Archive | December, 2008

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon

27 Dec

Abdullah family has paid heavy price for speaking out
By Dalila Mahdawi
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon
 

BEIRUT: Only 26 years old, Syrian human rights activist Mohammad al-Abdullah has already been imprisoned twice, beaten, and forced into hiding in neighboring Lebanon.

Jail has unfortunately become a defining feature of the Abdullah family, which has been all but splintered by the repeated arrests of its male members because of their calls for political reform in Syria.

When Abdullah’s father Ali was jailed in 2005, the son formed the Committee for Families of Political Prisoners in Syria, only to be himself marched off to a cell two days after the launch. His father received a presidential pardon six months later, along with 190 other political prisoners.

Ali, who has been banned from traveling since 1996, was re-arrested in 2006 and then in December 2007 with 11 other members of the Damascus Declaration, which calls for “democratic and radical change” in Syria. All received 30-month prison sentences.

Syria, which has been under the Baathist rule of the Assad family since the 1970s, has long treated dissidents and human rights activists with an iron fist. “In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” Human Rights Watch has said.

“They took my father hostage in order to get me,” Mohammad told The Daily Star. “I stayed in jail for six and a half months, two floors underground in a cell smaller than me. After 18 days, they brought someone else and we stayed together there for 42 days. There was no light, the toilet was in the same place – it was terrible.”

During his imprisonment, Mohammad said he was beaten and forced to sign a document he was not allowed to read. “Later I found out it said I would work for the intelligence as an informer.”

Before his arrest, Abdullah had been a law student at the Lebanese University. With his final year exam approaching, he launched an eight-day hunger strike to be allowed to sit the test. “The judge said I would be released on October 4, the day before the exam,” said Abdullah, who wasn’t released until October 5. “I called a friend from university who told me the exam had been pushed back two days, but the authorities monitored the phone call and prevented me from leaving the country.”

In January 2007, Syria granted him permission to make one journey outside the country. “I came to Beirut on  February 1 and have stayed here since,” he said. Without a passport, he is stranded. “The only place I can go is Syria and if I go back I’ll be arrested.” He has been told by a friend who works at Damascus’ airport that there are 13 separate warrants for his arrest.

Abdullah’s younger brother Omar, meanwhile, is currently half-way through a five-year sentence for blogging. He is being held at Sidnaya military prison, the scene of deadly riots this July. “I haven’t heard anything from or about him since then,” said Mohammad. For the first time in the interview, Mohammad’s voice wobbled, his smile vanishing. “I cannot stop thinking about him.”

 

At the third annual Arab Free Press Forum held in Beirut earlier this month, Abdullah spoke of the rising importance of bloggers in the Middle East. Syrian bloggers had “become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet,” he said. The Syrian authorities require Internet cafŽ managers to monitor the online activities of clients and register their personal details. They have also blocked many prominent blog sites, along with numerous Arabic newspapers, Wikipedia and Facebook.

Repressive governments appear increasingly wary of bloggers, as there are currently more online journalists and bloggers in prison than journalists from any other field. According to a study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 out of 125 journalists imprisoned worldwide worked online, “a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time.” The reason for the crackdown on bloggers was simple, Abdullah said. “In general, bloggers write about issues that journalists don’t dare write about – about torture, corruption, subjects that the authorities cannot tolerate.”

While Abdullah publishes his blog, “I’m leaving and I’m not coming back,” under his real name, he said Syrian bloggers mainly wrote under pseudonyms. Readers of his blog, which deals with political prisoners and human rights in Syria, were so afraid of reprisals that many left their comments anonymously or sent them to his email account. Abdullah believes Syrian intelligence officers also read his blog, as he received “horrible” comments frequently. “I leave them up for people to see,” he said.

Being a Syrian in Lebanon was not easy, said Abdullah, adding he had experienced some racism. Despite that and the very real possibility of being followed by Syrian intelligence officers, he tries to lead a normal life. “I’m not paranoid, but at the same time I know the Syrians are still here … and in my opinion they are stronger than before. So I have to take care.” Abdullah said he would apply for a passport when the Syrian Embassy opened next week, but said he was not “optimistic.”

Abdullah hoped the thawing of relations between Syria and the West translated into greater rights for Syrians. “I’m not against Western engagement with Syria but it has to be conditional on freedom and human rights. Sometimes I get the feeling that the West is blocking democracy in the Middle East by supporting dictators,” Abdullah said, citing European support for the Tunisian, Saudi and Libyan regimes.

 

For Abdullah’s blog, see http://raye7wmishraj3.wordpress.com

A course in how best to wash down Christmas

23 Dec

Tour of several Lebanese wineries helps narrow tough choices
By Dalila Mahdawi
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

BEIRUT: With the holiday season in full swing, many Lebanese are eagerly anticipating the one day in the year where guilt-free overindulgence is the norm. Meals of turkey, crisp roast potatoes, lavish cakes and free-flowing wine will soon be working their magic on the waistlines of those celebrating Christmas on Thursday.

But while the ingredients for a Christmas lunch or dinner are dictated by long-standing traditions, choosing which wines to accompany the feast can be more daunting. At supermarkets, bottles of Australian, Chilean, French, Italian and Lebanese wines gaze up at shoppers, silently begging to be taken home. But how to choose?

Perhaps recognizing that a few members of the public could benefit from a crash-course in wine-tasting, hiking group Lebanese Adventures recently took off their walking boots long enough to organize a tour of Lebanon’s wine producers, mostly found among the lush green fields of the Bekaa Valley. It turned out quite a number were in need of help, as more than 50 people crammed into buses and set off in search of advice from Lebanon’s wine gurus.

Thankfully, Lebanon is small and an almost comprehensive tour of its vineyards can be squeezed into an afternoon, with stops at Ksara and Kefraya, by far the country’s most famous producer, as well as Clos St. Thomas and Cave Kouroum. Sadly Chateau Musar, which has produced some stellar wine, was left off the itinerary.

The first stop was Chateau Ksara, which came into being in 1857 when Jesuits began cultivating Lebanon’s first non-sweet red wine on a 25-hectare plot. Quite by coincidence, guides Carol and Caroline tell us, one of the fathers stumbled upon 2 kilometers of winding Roman tunnels, perfect for ageing wine. Today they are still used to store the oak casks from which wine emerges after  months (and sometimes longer) of slumber. From the dark cob-webbed caves, the unmissable scent of aniseed, from which arak is made, fill your nostrils.

After an informative video about the Ksara vineyards, albeit with hilariously convoluted narration from a poncy-sounding Englishman, the group was led to the wine tasting room. We were given three samples, a 2003 Blanc de Blancs (white), 2003 Sunset Rose, and a 2002 Prieure Ksara (red). The Blanc de Blancs, Carol informed us, “can be served as an aperitif or with fish or shellfish,” and is quite a treat, slipping down the throat as smoothly as silk. So too the rose, which Carol said went “well with Mediterranean and Oriental food,” as well as salads and cold meats.

The Prieure was not quite so outstanding as its predecessors, although that might have been more due to the fact that several members of the group had eagerly chugged numerous glasses of the earlier stuff down rather than “sipping and spitting” as real wine-tasters were supposed to. Then again, it had seemed a shame to waste all that good wine.

In the Ksara shop, the saleswoman advised the 2002 Reserve du Couvent, described in a brochure as a “deliciously complex wine that resonates with the subtle combination of wood and vanilla tones,” or the Chateau 2001 (with “fruity notes of raspberry, blackcurrant and vanilla”) to accompany meat or game dishes.

 

A short drive through the Bekaa and the group was welcomed at Kefraya, which has built up an international reputation for excellent wines since its 1951 inception. The group, thirsty for more wine, was quickly led away from the Chateau’s attractive grounds to the wine-tasting room.

“You should always hold your glass from the bottom otherwise you’ll heat the wine up with your hands,” our guide cheerfully explained as several members of the group rushed to make the adjustment.

The eight or so wines sampled were for the most part excellent, especially the Chateau Kefraya 2002 red blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Carignan, Grenache and Syrah vines. According to a Kefraya booklet, the wine is “a beautifully conceived and expressive vintage endowed with melted tannins” that render it “supple and well constructed,” a description that may have been lost on the ears of the gathered amateur drinkers, but not on their taste buds. It is said to go nicely with meats, as is another red, Les Breteches.

Riding on a wave of wine-induced cheeriness, the group was whisked away from Kefraya before they could smash any more glasses, and taken to the quaint Clos St. Thomas vineyard. A small family business established in 1990 by Said Touma and his family, Clos St. Thomas has been gaining a reputation for making some of Lebanon’s best-loved wines.

Natalie Touma, who runs the marketing and export side of the vineyard, recommended Miel Du Clos, a red dessert wine. “A lot of people here serve it around Christmas to their guests – it’s better to chill it a bit and drink it like a shot,” she said. Many of the group’s members agreed Miel Du Clos was delicious, managing to be sweet but not sickly, full of flavor but not overwhelming.

For meal time, Chateau St. Thomas 2004 or 2005 red wines were good choices, Touma said. The wines, both of which boast two European medals, are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes, and are aged in oak casks for 18 months before being bottled. They are said to go well with turkey and red meats.

Last but not least, the group arrived at Cave Kouroum, which claims to be the most “advanced in the Middle East in terms of facilities, equipment, and technology.” After an interesting tour of the ageing and packaging facilities, a now very tipsy group swaggered around the wine-tasting hall.

Agricultural engineer Hassan Rahal said Petit Noir 2003 red was a good pre-Christmas meal drink as it “was easy to drink and has a good body.” For  beef and other red meat dishes, 7 Cepages was a better choice, he said. Left in oak barrels for 18 months, the wine had a deep ruby color and a “spicy nose.”

Rahal also recommended Miss Cat 2002 dessert wine for its “nice aromas of Muscat” and fresh finish.

Slightly frazzled, the group made its way back to Beirut better informed about wine etiquette and Lebanon’s vintners. For many, the trip had helped to narrow down the choices of Christmas wines – if they could remember the next day.

Workshop aims to help displaced Iraqi professionals in Lebanon find jobs

22 Dec
By Dalila Mahdawi 

Monday, December 22, 2008

BEIRUT: Inaam is one of an estimated 50,000 Iraqis who have sought refuge in Lebanon, a fraction of the 2 million scattered across the Middle East, mostly in Syria and Jordan. Although she possesses a Masters in chemistry and is keen to find work, she is not entitled to that right.

According to a 2007 survey by the Danish Refugee Council, 77.5 percent of Iraqis in Lebanon arrived illegally, usually via Syria. As Lebanon has not signed the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, many Iraqi refugees could face arrest or deportation if discovered, let alone found working.

As a result, Inaam said most of her days were “wasted” at home. “If you don’t have a job, you get bored and start to feel as though you are less [valuable] than other people. You get depressed.” With no income, Inaam survives off aid and her rapidly diminishing savings.

There are thousands of highly educated Iraqis in Lebanon like Inaam facing the humiliation of being barred from pursuing a career or being forced to take casual jobs completely unrelated to their professional training.

Last week, the plight of Iraqi professionals was addressed by the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Medical Corps (IMC). On Wednesday it launched the “Continuing Medical Education and Continuing Professional Development Program,” comprising 10 workshops aimed at strengthening and developing the professional skills of Iraq’s educated elite. By the end of the program, some 200 Iraqi professionals will have benefited.

The workshops, developed and implemented by the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) office of Regional External Programs (REP) and funded by the US State Department, were providing a much-needed lifeline to Lebanon’s population of Iraqi professionals, said IMC medical director Haidar Sahib. “There is a thirst for these kinds of activities,” he said.

A dozen Iraqis participated in the first three-day workshop, “Finance for non-Financial Officers,” taught by AUB professors. While the issues covered in the first workshop were relatively broad, REP assistant vice president George Farag said the other workshops would be more tailored to professions such as medicine, business, teaching or engineering.

Inaam, who has cancer in her salivary gland, was so keen to participate that she came straight to the workshop after having a session of radiotherapy. “This is the first time in Lebanon the [Iraqi] intellectual community is being addressed,” she said. In fact, the IMC program is the first of its kind in the Middle East.

 

The goal of the workshops, said Sahib, was not only to upgrade the skills of long-idle Iraqi professionals, but to provide them with the expertise to ensure they found jobs upon resettlement or return to Iraq. According to Sahib, an IMC assessment of critical needs indicated that “one of the biggest gaps [in service provision] not only in Lebanon but across the region,” was in capacity-building.

The “huge displacement of professional Iraqis” meant the war-afflicted country was suffering from a shortage of skilled professionals at a time when they were needed most, he added. “Iraq is keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of technology – there are more than 14 million cell-phone lines and 1 million internet users,” Sahib said. “All this requires human resources.”

The program was also addressing the mental health and psychosocial needs of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. Many of the participants said the workshop helped to restore their lost dignity, morale and self-esteem.

Haidar, who has an advanced degree in mathematics, lost his job as a day laborer because of his attendance. “I don’t care because I didn’t want to miss this course,” he laughed. “We have all had to work in fields inappropriate to our expertise, work that has humiliated us.” 

Suha, a social researcher who lives with her two sisters near Qana, just outside Tyre, said the Iraqi population in Lebanon was “keen to update their professional knowledge and pursue careers,” and hoped she would be able to join IMC’s future workshops. “It makes you feel as if your degree has value,” she said, wishing the workshops were longer.

“For a few hours at least, they feel as though they are not refugees but real professionals,” Sahib said of the participants.

“I don’t have the proper words to express my gratitude to the organizers,” Inaam said. “We are thankful to know there are people out there who care about helping us develop our skills and find careers when we go back to Iraq.”

Although IMC had limited funding for the workshop program, support officer Michelle Kayaleh said the NGO was hoping to expand its partnerships to continue providing capacity-building programs to Iraqi professionals and to create partnerships with Iraqi universities.

 

For more information, check out the IMC website at www.imcworldwide.org

Lebanon ‘far behind’ in protecting migrant workers

18 Dec
Lebanon 'far behind' in protecting migrant workers
 

Government has ‘not even managed the incremental step of creating a fair employment contract’
By Dalila Mahdawi
Thursday, December 18, 2008

BEIRUT: Lebanon has not done enough in 2008 to address the plight of its population of female migrant workers and falls “far behind” the efforts of other Middle Eastern countries, rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday. “Lebanon lags far behind almost every country in the region when it comes to protecting migrant women’s rights,” said Nisha Varia, deputy director of HRW’s women’s division.

Her comments came on the eve of the eighth annual International Migrants Day on Thursday, designated by the United Nations in 2000 in recognition of the increasing numbers of migrants across the world.

According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 9 million migrants working in the Middle East. Lebanon hosts some 200,000 women domestic workers, mostly from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, as well as an unconfirmed figure of Syrian and Egyptian male laborers who may number in the hundreds of thousands.

Women migrants in Lebanon work mainly as live-in “maids” and do not enjoy legal protection under the country’s labor laws.

Vulnerable to exploitation and rights abuses, many domestic helpers work long hours without a weekly day off. A 2006 survey of 600 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon by American University of Beirut professor Ray Jureidini found that 56 percent worked more than 12 hours a day and 34 percent were not allowed regular time off.

According to a 2005 survey conducted by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Caritas Lebanon, some 90 percent of employers retained the passports and other legal documents of their employees, seriously limiting their freedom of movement. Many workers are also forcibly confined to the residence where they work and denied regular, if any, payment of their salaries.

According to Caritas project manager Rania Hokayem, the NGO takes on an average of 40 new cases of distressed migrant womens each month.

Like those of many other countries in the Middle East with large migrant worker populations, the Lebanese government has promised to take measures to protect domestic workers, but has yet to show any substantial progress on the matter, HRW said. Lebanon is still not a signatory to the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

An official steering committee was established by the government in 2006 to improve the lives of Lebanon’s migrant workers. The committee is charged, among other things, with creating standard employment contracts written in Arabic, English, French and the native language of the worker, and with formulating a new law for migrant workers. It is also supposed to have published a booklet detailing the rights and obligations of employers and employees, for distribution at airports, ministries and recruitment agencies. But while other Arab countries were “debating concrete legal reforms,” said Varia, “Lebanon has not even managed the incremental step of creating a fair employment contract.”

 

“It is encouraging that [Middle Eastern] governments are finally considering serious reforms, but these proposals mean nothing until the new protections are in place and being enforced,” she said. “Each day of delay leaves migrant domestic workers open to abuses such as unpaid wages, being locked in their workplaces, and to physical and sexual abuse.”

The number of women falling victim to such abuse in Lebanon is alarming. A HRW report issued in August found that “at least” 95 women migrant workers had died between January 1, 2007, and August 15, 2008, a figure equal to more than one woman per week. Of the 95 deaths, 40 were “classified by the embassies of the migrants as suicide,” said HRW, stressing that the list was not exhaustive.

“Most deaths resulting from a building fall are failed attempts to escape” abusive employers, a labor attache told the group.

Since releasing the report, HRW has continued to monitor migrant deaths and has found the figures have remained more or less the same. “Unfortunately we are still seeing approximately the same death rates,” HRW senior researcher Nadim Houry told The Daily Star.

While media coverage on the issue of domestic worker rights had increased in 2008 “both in terms of quantity and quality,” official attitudes had not changed, Houry said.

“The government still does not see the rights of migrant workers as a pressing issue, despite the high death tolls and the extent of human right violations,” he said. “We need to see concrete action.”

The failure to improve the plight of migrant workers has led to Ethiopia and the Philippines banning their citizens from working in Lebanon. The bans were “expressions of frustration,” Houry said, but seem to have had little impact.

Nevertheless, adopting standard employment contracts, prosecuting abusive employers and modifying the labor law were all changes that, with the commitment of the government, could “be achieved before the next parliamentary elections” in 2009, Houry said.

Where Women are the Hunters

14 Dec

by Hamida Ghafour, The National

BEIRUT // At the Music Hall bar and nightclub there is no sign of anything as gauche as chipped nail varnish or a frizzy perm. A band of impossibly slender and beautiful girls in tight dresses saunter up and down the bar, tossing long slinky manes or casting a smoky eye at the men wearing expressions of studied indifference.

It is 2am and the middle of the week, but young Beirut shows no sign of slowing down. The holiday season has just started and thousands of Lebanese men who work abroad in the Gulf states or Europe are home visiting families for Eid al Adha and Christmas.

In a country where single women outnumber men five to one, their arrival offers a unique opportunity for husband hunting.

Maya, who did not want her last name published, came early to the bar with her sister and friends to grab a table in a prime spot for people watching.

“I am looking for someone very well-educated, good looking,” she said, slipping off her coat to reveal a short leopard print dress. “I am 21 and still have time, so it is not so important to find someone right now. But he has to accept me as I am. That means coming to these bars, spending money, buying clothes. I don’t like to wear the same outfit twice.”

The scene is what the Lebanese call the “culture of the catch”, the highly competitive game between singletons to land a prize husband.

Over the next couple of weeks Beirut’s bars, cafes and nightclubs will be jam-packed with young Lebanese sizing each other up and trying to impress the opposite sex.

“This is the concern of my young students and I can’t get them to talk about anything else,” said Dr Samir Khalaf, a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut.

“What you see there in nightclubs is really a highly eroticised, permissive society with young people dancing on table tops showing off their bellies. There is a skewed demographic and men are a scarce commodity, so to speak, so they are a pursued commodity.”

There may be a hint of desperation in some of the bars, but the fears of many women are real because of Lebanon’s dismal demographics.

Between 1975 and 2001 approximately one million Lebanese fled the country because of the civil war and fragile security. The exodus was accelerated in 2006 following a brief war with Israel when another 200,000 – the majority of them young, highly educated men – left to pursue better lives abroad.

“I stress this is only an estimate because there are no reliable statistics, but every community knows its people are leaving,” said Guita Hourani, the director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at Notre Dame University-Louaize.

“The Lebanese who finish a degree here, they know they cannot find a job and it’s because of the situation. They are going as far as China or Africa for work.”

Turning to her computer, she opens her e-mail inbox.

“I get e-mails all the time from recruiters, Qatar is a major one. Some are not ashamed to ask the government here to help them recruit. I got this one a minute ago. He wants a graphic designer, another one is looking for two or three consultants with master’s degrees in Saudi Arabia. There is another job in Paris.”

These well-paid professionals returning home are highly sought after by families looking to provide security for their daughters in a volatile country – and no effort is spared in trying to ensnare one.

Ms Hourani paints a bleak picture for the girls left behind.

“If you are 35, forget it. The options are to hook up with a younger man in his 20s, or you migrate or you marry a man over the age of 65 who is divorced or a widower.”

At the Fadia el Mendelek salon, a favourite of Beirut’s beau monde, the telephone rings constantly as women book haircuts, colouring sessions or nail appointments.

“A lot of girls complain about lack of men, ‘all the good guys are gone’, I hear that a lot,” said the owner, Fadia el Mendelek, during a break. “Now they are back, it is holidays and the women fix themselves more for sure.”

She adds that business is double what it usually is.

“They [the men] should provide what our parents provided and more,” said Sarah Hajjar, 20, a doe-eyed beauty waiting for her nails to dry as her two sisters preen in front of the mirror. “If he can treat you like a princess, make you feel special, that’s good.”

Many of her friends spent up to four hours getting ready.

“Some do their hair every night before they go out, but not me. Yesterday I went out without my hair done. When they get ready to go out, some of my friends pick an outfit the week before. One girlfriend chose her New Year’s outfit three months ago.”

The pressure goes beyond wearing the right outfit or choosing a trendy hair style.

Dr Mohamed Kodeih, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the American University Hospital, says in the last two months 70 clients have asked for liposuction and nose jobs, while another 50 have booked in Botox sessions to iron out facial wrinkles.

“Lebanese men have got used to plastic surgery. Today the good girl who stays at home, is baby-faced and innocent, she won’t find a husband.”

Sometimes parents encourage their daughters and nearly all get their parents to pay for the treatment.

“They are looking for a husband, their daughter is getting older and older and the mother encourages her” [to have an operation], he said. “You see the mother and she has had three or four surgeries herself. Girls, on the other hand, want to marry someone rich and someone who can afford to give them a good life. The best salary is US$1,000 (Dh3,673) a month if he graduates from university. He can’t get a car and a house on this so he has to go travel [abroad for work].”

A fashion stylist, 30, who did not want to be named, said Lebanese girls are raised to be competitive.

“These girls are educated, they have lived abroad, but this is their mentality. Their mothers teach them to be like this. I married a working man, he manages a hair salon. My parents wouldn’t accept him because he didn’t have a house, two cars, a piece of land. I tried to convince them for two years. It was basically on our wedding day they finally said, ‘OK we have to accept you because now you are our son.’”

At the Music Hall, Wassim, a Lebanese businessman who lives in Abu Dhabi, says he is careful to look for a girl who is not after his money.

“I know it’s competitive out there for the girls, but I’m not looking for a wife right now. I tell them that,” he said, as the Jordanian woman next to him appeared slightly crestfallen.

Even after marriage it is hard work to keep a husband happy.

“Competition exists between all women,” said Nadine, 23, who married a year ago. “You have to hang on to your man. Always be the woman he wants to see, stylish and respectable, perfect in all things.”

Britain Lifts Travel Ban on Lebanon

11 Dec

AFP- Britain relaxed its travel advice for Lebanon on Wednesday, lifting a blanket warning against travel to the Middle East country which is recovering after three years of unrest.
“Due to the improved security situation, we no longer advise against all but essential travel to the country,” the Foreign Office said, in updated advice for travelers on its website.

The ministry added however that it advised “against all travel to the Palestinian camps, and against all but essential travel to Tripoli as well as south of the Litani river.”

Lebanon is recovering after three years of turmoil, including a string of assassinations, a devastating war with Israel, a 15-week battle with Islamists, civil strife and a debilitating political crisis.

While easing its travel advice, the Foreign Office warned: “Although the situation overall in Lebanon is calm, it is fragile.

“On several occasions in recent years, the security situation has deteriorated rapidly to the point where we have had to advise against all travel.

“Anyone traveling to Lebanon should keep themselves well informed and closely monitor political and security developments.” (AFP)

Lebanon losing battle to keep the lights on

8 Dec

By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT, Dec 8 (Reuters) – A candle flickering in her darkened home, Fouada Hawi rails against the daily 10-hour power cuts that Lebanon’s ailing electricity utility inflicts on her.

 “It’s unbearable,” said the headscarved mother. “No one has money to buy fuel for generators, so you have to live by candle light. You have to put up with everything in this country, you work and you are patient, but nothing changes.”

Many developing countries have power problems, but Lebanon’s go beyond mere technical issues, a World Bank report issued this year suggests, pointing to corruption and vested interests.

It says the electricity sector’s woes are typical of countries where “there are multiple beneficiaries of the dysfunctional status quo … ranging from corruption in payments flows or procurement, to buying of voters through free electricity, to profiteering from energy shortages”.

Hawi, 33, lives with her husband and child in Ouzai, just south of Beirut — where luckier residents have still had to endure three hours without power a day for the last two years.

Anger over the blackouts turned violent in January when army troops shot dead eight protesters in the mainly Shi’ite southern suburbs, fuelling wider political turmoil.

Tensions have calmed since rival factions reached a deal on a national unity government in May, but the chronic malaise gripping the electricity sector is not so readily cured.

Nor can the drain on the public purse be easily plugged. Subsidies cost the equivalent of 4 percent of Lebanon’s Gross Domestic Product last year, the World Bank estimates.

Lebanon built two gas-fired power plants in 1996, but they still lack a gas supply and run on expensive diesel instead. Older turbines use the costliest grade of fuel oil.

State-owned Electricity du Liban (EdL) can meet only two-thirds of peak demand. More than a third of the power it does generate gets lost in distribution or is not paid for.

How to overhaul a utility whose 2,000 staff have an average age of 58, whose tariffs were fixed in 1996 when oil cost $21 a barrel, and whose last audited accounts were issued in 2004?

 TOO MANY COOKS?

Lebanon’s fiendishly intricate sectarian power-sharing system makes consensus on reform elusive, and dozens of reports proposing solutions for the problems are gathering dust.

The latest energy minister to try his hand acknowledges the scale of the task.

“Today we are able to generate about 1,500 megawatts and our peak requirement is estimated at 2,200, so we have a deficit of around 700,” Alain Tabourian told Reuters. “That’s why we see a lot of power cuts, especially in summer.”

Back-up generators used by shops, homes and factories hammer in the streets of Beirut during outages — which cost business around $400 million last year, according to the World Bank.

Tangled overhead cables reveal illicit links to unmetered supplies. Public sector consumers like ministries, the army, police and hospitals are all supposed to get billed. Few pay.

Subsidising EdL cost the government $1.2 billion in the first 10 months of 2008, or more than 15 percent of its spending and a fifth of its revenue, Finance Ministry figures show.

The bill for imported fuel surged mainly because world oil prices spiked to nearly $150 a barrel in July before collapsing.

But Lebanon, with a $44.5 billion public debt — among the world’s biggest at 170 percent of GDP — can ill afford such costs, let alone the investments to expand capacity.

Existing power stations are obsolete, poorly maintained or unsuited to the fuel available, Tabourian said.

Initially Syria was to supply natural gas for the two modern combined-cycle gas turbine units, but now has a shortfall itself, so Lebanon turned to Egypt. After successive delays, the Egyptians are promising the first deliveries in January.

“Unfortunately they cut the amount in half compared to what we originally agreed,” Tabourian said. “That means only one of the two turbines in one plant will be able to run on gas.”

 “REAL WORD IS THEFT”

Tabourian put technical losses in the distribution system at about 15 percent, or double those typical of a well-run network.

“Non-technical losses — the real word is theft — have gone up to around 22 percent,” he said, blaming Lebanon’s political upheavals for the reversal of a trend which had curbed these to 17 percent from a crippling 40 percent in 2000-2002.

The ministry is considering how to restructure the outdated electricity tariff, without too much pain for poorer consumers — although even they might pay up if EdL’s service improved.

“Let them ration or raise the bills a bit, but give us electricity,” pleaded Hawi at her home in Ouzai. “People can’t live a normal life. School-kids can’t study by candle light.”

Albert Khoury, deputy general manager of a private power distribution concession in Aley, east of Beirut, blamed EdL’s management. “Every area in Lebanon would pay if we had clean power and reliable billing and collection.”

 Computerisation at EdL is incomplete. Anyone trying to do business at its Beirut headquarters must navigate a maze of desks where clerks shuffle records in dusty ledgers and files.

 EdL’s chairman, Kamal Hayek, declined to be interviewed.

Tabourian said the widely discussed option of privatising EdL was out of reach for now: “First it needs to be corporatised so it can operate on commercial rules, so it can hire and fire.”

He saw private-public partnerships as the way to combine the public sector’s ability to raise affordable financing with the private sector’s skills at building and operating projects.

Tabourian aims to put in place a strategic power plan for the next 25 years — a tall order since the government will only last until a parliamentary election next May or June.

Such a master plan would set policy on the future energy mix — coal, natural gas, liquefied natural gas and renewables all have their advocates alongside the fuel oil and diesel now used.

But long-term investments need consistent political support.

“Unfortunately what we have seen is successive governments often re-examining issues and taking a different tack,” said Simon Stolp, a World Bank expert. “What they really need to do is set in train a course of action and pursue it to the end.”

Khoury champions a bigger private sector role and more emphasis on renewables like solar and wind power.

“I hope the government will listen to us,” he said. “But they need to listen more to the people who get six-hour power cuts a day, who cannot warm their water or light their homes.

“Unfortunately because of the lack of good services in Lebanon, we tend to consider that 24-hour electricity is a luxury. This is quite sad. It is our right.” (Editing by Sara Ledwith)