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.
To read the introduction and responses to the first set of questions, click here.
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.