BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Row over electricity plan threatens paralysis

Press Conference For Minister Jibran Bassil. (Dalati&Nohra Photo)

BEIRUT: A state of political paralysis is taking hold in Lebanon at least until after the Eid al-Fitr holiday to give time for parliamentary bloc leaders represented in the government to reach a compromise over a controversial $1.2 billion electricity plan that is threatening to throw the Cabinet into disarray.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati is currently in Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah (minor pilgrimage). It was not immediately known if Mikati would meet Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, who received former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Mecca Tuesday.

Until the Cabinet’s next meeting set for Sept. 7, behind-the-scenes consultations and contacts will be held between leaders of parties represented in the government in an attempt to narrow differences over a draft law designed to improve electricity supply in a country notorious for power outages, a political source said.

A minister in MP Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement said the electricity crisis will not lead to the collapse of the Cabinet, but it will paralyze it unless this issue is resolved by Sept. 7.

If no agreement is reached at the next Cabinet meeting, the FPM ministers will refrain from attending Cabinet sessions until an agreement over the issue is reached, the minister told The Daily Star.

Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, the man currently at the center of a heated debate over the electricity plan, warned that the country was facing a Cabinet and parliamentary paralysis until the problem over the electricity bill was solved. He also warned that power rationing, currently at between 8 to 12 hours a day, especially in Beirut’s suburbs and other areas, will get worse by the summer of 2013 if the electricity bill is not approved by the Cabinet and Parliament.

“We are today facing a Cabinet and parliamentary paralysis pending a solution for the problem over the electricity plan. A solution for this issue is possible inside the Cabinet,” Bassil told a news conference Thursday.

Referring to demands by some ministers who proposed putting the electricity draft law to a vote in the Cabinet, Bassil said: “It is not a matter of voting, but keenness on referring [the plan] successfully to Parliament had led to the postponement [of approving the plan].”

The 2-month-old Cabinet is deadlocked over the draft law, which calls for the allocation of $1.2 billion to the Energy Ministry to build power plants to supply 700 additional megawatts for the country. The proposal was presented to Parliament by Aoun, Bassil’s father-in-law.

Aoun, who has 10 ministers in Mikati’s 30-member government, this week renewed his threats to quit the Cabinet if the electricity proposal is not approved.

“We want to save the government and the electricity plan. But this plan is more important than the government even though we want the government to succeed,” Bassil said, adding: “The electricity plan is clear with all its technical and financial aspects, but the opposition to it is politically motivated.”

Bassil accused Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc MPs and their March 14 allies of withdrawing from Parliament Wednesday in order to prevent a quorum and foil a legislative session to discuss the electricity plan. “Therefore, the [new] majority must secure a majority of attending lawmakers. This was not secured yesterday [Wednesday]. We are now facing this state of paralysis,” he said.

The Cabinet has failed during its meetings in the past two days to approve the $1.2 billion plan to develop the electricity sector. Wednesday’s Cabinet session lasted only 10 minutes, reflecting the difficulties confronted in reaching an agreement on the electricity plan.

At the root of the dispute within the Cabinet is who should supervise the spending of the money for the implementation of the plan.

Members of the opposition March 14 parties have criticized the plan because it would give Bassil access to $1.2 billion without any supervision or accountability.

A proposal made by ministers from MP Walid Jumblatt’s parliamentary National Struggle Front bloc to form a technical committee which, along with Bassil, would oversee the implementation of the plan, has added to the deadlock.

While Mikati and ministers loyal to President Michel Sleiman support the proposal for a committee, Aoun and his ministers strongly oppose it, arguing that the spending powers should be assigned only to the energy minister.

Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn called for “a quick and effective” solution for the electricity problem.

“All the Lebanese want electricity. But sometimes agreement could be reached on the principle in the presence of some different viewpoints,” Ghosn said during a meeting with a delegation from the Journalists’ Union. “Eventually, viewpoints will be reconciled and all obstacles will be overcome as long as [the plan] serves the interest of the country and the citizen.”

Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem also called for a rapid approval of the plan, saying electricity was a central issue for the people. “If the Cabinet did not approve the electricity plan, this means it is not doing anything,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah stepped up its campaign against the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, warning that relying on the STL’s indictment would have dangerous repercussions on Lebanon. “The tribunal and its indictment have created a dangerous division in Lebanon that could destroy the whole country by undermining its national fabric,” Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah told a news conference at Parliament. – With additional reporting by Hasan Lakkis

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 26, 2011, on page 1.

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