BEIRUT: Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan announced Wednesday that a standoff over the employment of Electricite du Liban contract workers was nearing its end.
Hajj Hasan said Hezbollah was working nonstop to resolve the crisis between the electricity company and the workers demanding full-time jobs at the public power provider.
But for the third day in a row, EDL staff and officials were kept out of the state-run company’s headquarters in Beirut as contract workers continued their sit-in, which they said would only end when their demands for full-employment are met.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil says hiring 2,000 contract workers full-time would result in more corruption in the already ailing electricity sector.
EDL officials reiterated that the company could no longer carry out electricity repairs, and said the power cuts would continue.
“We, the directors of EDL, announce we can no longer carry out any maintenance and repair work as we have no way to access the needed equipment and tools at the central headquarters [in Beirut] and because of the occupiers’ seizure of all the equipment including vehicles and tools,” EDL said.
In a speech, FPM leader Michel Aoun also warned that the entire country faced a blackout if the occupation of EDL’s premises continue.
“The occupation of Electricite du Liban and the banning of repair and maintenance ... will ultimately lead to a nationwide blackout,” said Aoun.
In recent weeks, blackouts have spread throughout Ashrafieh and Hamra, and earlier this week, a power cut prevented the state-run water company in Ashrafieh’s Fassouh from supplying water to thousands.
A local official in Ashrafieh told The Daily Star that Bassil had specifically ordered the power cut in the area to cause a panic among the residents. “Bassil hoped that a power and water problem in Ashrafieh would take the people to the streets to support him against the striking contract workers,” said the official, who refused to be identified by the media.
According to the official, FPM representative in Ashrafieh Ziyad Abs asked EDL senior official Elias Shakhtoura to shut down several power routes in the area, including the supply route of the water company.
The FPM denied the allegations, describing them as “absurd.”
“Who would believe such an accusation?” said Abs, during a visit to the water company in Ashrafieh Wednesday.
Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, who accompanied Abs during the visit, said a problem with an underground cable was the cause of the power shortage to the water company. But the sudden resumption of power to the company Tuesday evening cast the explanation into doubt.
All EDL officials contacted by local officials had said earlier this week that the company could not carry out repairs until the contract workers allowed them to return to the EDL headquarters in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael.
“The security officials, President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Najib Mikati all are now aware that water and power cuts in Ashrafieh are deliberate,” Beirut MP Michel Pharaon said after a meeting of Beirut MPs at Parliament.
“What are the goals behind this deliberate power and water cuts? Is it to strike at the social stability of the area? Is it because Ashrafieh residents didn’t take to the streets [with the FPM] to protest against the contract workers?” he asked.
Pharaon also said that when he telephoned officials at the water company, they informed him that they had no electricity service. “When we called EDL director general Kamal Hayek, he told us he could not do anything because of the sit-in,” Pharaon added. “But when the crisis worsened yesterday [Tuesday], the electricity problem was fixed and water supply was magically restored.”
Bassil faced mounting pressure to resign Wednesday after parts of Beirut continued to experience water and power cuts and rival politicians accused Free Patriotic Movement officials of deliberately orchestrating the shortages.
Thousands of residents experiencing power outages and water shortages brought on by the power cuts used Twitter to join the call for Bassil to resign from his post.
A website was created to track the tweets hashtagged “#blamebassil,” which residents began using to protest poor service. “Lebanon once was on now it is always OFF #BlameBassil,” tweeted Mazen Kadi.
The website was designed to turn black occasionally, imitating the real blackouts affecting parts of the country.