. If the suspicions are/were well-founded – and it is so in the case of al-Barid – the crisis at EDL and the exorbitant amounts spent on power (25% of GDP) are partly the result of money being funneled into private pockets.

Another reason is discussed in a well-documented paper prepared by the Lebanese Communist Party (in Arabic). $1.38 bn were spent on setting up gas powered plants after the civil war and they remain since their completion in 1999 without gas supply. $370 million a year is being wasted by using fuel instead.

So, EDL is being undermined by its parent Ministry (Amal, Hizballah, and Safadi have taken turns at this ministry). A small sample of using hydraulic power is being used to suck money out of the beleagured public pocket. At the end of the day, we end up having to buy favors from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan for power that we could produce ourselves by investing in clean energy. Only we are too busy being power hungry.

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I have added photographs of the `Arayyah-Shweit and Mrayjat stations (Damascus-Beirut line) plus a link for more information on the history of the railways in Lebanon and documentation of the existing sorry state. You can access it all here or, alternatively, by pursuing the “Photographs” link on the horizontal menu at the top of this page.

As a follow up on the previous post, al-Akhbar today reports that, according to Jubran Basil, the income provided by the Ministry of Telecommunications constitutes 42% of the entire income of the national treasury. Basil, Free Patriotic Movement minister of telecommunications, reiterates promises that there will be a reduction in mobile connection fees after due study and investment. In the mean time, the government better start thinking of alternative means of balancing its income. Cutting down on ministerial posts could be a start!

Mobile connection in Lebanon is the most expensive in the region where almost 2/3 of the fees is accounted for by overheads and taxes. The new coalition government has retracted previous governmental promises to decrease mobile subscription rates. Apparently, under pressure from Sanioura, the price cut was postponed because the mobile sector provides the main income in (much needed) foreign currency for the public pocket.

More importantly, the decision to postpone price cuts follows an established policy of eliminating competition and insuring maximum profit with the eventual aim of fully privatizing the telecommunications sector. The ridiculous prices the Lebanese pay for their mobile connection is the bait that will lure the highest bid (estimated to be between $5 & $7 bn). This policy, by a self-proclaimed liberal and progressive political elite, has gone hand in hand with monopolizing the market and insuring that any competition is nipped in the bud.

The same strategy is followed by the government owned OGERO with respect to Broadband networking. Lebanese ISP’s pioneering work with Internet in the region came to a near complete halt with the absence of proper infrastructure to develop further. Not only did it take forever for OGERO to install the infrastructure, but now they are making it near impossible for the independent ISPs to run a profitable service. OGERO limits their trunk bandwidth, thus limiting the number of subscribers they can have. OGERO also takes its time processing applications for increased bandwidth, undermining private ISPs ability to meet client demands. The result is that OGERO’s share of the market increases. Why? To better the quality of telecom? Rather, the better to privatize with, my dear!

So, while the private sector pioneered Internet connection in Lebanon, the government slows it down, setting us back 10 Internet years with one of the slowest and most expensive Broadband in the region. Instead of supporting and subsidizing private efforts, the government stabs its own memorandum of understanding with the private-sector in the back. Such is government policy of supporting economic and social growth. All this, and the service sector is considered a priority!

It is quite easy to blame it all on Hariri entourage’s economic policy. But now with the coalition government, it is becoming increasingly clear that mindless privatization at the expense of responsible, planned development and sustainable growth is a trait shared by government and opposition alike – if such a distinction holds at all when it comes to their political programs. Once upon a time, when Hizballah was outside government, Nasrallah called the privatization of the Telecom sector “the biggest looting operation in the history of Lebanon.” Not only is the silence deafening now, but the minister of telecommuncations is non other than Orange golden boy. Known for shooting his mouth off from the position of opposition, Jubran Basil is off to a very good start inside the bastion of bowel movement!

He has written some of the most beautiful and moving poetry in Arabic. I do not know anyone who was not moved to tears by “I Yearn for My Mother’s Bread.” But even more, through his words, Mahmoud Darwish was able to give verbal expression to the ambiguities of being Palestinian: the pain and the anxiety, the memory and the hope, the determination and the uncertainty, the belonging and the exile, the anger and the love.

Ghassan Sharbil of al-Hayat has a beautiful eulogy, “Why did you leave poetry so alone?

And here is my translation of The Sparrows of Galilee, one of my favorite poems (Arabic version here). “She” in this poem is Rita, the Israeli lover who in an earlier poem joined the IDF (bayna Rita wa `uyuni bunduqiyah). In this poem, Rita is disillusioned and is embarking on a journey to look for the truth. The poet is left behind, making new sense of an imprisonment without her. The poem is meant to be sung (even before Marcel Khalifeh did) as a Palestinian folk song.

We will meet in a short while

In a year

In two years

And a generation…

Then she captured with the camera

Twenty gardens

And the sparrows of Galilee.

She went searching, behind the sea,

For a new meaning of truth.

My homeland is a clothesline

For handkerchiefs of spilt blood

And I lay down on the beach

As sand… and palm trees.

***********

She doesn’t know –

Oh, Rita! Death and I have granted you

The secret of joy withering in the customs’ house

And we were renewed, death and I

On your first front

And in the window to your house.

Death and I are two faces –

Why do you now flee from my face?

Why do you flee?

And why do you now flee from that

Which makes of wheat eyelashes for the earth, from that

Which makes of the volcano another face for jasmines?

Why do you flee?

***********

At night only her silence used to wear me out

When it stretched out in front of the door

Like the street… Like the old neighborhood

Be it as you wish – oh, Rita –

Let silence be an axe

Or a frame for the stars

Or a climate for the labor pains of the tree.

I sip the kiss

From the edge of knives

Come, let us belong to the massacre!

***********

They fell like excess leaves

The flocks of swallows

In the wells of time…

And I snatch the blue wings

Oh, Rita,

I am the tombstone for the growing grave

Oh, Rita

I am he in whose flesh

The chains carve

A shape for the homeland.

(From The Birds Die in Galilee, 1969)

Addendum: The Guardian obituary gives a good overview of Darwish’s life and poetry.

I have added a new page where I will be posting photographs from Lebanon. You can access it via the horizontal menu at the top of the page. Or, for now, you can just click here. Enjoy!

I spent summer in Beirut, in the smog and the racket, between emotional extremes, as Lebanon can only be lived. It struck me one day when I was walking down the street: I am not seeing smiling faces. I am not hearing laughs. All I saw around me were drawn faces, that despite the fireworks flaring the sky and fraying our nerves on a nightly basis.

Everyone knew that the joy after the Doha agreement was only temporary. When clashes erupted in Beka` and then in the north, the reaction in Beirut was one of fear followed closely by one of nonchalance. When the government was formed, the nonchalance persisted. It persisted through the cynical love fest that came nipping at its heels. George Adwan welcoming the freed prisoners at the airport??? Hizballah giving the honor of an official welcome for its heroes to those who want it destroyed??? Junblat talking about Palestine, Arabism, and resistance (again???)??? It was all a replay of a bad nightmare. One is left at a complete loss. What is more nauseating: when our leaders agree or when they do not agree?

Granted, Hizballah achieved something. Some people asked if the price was worth it, pointing out the number of deaths, the war, the destruction. All to free someone who, for all we know, is a child murderer. But most people did not ask that question because it is irrelevant. The prison break and the theatrical talk that ensued on stage was nothing but a charade in bad taste. Samir Quntar was an excuse, all the better because he is not Shiite. And we all know that chances are he will be running for elections, not crawling back to Jerusalem (will he be sidelined like other freed prisoners who tried to challenge Hizballah’s electoral dominance in the south?).

Samir Quntar has been reading the news in prison, however, and he knows he can say whatever he wants and no one will hold him accountable. Everyone does it, after all. In Lebanon, no one is ever held accountable for their verbal gymnastics. So, kiss George Adwan on the cheek and onward to Jerusalem!