[Read this in full on Jadaliyya.]
Introduction (by Ziad Abu-Rish)
Electricity features centrally in Lebanon, both at the level of political discourse and daily life. Residents of the country have long experienced the rationing and unscheduled interruptions of electric supply. In addition, private generator owners charge building and neighborhood residents exorbitant prices to supplement the services of the state-owned Electricite du Liban. Furthermore, regional disparities exacerbate these supply and cost issues. This is to say nothing of the deleterious environmental and economic effects of how the electricity sector is organized.
Almost every single cabinet formed in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War has pledged to resolve the multiple crises and deficiencies characterizing the production, transmission, and consumption of electricity. Most recently, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced a unanimously-approved plan that promised twenty-four-hour electricity. This most recent plan, is of course, only the latest iteration of such promises.
In the last several years, a new terrain of critical scholarship has emerged to address the historical and contemporary dynamics of electricity in Lebanon. This roundtable brings together five researchers who have contributed to and/or been inspired by this body of work. They each answer the same four questions, published in two installments (Part 1 and Part 2). Combined, these researchers, their projects, and resultant analyses highlight important elements of the electricity sector in Lebanon, including public discourse and policy research about it. Therefore, this roundtable draws on their individual projects and collective knowledge to reflect on the nature of the electricity sector and the production of knowledge about it.
Question 1: Could you describe what your own research interests in electricity have been in the past or currently are?
Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): My research on electricity stems from two different projects. The first is my current book project, which explores the intersections of state building, economic development, and popular mobilizations between 1943 and 1955. Conflicts over the political economy of the country in the wake of independence were central to the changing nature and role of state institutions in that period. In this context, mobilizations around the Beirut Electricity Company (one of many foreign-owned public utility concessionary companies) emerge as one of the key axes of debates and struggles. These first manifested in a major protest campaign (1951–52) and then in the nationalization of the company (1953–54). Such mobilizations featured important continuities and breaks with their French colonial and late Ottoman precedents. They also established legacies that would shape future developments around electricity. The second project from which my interest in electricity stems is a collaboration with artist Tania El Khoury on a research-based installation-lecture performance titled The Search for Power. Premiered in 2018 and currently touring, this project surveys major turning points in the construction, breakdown, and transformation of electricity infrastructure in the territories that today constitute Lebanon between 1906 and 2015. This includes thinking about geographic differences as well as exploring the ways the civil war (1975–90) transformed an existing structural problem rather than created it. The performance is interactive such that audience members learn about the history of electricity in Lebanon and its transnational archival terrain through diverse performance elements (the set, sound, visuals, performers, and the archive itself). We are particularly interested in how the history of electricity can serve as a window into the political and social history of Lebanon, as well exploring why precisely the electricity sector has been plagued with the shortcomings that so many of us are familiar with.
Owain Lawson (OL): My research explores the history of the development of hydroelectric and irrigation infrastructure on Lebanon’s Litani river in the mid-twentieth century. The Litani project (1955–65) was by far Lebanon’s largest development project before the civil war (1970-90), and an immensely controversial process in its day. Yet historians have not engaged it in detail. My dissertation situates the project in a longer series of debates and attempts to harness the Litani for hydroelectric power and agricultural development that began in the Mandate era (1920-43) and extend until the 1978 Israeli invasion. Following Lebanon’s independence, Lebanese engineers and planning boosters had to work and contend with the business and banking elites who had their hands on the levers of power. These engineers pushed for Litani development, and state-led projects more broadly, as part of a broader effort to build a different kind of Lebanese state. They competed and collaborated with French and US experts to design the Litani project, which was a large-scale integrated hydroelectric and irrigation development scheme. The project created new kinds of material and political connections among the Biqa‘, South, and Beirut. The project and the Office National du Litani (ONL)—who managed it—were dogged by disasters, corruption scandals, strikes, and rural demands for reform. I have found the Litani project to be a useful lens to reconsider the recent history of Lebanon and the era of postcolonial development.
Joanne Nucho (JN): My research in Lebanon has focused on the relationships between public services and infrastructure provision, and how these help to produce and recalibrate forms of identification, belonging, and exclusion, as well as ideas about citizenship. As an anthropologist, I am attentive to the ways in which people experience things like water supply and electricity in everyday life. In Lebanon, electricity cuts on a predictable schedule in some places, though certainly not in others. Things look quite different in the working-class Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud, a municipality dominated by Armenian political, social, and religious institutions. This is where I have conducted research. Electricity cuts last for several hours a day and service is generally less reliable than in Beirut. People rely on private electricity generator subscriptions to power a few basic appliances and keep the lights on, but for much of the day cannot do laundry or run an air conditioner. Like elsewhere in Lebanon, people try to plan their day around the cuts. For example, some might wait for the electricity to be on in order to use the elevator in their building before they run an errand (if their building has an elevator!). Or perhaps they would try to time doing the laundry when electricity might be available. It is not only how people live with electricity cuts that is important to look at, but also how electricity is supplied outside of the national grid—through relationships between municipalities, private generator subscription services, and even neighbors who might share a subscription. Electricity shortages and cuts are not unique to Lebanon. So what interests me is what the particular arrangements that electricity provisioning in Lebanon can tell us about notions of citizenship, the way the state is imagined and critiqued, and how people talk about and attribute responsibility for these arrangements.
Eric Verdeil (EV): I have been researching electricity in Lebanon for more than ten years. I was initially interested in the attempts at reforming the sector in the aftermaths of the Paris II agreements, aiming inter aliato introduce privatization and other neoliberal schemes. I wanted to understand their social and territorial effects. But after the 2006 war and the political stalemate that unfolded, the reform projects now spearheaded by the Free Patriotic Movement stalled. I, therefore, reoriented my questions. I now asked how the politically fierce competition resulted in interpreting every policy move according to its sectarian-political dimensions, thus further freezing any progress. I also highlighted the increased reliance on alternative informal systems such as poaching and generators. The use of the latter expanded and became technically, commercially, and politically more complex. This was the case from the individual to the collective levels. At the same time, building and neighborhood-scale collective projects increasingly fell under municipal regulation.
Dana Abi Ghanim (DA): My interest exploring the everyday experience of power outages in Beirut grew out of earlier work I did in the United Kingdom on disruptions to everyday practices with a focus on energy consumption. This work is inspired by long-running research on energy and society, theorizing the interactions between technologies, infrastructure, and society. Power disruptions offer an interesting perspective on understanding these interactions. This starts off with simple questions: how do people assimilate the lack of electricity services into their everyday life? How do they “cope” with service disruptions and how do their everyday lives become entangled in the myriad of artifacts and strategies that enable them to perform their normal everyday practices? The socio-material landscape of power outages offer compelling insights, and the case of Lebanon is no exception. I also grew up in Beirut with scheduled power cuts, so it was naturally the first case study I wanted to explore. I began fieldwork to this end in 2015. On the face of it, Lebanon had an ailing electricity infrastructure that had been destroyed by episodic conflicts—and so that explained the power outages to some extent. However, since studying this issue in more depth, including conducting various interviews with veteran engineers in the civil service and EDL (as well as reading works of other scholars, such Eric Verdeil’s fascinating insight on infrastructure and its impact on the city and Ziad Abu-Rish’s historical account of electricity in Lebanon), it becomes clear that this narrative (although prevalent in the techno-economic literature) is an oversimplification. The history of electricity provisioning since the French mandate, followed by large-scale projects funded through international aid, drove my research in a slightly broader direction. Currently, I am exploring the history of the civil war (1975–90) to better understand everyday post-conflict recovery and how that has shaped the energy landscape in Lebanon today. These issues intersect with multiple sociopolitical realities in the country, and various ideologies of resilience, resistance, and steadfastness that manifest themselves in the everyday politics of energy provision. They have also shaped society’s relationship with electricity and its associated services.
Question 2: Electricity is frequently discussed in policy circles, the press, and in private in Lebanon. What is your sense of what these discussions tend to focus on? In particular, how much of this is both instructive to us in regard to some dynamics as well as possibly obfuscating of some other dynamics?
Ziad Abu-Rish: I find discussions about electricity in Lebanon to be quite diverse, depending on where those discussions are taking place, who they involve, and to what end they are being had. On one level, much of what is published on electricity tends to reproduce particular tropes about political dynamics and economic development in post-war Lebanon. On another level, intimate conversations about electricity reveal a much more complex range of how people experience and understand the country’s electricity infrastructure. There is also a vibrant legacy of investigative reporting on electricity. Because of my research focus, I am particularly interested in how people remember the years prior to the civil war vis-à-vis electricity, and how that period is narrated in the media and policy circles. There can be quite a bit of romanticization of what everyday life was like in both Beirut and the rest of Lebanon prior to the war, including regarding electricity. Such narratives tend to be Beirut-centric, ignoring both other urban areas and (even more so) rural regions. I am also interested in debates about privatization versus public sector control of electricity. There is currently a genuine and legitimate frustration with how politicians have used state institutions (including the Ministry of Power) to hijack the development of the electricity sector in favor of their own political and economic gains. At the same time though, the championing of the private sector by some seems to ignore two key dynamics: first, the years since the end of the civil war are riddled with evidence of how the privatization of state-owned enterprises or services has been equally (if not more) bereft of political and economic profiteering; second, much of the underlying structural problems with the electricity sector stem from its origins in a range of private enterprises. I actually find that the more intimate the level of discussion of electricity, and the further away from centers of political, economic, and cultural power, the more critical the approach to such issues.
Owain Lawson: A major part of what drives the scholarly interest in electricity in Lebanon is that the country’s electricity crisis is such a ubiquitous aspect of life. I draw lessons and inspiration from those who are incorporating electricity into public mobilizations around services and infrastructure. These are issues that facilitate the creation of new kinds of civil and political networks and are a powerful means to oppose corruption and the entrenched, moribund political mainstream. The most powerful critiques of the electricity crisis situate it within Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction dynamics: massive foreign borrowing, state capture, lack of meaningful democratic restrictions on power, and institutional and structural breakdown. Though this might be predictable, coming from a historian, I think the fact that there are so few histories of Lebanon’s electrical and other infrastructure can imply—or at least leave untroubled—a narrative that Lebanon’s pre-war electricity infrastructure was a functioning system, which degraded through war into a malfunctioning and corrupt one. As I have come to understand, although the civil war was unquestionably transformative in terms of destruction of infrastructure and creation of new dynamics, it was not a total rupture. Prior to the war, powerful inequalities characterized the electricity sector, in terms of access to electricity, material distribution of infrastructure, and the capacity to afford electricity. As Ziad Abu-Rish’s work shows, many of the dynamics we see today have much deeper roots that extend back to the Mandate and post-independence periods. These include private sector dominance of utilities, the absence of meaningful business-government boundaries, and political mobilizations around electricity. My research traces some of these longer trajectories regarding Lebanon’s water-power nexus, particularly Lebanon’s intimate and toxic relationship with the World Bank and tensions between allocating water for hydroelectricity or for rural irrigation and potable water.
Joanne Nucho: I think there is great variation between the discussions that happen about electricity in Lebanon. I tend to be most interested in discussions about how the informal electricity providers operate. This is possibly a due to my own thinking about where we can learn the most about the relationships between the seemingly informal and formal systems, and start to consider what they work to produce together, aside from electricity itself. I focus most on the ways in which people talk about electricity in everyday contexts. I find that, in general, my interlocutors understand the actors across the informal-formal divide to be continuous. For example, many people I speak with understand the generator owners as well-connected people who are allies or associates of politicians or other people in power, either within the municipality or beyond. They tend to think of the relationships between the people who run the generators and powerful state actors as part of a continuum of how infrastructures are unevenly provisioned and ultimately enrich the few to the detriment of most. I think this is helpful in unpacking how to think about electricity in Lebanon, as a system that is not really divisible by the binaries of state vs. non-state or formal vs. informal. Those categories can obfuscate relations and meanings that are produced in and through the different ways people receive electricity in their homes, and all the various payments they make to keep the flow of power steady.
Eric Verdeil: The discussions about electricity in Lebanon have heightened along with the increasing power cuts, particularly after 2006. Until then, the political debates focused very much on non-payment and poaching, while additional capacities had resulted in reducing power cuts, that did not affect Beirut anymore—though they persisted outside of the capital for three or four hours a day. Later on, as power cuts increased again, it became increasingly clear among experts that the main issue was the lack of electricity generation. The debate then turned to public vs. private investments, and (if the latter) how to monitor the private sector. However, political leaders never stopped using sectarian rhetoric to assert their legitimacy among their constituency, accusing the other “regions” (i.e., sectarian communities) of not paying their due. Surprisingly, the inequality of supply between Beirut and the other regions has never really become a political issue. Two attempts at balancing the supply, introduced by Alain Tabourian in 2009 and Gebran Bassil in 2011, were rebutted by the Council of Ministers. The Free Patriotic Movement did not insist anymore, nor did the other parties raise this issue. It was as if the privilege of Beirut was natural. Popular gossip, at times fueled by the declarations of political personalities, interpreted the absence of light as an absence of state. It stigmatized practices of corruption among the political and business elites, because of fraught procurement and non-payment of bills. In turn, people’s ability to cope with the derelict grid is often celebrated, even when it is through extra-legal practices, such as the so-called “king of electricity” in the southern suburb of Beirut. Whatever their differences, one common blind point in both discussions is how the lack of electricity was reproducing and increasing inequalities. Two dynamics helped produce this fact. The first is related to generator subscriptions, which disproportionately affect low-income households. The second is the EDL tariff structure, which also disadvantages low-income households, in addition to the imbalance benefitting Beirut’s residents. Far from being felt equally by Lebanese citizens, electricity exposes and widens social and territorial hierarchies.
Dana Abi Ghanim: In the press, discussions can be categorized into two groups. The first is administrative reform, addressing corruption and the management of service provision. Within that is the issue of the day-laborers at EDL, supply augmentation and large-scale investment, the Bassil plan etc. The second is the issue of the informal service providers, the owners of generators and the subscription services they provide. These tend to be dubbed as “mafias” operating in the dark, with questionable connections to politicians. The second group of discussions are anchored in policy circles, where the debate does not differ much. Though they might focus more on partisan divisions within government on privatization, they tend to take a dismissive view of the informal sector. In their view, the informal provision will end or be priced out when services improve, but how and in what form this sector operates is of little interest to them. One interesting shift in these discussions was the question of electricity theft, and how it should not be associated with one particular community in Lebanon (which it typically has been within formal circles). However, one might explain such a shift in policy circles as indicative of changes in control of certain political and administrative institutions. Discussions in private are more interesting, and that is perhaps why I focused mostly on that (certainly in the beginning of my work). There are varieties of informal providers and consequently, the relationships between households and their informal providers are more complex. The discussion is no longer limited to the framing of a generic “generator mafia.” I observed that these informal providers are part of different communities, they share histories with their customers, there are links such as social cohesion, friendship, etc. There are layers of identities and ideologies that colour these connections. In private, the government and its various administrative sections are perceived as the “mafia”. People talk about government failure, corruption, but also that they deserve better and that it is high time they “recover” from the civil war to have 24-hour electricity. Notions of progress and post-war recovery have always been linked to uninterrupted electricity provision, and most of the text and talk follows that vision. This is indicative of dynamics worthy of further research of course. It also means that we do not talk enough or seriously about green energy, decentralized provision, energy conservation, and what it all means when thinking about climate change and climate change policy.
Electricity features centrally in Lebanon, both at the level of political discourse and daily life. In the last several years, a new terrain of critical scholarship has emerged to address the historical and contemporary dynamics of electricity in Lebanon. This roundtable brings together five researchers who have contributed to and/or been inspired by this body of work. They each answer the same four questions, published in two installments (Part 1 and Part 2). Combined, these researchers, their projects, and resultant analyses highlight important elements of the electricity sector in Lebanon, including public discourse and policy research about it. Therefore, this roundtable draws on their individual projects and collective knowledge to reflect on the nature of the electricity sector and the production of knowledge about it.
Question 3: The electricity sector, or rather its infrastructure, is increasingly becoming a focus of research in Middle East studies. What are some ways you think Lebanon provides an important basis for comparative analysis?
Ziad Abu-Rish: Middle East studies has recently featured an infrastructural turn, and within that a subset of scholars working on electricity. In this sense, empirical and theoretical work on electricity in Lebanon can contribute to the developing set of debates and frameworks regarding the comparative study of electricity. One of the most promising elements of this potential is the fact that Lebanon is usually considered an exception or outlier case within the field (notwithstanding a few select topics). In contrast, work on Lebanon is serving as a foundational study case (along with Palestine and Turkey) in the infrastructural turn and research on electricity in Middle East studies. This is one of the ways anthropologist Joanne Nucho’s and geographer Eric Verdeil’s work has been effective: helping shift the weight of knowledge production on Lebanon in the broader field of Middle East studies. From a historical perspective, a focus on electricity can provide new ways of thinking about economic development in Lebanon. It promises to contribute to emerging debates on historical political economy and development more broadly in the region. This is one reason the work of historian Owain Lawson on the Litani River project is so fascinating (beyond its shifting of the focus away from Beirut), as it allows us to think of Lebanon alongside other places like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria with regard to major state-led infrastructural projects. My own work on the nationalization of the Beirut Electricity Company is conceived in relation to those cases that have formed the bases of comparative studies of economic nationalism and state-led development (to the exclusion of cases like Lebanon).
Owain Lawson: One of the scholarly conversations I draw on the most is the exciting and robust literature growing around electricity in Palestine. For example, Fredrik Meiton’s Electrical Palestine considers electricity as a means to think about how settler colonial power relations are instituted and maintained in the built world. I think the scholarship on Lebanon and Palestine is generating questions and tools that could be helpful to think through the histories of electricity in other Arab countries, in part because these histories were so different—which makes them useful for comparison. In Lebanon, electrical infrastructure development was, in its formative years, driven by concessionary companies, and in Palestine, by colonists, whereas in many other Arab countries it was an integral part of post-colonial state expansion. I think about this frequently because although the Litani project had all kinds of fascinating and misunderstood implications within Lebanon’s technopolitics and culture in the mid-twentieth century, it was also a much, much smaller cousin of state-driven hydroelectric projects in other Arab countries. There is a fascinating, but still emerging, literature on the Aswan High Dam, which was (of course) an integrated development project with political and cultural implications for the Non-Aligned Movement and emerging Third World. But the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates remain almost totally absent in English-language scholarship. Omar Amiralay’s 2003 documentary film, Tufan fi Balad al-Ba‘th (A Flood in Baath Country),remains the definitive critical analysis of the Tabqa Dam’s impacts and significance in rural Syria. That film alone opens up countless avenues for scholarly inquiry. As in Lebanon, electricity infrastructure in each case was bound up in state transformations, populist and popular politics, international institutions, debt, and questions of expertise, technocracy, and self-determination.
Joanne Nucho: Lebanon is an important basis for comparative analysis for many reasons, and I am working on this very question at the moment. In my view, one of the most fascinating aspects of electricity infrastructure in Lebanon are the generator subscription services that operate in much of the country. In many other contexts where electricity is unreliable, people use small generators to supply their own apartments or homes, Anthropologist Brian Larkin has written extensively about this in the context of Nigeria. In Lebanon, the arrangement is different, with private owners charging fees to subscribers to “plug in” to larger generators that supply several apartments, though of course some buildings or individuals have their own generators too. In some cases, municipalities have stepped in to regulate these systems. They are, in a sense, privatized microgrids, in the context of a state that does not provide seamless service across the country. This is an important turn in ideas about how to provision infrastructure that is not unique to Lebanon. It is my sense that there is much to be learned more generally about these logics of infrastructure provision beyond Lebanon or even the Middle East, to contexts in the United States and Europe. I think, for example, about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, or California governor Gavin Newsom’s recent decision to postpone to an unknown future date the building of a high-speed rail linking northern and southern parts of the state. The infrastructural ambitions of states have shifted and we can no longer attribute this to a Global North/South divide, but rather to a shifting logic of the role of the state in building new and expansive infrastructure projects. It is also important to think about these issues in the context of broader debates about nationalizing rather than privatizing grids and infrastructure provisioning systems, for example the recent conversations to nationalize gas and electricity utilities in the wake of fires in California that are at least partially attributable to the private energy companies and their unsafe practices (see Eric Rudd’s article in Jacobin).
Eric Verdeil: Lebanon provides an important basis for comparative analysis regarding two issues. The first is the use of infrastructure as an instrument of political domination in context of war and colonization. Steven Graham has powerfully explained how targeting electricity grids was a way of switching off cities. Derek Gregory concurred by showing how the blowing of infrastructure froze urban life in the aftermaths of the 2007 US “Surge” in Iraq. Electricity grids also are, in the Palestinian territories, instruments of colonization and political domination—for instance through “unplugging Gaza” as Omar Jabbari Salamanca highlights. The Lebanese context offers intriguing variations around this feature. During the civil war (1975-90), threats or implementation of cutting the electricity supply to West Beirut was a powerful tool of pressure. Increasing autonomy, by building an electric line from Jiyyeh to West Beirut, was a way to resist this domination. Electricity (along with other infrastructure) hence proved essential for various militia’s claims to what Sarah Fregonese calls “hybrid sovereignty.” These observations help rethink the scale at which energy security is conceptualized. Usually seen as a state-concern, this notion is also valid at the sub-regional or metropolitan scale. On a more technical note, the Lebanese case tells us a lot about the tactics city dwellers—along with firms and other collective actors—deploy to survive in the context of conflict. The Lebanese experience of generators networks offers many lessons for endangered citizens in context of civil wars and their aftermaths, for instance in Iraq and Syria, where these issues should become the object of further studies, as some examples already illustrate in the case of Aleppo. The Lebanese examples raise many questions about local governance of infrastructure when the state is absent, or uses infrastructure as a tool of punishment, and how it can, or not, create identity and solidarity at the local level.
Dana Abi Ghanem: There is an “infrastructure turn” in social research and the Middle East cannot be spared. What can be observed in Lebanon nowadays is not unique per se. The informal sector is a common phenomenon across the developing world and so are challenges like ailing infrastructure, crowding, unequal development, and colonial capitalism. Interesting questions arise from conflicts in the country’s history that destroyed large parts of the infrastructure and the consociational model of governance. My current research on infrastructure provisioning during the civil war explores how informality grew out of a collaboration between independent actors, political parties, and governmental powers—and how these alliances stretched to encompass several service infrastructures. I think this set the stage for the alliance that still exists today. So further research on the provision of basic services and infrastructure during periods of conflict and violence is needed. More recent developments related to the conflict in Syria bring the history of Lebanon to mind. On a practical level, there is the question of resilience and the lessons that we can learn. How can cities and their infrastructure services recover from the effects of war and violence? How can we maintain the liveability of zones through various forms of infrastructural provision? I think there is potential for a better understanding of long-term post-conflict recovery and reconstruction that the case of Lebanon provides.
Question 4: There is still so much we don’t know about electricity in Lebanon. What are some questions you’d like to see other researchers take up to help fill in the emerging picture scholarship have thus far created?
Ziad Abu-Rish: Thinking historically, we know very little about how electricity services were established and developed in urban centers outside of Beirut. There is a treasure trove of archive documents and newspapers, let alone memoirs and other sources, that could serve as the basis of a critical history of electricity in places like Tripoli, Saida, Zahleh, along with smaller places like Aley and Dayr al-Qamar. This is to say nothing of rural areas, for which the introduction of electricity happened much later and under very different political, economic, and social contests. In many ways, we need histories of electricity outside of Beirut, that both challenge Beirut-centric narratives but also help take stock of the range of experiences and nuances. I also believe there is an entire window into both everyday life and broader military, political, and socioeconomic dynamics during the civil war that exploring electricity can offer (something that Dana Abi Ghanem is also working on). One of the research avenues we pursued in The Search for Power was to identify every article about electricity published during the civil war in a single major newspaper. The array of insight those articles provided into the dynamics of the war, let alone the breakdown of electricity infrastructure, surprised us. More contemporaneously, there is much that can be done to critically assess the sources of funding, the efficacy of spending, and actual outcomes of the large of amounts of money that were loaned or granted to Lebanon to rehabilitate the electricity sector. There is also much more work to be done on the networks of neighborhood generators, their relationships to space, various levels of government, and to specific constellations of political and economic power. Furthermore, one cannot ignore the role of labor in the story of electricity. Thanks to certain journalists, we have some sense of labor dynamics as they relate to day laborers after 2000. Yet the labor component of the history and contemporary dynamics of electricity has been grossly ignored, and as such the role of electricity company workers in the broader history of the labor movement in Lebanon. None of this is to minimize the amazing work recently completed and currently underway. I have benefited greatly from the work of others on this roundtable in thinking about my own research into electricity and in understanding how much more there is to be done. They have been a consistent source of inspiration. The effects are evident in a number of PhD students, independent researchers, and activists who are in the midst of their own research projects on various elements of electricity in Lebanon.
Owain Lawson: The expansion of rural electrification that began with President Fu’ad Shihab (r. 1958-64) and continued until the outbreak of the 1975-90 civil war is a process my project touches on but does not explore properly. There is a wonderful moment in Mary Jirmanus Saba’s 2017 documentary film, Shu‘ur Akbar min al-Hubb (A Feeling Greater Than Love), in which one of her interviewees describes driving south from Beirut, seeing the lights from the Régie Libanaise des Tabacs and Tombacs in Kfar Roummane, and comparing it to before the electrification of the South—when the only lights he would see at night were the glow of settlements over the border. The director told me that she sees in the story an analogy between the visual structures and performance of settler colonialism and ongoing colonial structures of economic exploitation. That moment and that analogy express so clearly that there are whole worlds and sensibilities regarding electricity that the kinds of historical sources I read do not just exclude, but actually silence and make invisible. A historical anthropology or oral history of rural electrification in those decades, particularly one that concentrated on the South, ‘Akkar, and/or the Biqa‘, could engage those experiences. It could also meaningfully speak back to the official sources of that period, which celebrate the steady expansion of the electrical grid as a fulfillment of the rural development Shihab promised. I find Joanne Nucho’s work inspiring in how it speaks to an important trend in technologies studies towards explorations of use, meaning scholarship that looks at how people use, adapt, dismantle, repair, or share particular technologies. This is a great way of thinking about the social meanings and significance of everyday technologies in particular: how things like kitchen appliances, pumps, or street lights affect how people live, and how people transform and remake those technologies. More research like hers would be particularly illuminating, for example into the sociopolitical lives of private generators, which are embedded in all kinds of relationships—among neighborhoods, between tenants and landlords, and citizen and state.
Joanne Nucho: I would love to see more work on generator subscription services, as well as studies about the reliability and sources of electricity outside of cities in the pre-war era. My colleagues on this roundtable have produced some of the most exciting work on electricity, infrastructure and urban planning in Lebanon, and I look forward to reading more of their work on this topic. In general, I would love to see more research on the relationship between municipalities and electricity provision in the country as a way of thinking about the overlapping jurisdictions of service and utilities provisioning between the state and local entities and private actors like generators owners. I am currently writing an article about generator subscription systems from the perspective of a suburb of Beirut, and am finishing up another piece about public protests around trash collection as a way of thinking through different infrastructure services and ideas about citizenship together and comparatively in Lebanon and beyond. I think electricity is different from trash, in that individuals who have the means can theoretically “buy” their way out of an electricity shortage through a subscription or a generator. You cannot individually hack a garbage crisis where trash builds up on the streets in quite the same way, and that has some important consequences in Lebanon, and is linked to larger debates about public space, environmental pollution, and inequality. I think the emergence of the Beirut Madinati movement is evidence of growing attention and organized responses to the problems of infrastructural and environmental inequality and I am really excited to see the ongoing advocacy happening around these issues.
Eric Verdeil: The increasingly reliable and affordable technologies of renewable energies are starting to spread all over Lebanon. On the one hand, this a result of state policies (i.e., subsidies and tax-breaks) aiming to decrease the demand from the grid (with a target of twenty percent of renewable energy in electricity generation by 2023). On the other hand, it is also a result of private investors looking to secure their businesses (factories and commercial centers) or their homes. In addition to centralized power plants currently planned or commissioned to private investors, individual solar panels, solar water heaters, and more complex energy systems (combining diesel generators, solar panel, and batteries into hybrid technologies) are developing at a strong pace. In 2018, the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation estimated the 50 MW PV panels powered systems had been installed, most of them decentralized. This is raising a lot of interesting questions. To what extent can the government control this trend in order to diminish the investment burden on its shoulder? Will this development benefit only the wealthier citizens and the big firms, or can less powerful players (e.g., remote villages) also reap the fruits of solar energy and under what conditions? Could this development favor the autonomy of some regions, and hence threaten the unity of the country? To what extent does the development of these technologies result from the experiences gained by Lebanese citizens and firms through coping with the absence of the state and developing autonomous infrastructure like generators? Lebanon provides a very stimulating field to address these questions, which will for sure spur new research in the coming years.
Dana Abi Ghanem: The current political system and the history of conflicts in Lebanon are arguably instruments of power and control. A lot of the “work” they do is materialized through infrastructure investments, and can be traced through the associations of the various components of the infrastructure—both social and material. From a critical angle, we can observe through historical and current dynamics how the issue of service provision including electricity holds sway in matters of governance, democracy, and autonomy, as well as how courses of action at various scales engender social injustices, divisions and environmental degradation and in some cases, further violence. These are some of the questions that come to mind and these are also important to explore, especially in light of offshore gas investments in Lebanon and the consociational politics of the country.
Question 5: Having read your fellow participant’s response to the roundtable, do you have any additional thoughts you would like to add?
Ziad Abu-Rish: I believe the next several years will feature an expansion in the amount of academic research conducted on electricity in Lebanon. This is both a function of the growing share of Lebanon in Middle East studies as well as the infrastructural turn in the social sciences and humanities. The issue thus becomes one of scope. The array of questions and approaches highlighted by this roundtable point to diverse possibilities. Another two issues are research rigor and deliberate engagement. One of the most powerful characteristics of the work of my colleagues is their attention to questions of scale and their attempt to fully engage the range of sources available for accessing the associated dynamics. Whether it be archival research across multiple countries, interviews with officials and engineers, or ethnographic observation, there is no substitute for an empirical base of research that makes possible cutting through the dominant tropes of how electricity is represented in Lebanon. This roundtable demonstrates the potential inherent in creating more intentional collaboration among those of us doing research on electricity in Lebanon. We need to find a way to maintain and intensify these exchanges.
Joanne Nucho: I think my colleagues here raise important questions about the future of electricity provision in Lebanon, while calling for a reappraisal of many of the gaps in the histories of electrification, particularly outside of Beirut in smaller cities and rural areas. Some of the most exciting avenues of inquiry are the questions about jurisdiction—who and what make power in Lebanon, in what spaces and places are particular actors more salient, and what does this say about the future of the state imaginary, particularly when (as Eric Verdeil noted) many areas develop greater autonomy in terms of infrastructure provision? There is still so much to explore in this field. Lebanon’s electricity arrangements are a good starting place for asking questions more generally, even beyond the region, about electricity provisioning in a post-centralized grid or microgrid future.
Owain Lawson: Reading the comments of my fellow contributors, all of whom I consider inspirations for my own work, I am struck most by how well our research interests align and add up. There are generative harmonies among our interests, particularly in the sociopolitical lives of electrical infrastructure and technologies, how regular people, business, and state interact through electricity, and how an electricity grid can reflect or constitute deep inequalities. The fact that, alongside these harmonies, our projects each speak to very different areas of scholarship, draw on different methods, and open avenues for future research demonstrates just how rich a field of inquiry this is. I found two questions in the roundtable particularly compelling. First is Joanne Nucho’s comment regarding how the infrastructural ambitions of the state have shifted globally, a theme I see resonating strongly in Éric Verdeil’s work, which examines how, concomitantly, citizens’ expectations are changing, about what kinds of responsibilities the state has in service provision, in the built world, and in their lives. The interactions each examine among “public,” “private,” and “sectarian” institutions and bodies reveal how those categories, as they are conventionally understood, fail us in studying Lebanon. That failure, I believe, is intructive to think about how these categories are breaking down globally, or never accurately described these kinds of institutional and infrastructural arrangements, to begin with. Second, I strongly appreciated Dana Abi Ghanim’s intervention in asking us to think about how present electrical arrangements relate to climate change. I took her inquiry into adaptability and resilience as a reminder that studying electricity entails studying how shifting energy regimes shape how and where people live, how they understand their state and society, and, in some cases, what means they have at their disposal to make themselves heard politically. But also, I feel it is a reminder of our responsiblity to consider how Lebanon’s current and historical struggles over electricity, infrastructure, popular democratic power, and inequality can help us think about the two-to-seven degree warmer world that is coming this century.
Eric Verdeil: Reading the responses of my fellow participants, I am struck by how much of the research on electricity relies on people's experiences with, and the political debates about, electricity. Accessing these voices relies on a set of sources to be found beyond the main player: Electricite du Liban. At a time when the newly appointed Energy Minister publicly and loudly promoted her plans for restructuring the sector, it is necessary to point out the lack of access to official data and statistics, including annual reports which researchers (not to mention journalists and policy analysts) would use as their starting point in another context. Darkness reigns not only in the streets and homes of Lebanon at night, but also on EDL accounts, the number and terms of workers it employs, the kinds of contracts they engage in, the geographic distribution of subscribers that pay and don’t pay their bills, and so much more (to say nothing of the benefits reaped by the owners of the generators). The case of electricity in terms of a lack of transparency and adequate information is no different from other domains in Lebanon. It can be argued that this situation also contributes to the reproduction of the structure of power in the country, including the lack of accountability of the ruling elite. Another point that comes to mind, after the release of the new electricity and energy paper as a response to the CEDRE financial bailout, is the very blatant interference of foreign powers, and France in particular, in the management of this sector. This particularly so through the conditioning of international loans on the restructuring of the state apparatus as a whole. This not only echoes, but also prolonges a structural characteristic of the electricity sector for over a century: from the initial investments and management of the initial electricity companies, to the close technical and political cooperation with the EDL before and during the civil war, and through the 2002 Paris II financial protocol. From the period colonial rule through the neoliberal era, the electricity sector is a vector of foreign interests and interventions. Combined with the dependence of the electricity sector upon imported fuels from varying sources (e.g., Syria, Algeria, and possibly Qatar in the future), this dynamic once again makes obvious the necessity of a relational analysis, connecting the electricity sector to dynamics that exceed the territorial limits of the country. The fact that the most recent research deals with micro-level perspectives, revealing the logics and agencies of all-too-often overlooked players, must not obfuscate the never-ending geopolitical game that is equally fundamental to the shaping of the energy landscape.
Dana Abi Ghanem: The discussions above provide a rich tapestry of insights and questions, which I find very inspiring. I think further research into the political economy of generator providers is needed and can aid in better understanding how informality grows in urban and rural spaces. Furthermore, the lens that the history of the conflict in Lebanon provides is important to consider, not as the root of the problem, but in order to better understand how infrastructure services became instruments of political power and violence, as Eric Verdeil pointed out. We need to understand how they were co-opted into the everyday violence of the civil war. The various meanings that grew out of these historical developments today provide politicians and other civil actors with much-needed tools as they jostle for power. By tracing these developments and meanings, I believe we can contribute to critically to global debates on energy infrastructure and development.
May 07, 2019