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

“the crisis came to a head..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 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.”

“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.”

“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 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”

“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.”

“”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.”

How to fix Lebanon’s political crisis

“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.”

“It has helped mediate sectarian conflict, forced leaders to build consent among their constituencies, and prevented the heavy centralization of power that plunged much of the Arab world into dictatorship.
But this particular medicine has side effects. Political elites have used their positions to bleed the economy dry and monopolize control over public institutions. Parliament and many cabinets have been filled with some of the same faces for decades. The speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, has occupied the post since 1992. As members of the traditional ruling class age or die out, their sons often replace them, meaning politics has become a family business for the Gemayels, Hariris, Aouns, and Jumblatts, to name a few.

Many politicians have amassed great wealth by taking cuts of public contracts, facilitating bureaucratic processes, or directly siphoning public funds. Public servants are appointed by sect rather than on merit, and national loyalty competes with and often loses out to sectarian loyalty.

This has undermined civic life and turned politics into a zero-sum sectarian competition rather than a policy debate. Questions as mundane as where to build a waste incinerator or how to reform public utilities, for example, take on sectarian dimensions over who gets what.

Why, then, do people not simply vote this rotten elite out?

For one, they have played on sectarian insecurities to perpetuate distrust among the population, casting themselves as saviors of their community. Attempts to unseat a particular leader are quickly seen as attacks on the sect itself, leading to a rallying effect around said leader regardless of their performance.”

“The political class has also skillfully used the state to provide constituents with jobs, financial support, and other privileges. And, of course, where persuasion fails there is always coercion. Parties routinely harass and intimidate those who seek reform or even dare to criticize their leaders.
All factions are complicit to some degree, but one in particular presents an altogether more difficult problem: Hezbollah.”

“Hezbollah maintains a formidable militia with direct support from Iran. It has turned Lebanon and its Shia community into the base of its “resistance” project of open-ended conflict with Israel and the West.
Hezbollah runs a state-within-a-state, complete with a military, security forces, and infrastructure; at the same time, it has penetrated Lebanon’s institutions through politics or by cultivating powerful allies. The Lebanese military lacks the will and ability to disarm Hezbollah. Those who present a serious challenge to its armed status are intimidated or killed.”

“Attempts to constrain its military arm are violently repressed. In May 2008, for example, a cabinet decision to dismantle the militia’s independent telecommunications infrastructure was met with a military takeover of much of Beirut. Hezbollah has also been implicated in a string of assassinations of political rivals, most recently through a United Nations tribunal that convicted Salim Ayyash of complicity in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.”

Beirut’s Blast Is a Warning for America

“The United States is becoming like Lebanon and other Middle East countries in two respects. First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power. They call theirs “Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites” or “Israelis and Palestinians.” We call ours “Democrats and Republicans,” but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die.

And second, as in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.”

“But a society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics. Governance gets strangled by it. Indeed, it was reportedly the failure of the corrupt Lebanese courts to act as guardians of the common good and order the removal of the explosives from the port — as the port authorities had requested years ago — that paved the way for the explosion.
“For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good,” explained the Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

To put it differently, when everything is politics, it means that everything is just about power. There is no center, there are only sides; there’s no truth, there are only versions; there are no facts, there’s only a contest of wills.

If you believe that climate change is real, it must be because someone paid you off with a research grant. If you believe the president committed an impeachable offense trying to enlist the president of Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, it’s only because you want power for your party.

Illiberal populists like Trump — or Bibi Netanyahu in Israel, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia — deliberately try to undermine the guardians of facts and the common good. Their message to their people is: “Don’t believe the courts, the independent civil servants or the fake news generators — only trust me, my words and my decisions. It’s a jungle out there. My critics are killers (which is what Trump called his press corps on Friday), and only I can protect our tribe from theirs. It’s rule or die.””