No pie in the sky will lead Lebanon out of dark tunnel

The same “public servants” who celebrate feats have been in power for decades and this is not their first and certainly their last unicorn-like promise.
Sunday 14/04/2019
Lebanese women look from a window of a building covered with electricity wires in the nothern city of Tripoli. (AFP)
Entangled. Lebanese women look from a window of a building covered with electricity wires in the nothern city of Tripoli. (AFP)

One year has elapsed since the Lebanese government appealed to the international community at the CEDRE conference in Paris to kick-start the country’s staggering economy.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri pledged his government would undergo structural reforms that would allow it to receive $11 billion in grants and investment pledges.

While Hariri and the Lebanese political establishment pronounced CEDRE a victory, portraying it as a lifeline for the country’s economic salvation, many analysts, including this writer, were extremely sceptical of the ability of the government to deliver on its promises, mainly because of a lack of vision and political resolve.

The adoption of the new electricity master plan is ample proof of the incorrigible nature of the Lebanese political elite, who dress up their corruption as reform and good governance.

The electricity crisis in Lebanon has been a chronic one, which, since the end of the civil war in 1990, has cost the state around $2 billion annually yet has failed to provide the Lebanese with 24-hour service. Some regions outside Beirut experience more than 20 hours of blackouts each day.

Following a long and arduous tug-of-war between the various factions, the Hariri government announced it had initiated a plan that would theoretically resolve the electricity problem and settle this matter. This so-called electricity salvation plan theoretically proposed the build-operate-transfer and the public-private partnership model, which aims to privatise the sector.

On the surface, this plan looks acceptable with ostensible signs of reform and transparency but closer inspection confirms this is a red herring that masks corruption at its core.

During his latest visit to Lebanon, Pierre Duquesne, the French inter-ministerial delegate for the Mediterranean in charge of following up on the implementation of CEDRE, underscored the need for the setting up or populating three essential regulatory committees: telecommunications, energy and civil aviation. These much-needed commissions encourage transparency and efficiency and invite investments into their respective sectors.

In the case of the electricity plan, the electricity regulatory committee has not been established; instead the authority to oversee the bidding process of the multimillion-dollar project falls to the Ministry of Energy and Water, which, for the last decade, has been controlled by Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

Hariri’s ironclad alliance with Bassil allowed them to derail the establishment of this essential regulatory body and permit them theoretically to control the outcome of the bidding process.

As soon as the cabinet adjourned, Hariri requested parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to include in the next parliamentary session a proposed amendment to Law 288.

This exceptional law, passed in 2014, gave the Lebanese cabinet, for a period of two years, the power to grant permits to produce electricity, a law that was extended twice before expiring in 2018.

The Hariri cabinet’s two-pronged amendment however is no mere procedural matter. Its second article is an explicit breach of government and legal procedures.

Alarmingly, Article 2 of these proposed amendments stipulates that “no laws that pertain to general accounting and the norms of the bidding process shall apply to the bids that pertain to the electricity projects which are the subject of this law.”

Such an amendment erodes government transparency and grants the cabinet and more importantly the Ministry of Energy and Water unmitigated power over the bidding process and allows both Bassil and Hariri to rig its outcome.

To conceal this major legal violation, the electricity master plan authorises the Committee for Administration of Public Tenders to lead the process. However, the proposed amendment to Law 288, which will most probably pass in parliament, would render this committee useless.

For anyone convinced of the governments promises of providing 24-hour electricity, be wary that the same “public servants” who celebrate feats, which are part and parcel of their constitutional mandates, have been in power for decades and this is not their first and certainly their last unicorn-like promise.

The electricity master plan will go down in Lebanon’s history as another case of corruption that was awkwardly dressed up as reform, a dark tragedy that no future plan will redeem.