Parts of Beirut were brought to an absolute standstill Tuesday by unhappy contract workers in the electricity sector when they blocked a main highway to the capital and snarled traffic in every direction.
The workers have every right to seek quick action on their demands and grievances. But in shifting the focus of their protests from the premises of Electricite du Liban to the highway, they ended up destroying thousands and thousands of man hours in a country whose economy is already reeling from pressures from various directions.
By punishing average citizens – on a huge scale – the workers might have secured rapid action by government officials, but they also risk alienating the public and hurting their own cause. It was a gamble: a dramatic change in protest tactics in exchange for the hope of a quicker resolution.
Meanwhile, the actions of the caretaker government are more puzzling, and even more annoying. The fact that officials promptly supported the workers’ point of view and promised immediate solutions to the issue of contract employees who were unfairly fired hints that the whole mess could have been avoided in the first place.
If the workers’ case was so strong, why did officials refrain from acting earlier, before inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people who were starting an already-short work week?
Leaving problems unattended until a crisis erupts has been a hallmark of the government, both before and after it entered caretaker status. The electricity workers’ protest is a clear example of the cost of a political system that lacks accountability: No one has an incentive to make things work, and no one gets in trouble when things go wrong.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2014, on page 7.