Who’s Got The Power?
The power-sharing system in Lebanon was intended to be a sort of band-aid fix: it addressed the need to prevent conflict between different sects as well as the need to actualize a system of governance. By definition, a band-aid fix is supposed to be a temporary palliative. But, in Lebanon, it was never supplanted by a more comprehensive solution. And the very problem with this kind of ‘band-aid fix’ is that it does not solve any structural problems: it treats symptoms, rather than the disease itself. As a result, the disease deepens its hold, and the very symptoms— that were supposed to be mitigated— are heightened.
The constitution in Lebanon ‘addresses’ tension along sectarian lines by dividing power between three predominant, intermittently quarreling sects: Christian Maronite, Sunni, and Shi’a. It effectively empowers elites from these previously warring sects, and as such it may appear problematic. But one may posit that perhaps this is a worthwhile price to pay for peace. Indeed, there is over a millennium of philosophy that defends aristocratic rule. Why does it matter who is in power, so long as tensions are subdued and the state’s operations are well-run?
However, elites having a constitutionally-warranted grasp over their communities means that they have incentive to exploit and perpetuate the very tensions that lead to the system’s creation in the first place. Elites surpass these differences horizontally, only to exploit them vertically, as it is this very sectarianism that sustains their power; and they use it to exact privileges for themselves and for their cronies, rather than as a platform to secure the interests for their respective groups.
Because these groups are defined by sect, they have an ascriptive membership from which people cannot defect. Therefore, the public is a captive audience within a system that serves its leaders more than its people.
The power-sharing system created a channel through which corruption became not just a norm, but a necessary and sufficient condition in order to succeed in Lebanese politics. Although one should question the ethics behind power-sharing, elitism, and clientelism— the pressing issue at hand is that these corrupting structures have made it to so that the country finds itself in a Sisyphean economic standstill.
The Lebanese economy is characterized by a vicious cycle that is both laborious and futile. The government’s inability (or unwillingness) to reform may deny Lebanon access to loans pledged at an economic conference (CEDRE) held in Paris last April to assist Lebanon, with a condition that Lebanon reduces the fiscal deficit to GDP ratio by 1% annually over the next five years. And yet, the fiscal deficit has only risen.
The defunct energy sector exposes the perfect cycle of corruption that brings Lebanon to what seems like complete self-sabotage.
On one hand, a major problem is that the production costs of the state’s power company, Electricité du Liban, is that productions costs exceed revenues from consumers. According to the National Electricity Strategy Plan of 2010, the price represented on average only 55% of the production cost per kilowatt hour, which bears the question: why would the state allow such a deficit?
In order to understand why, it must first be understood how this deficit is sustained:
The losses have been shouldered by the state through subsidies, but the subsidies vary per region, and regions are largely ethnically homogenous.
The crux of the issue here is that the segment of the population that is most well-off and uses the most electricity benefits the most from these subsidies, whereas those in the peripheries use less and consequently pay more. This discrepancy is representative of a system that props those at the top at the detriment of the rest of the population and the functioning of the state as a whole. And so, corruption and clientelism, which have lead to the exemptions of some regions and influential groups from the ‘power bill,’ can be partially blamed for EDL’s financial deficit.
Militias, such as Amal and Hezbollah, have taken advantage of the vacuum in the neglected peripheries by providing resources such as electricity: they exchange services, such as electricity, for the support of the individuals they serve. Thus, by engaging in the kind of corruption that created this vacuum, politicians essentially invited the control of groups who exacerbate the very tensions that the power-sharing system was supposed to subvert.
Further, these groups use informal channels in order to supply power: generators and illegal connections, and they tamper with electricity meters. And informal means of gathering energy has led to the waste of 40% of generated power. Thereby, not only do they contribute to the country’s divisions, but also they exacerbated the economic quagmire.
More recently, a political showdown regarding Lebanon’s power-grid demonstrates the linkage between corruption, sectarianism, and clientelism that underpins the entirety of the issue. When a Turkish company sent Lebanon a floating power-plant last September, offering three months of free electricity, Amal accused the Christian Free Patriotic Movement of using this ship to delay the construction of a new power plant in the south. Meanwhile, critics stated that Amal’s opposition stemmed from concern that the ship would affect the profits that they generate from their “ties” to generator operators.
Moreover, the government is working toward powering its grid with two more electricity barges, which would cost $2.25 billion and supply 825 megawatts. When it comes to the fiscal deficit, this initiative is analogous to quelling a fire with gasoline. For the same cost, they could build a 3 gigawatt solar plant that would last 25 years. So why has there been no reform to implement an initiative such as this one?
Elites see more to lose than they see to gain from reorganizing the electricity system: ELP has been attributed over 9% of public spending in the past 25 years, and investigations have revealed that most of this spending has gone toward buying fuel from firms tied to politicians. And so, for those in control, reform means losing the very channels of corruption through which they maintain their power.
Of course, the public deficit is not entirely attributable to the problems of the energy sector, but this sector alone makes up for $36 billion of an $80 billion public deficit, and it is clear that corruption is largely to blame. However, as explained at the outset, this corruption is intrinsically linked to the makeup of the power-sharing system. Thus, going forward requires an understanding that political arrangements must serve as more than a band-aid fix, which has proven to aggravate the very symptoms it seeks to palliate.
If a complete overhaul of the system does not occur, it seems Lebanon is the state equivalent of Sisyphus: condemned to carry the weight of its leaders’ corruption, only to watch it crash down — over, and over again.