AIN SAADE, Lebanon: It seemed like democracy in action. In 2005, parliamentary representatives acting on behalf of their Metn constituents faced off with the government over a controversial plan to install high voltage electrical lines in their towns.
The project, which has now been in the works for over a decade, would connect a power plant in Mkalles to another in Bsalim, supplying more power to the region which, like many in Lebanon, faces daily outages averaging six to 12 hours.
But residents of the Metn towns in the path of the lines were worried over the potential health effects of electromagnetic fields, especially on children. They and civil society activists urged the government to adopt changes to the project, like placing the power transmission lines underground and other safety measures.
Free Patriotic Movement MPs from the area responded by working together with residents in a bid to stop the government and a Turkish contractor from moving forward on the project in the Metn towns of Ain Saade, Ain Najm and Mansourieh.
That was when Mohammad Fneish was energy minister in former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s Cabinet, and the lawmakers succeeded in getting the project put on hold.
But after Gebran Bassil, a member of the FPM, took over the Energy Ministry following a parliamentary victory for the FPM in the Metn in 2009, Bassil abandoned the campaign against the project, calling the installment of the high voltage power lines imminent and necessary.
And the project that lawmakers called a “danger to public health” six years ago is now receiving their support.
This shift has not gone unnoticed and many Metn families are vowing to hold their representatives accountable in the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2013.
A civil society activist involved in the campaign against the project said Bassil is indifferent to the Metn constituency. “Once they [FPM lawmakers] reached their political and electoral goals in 2009, they considered the people who voted for them simply a number,” said Raja Njeim.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Njeim said that Bassil, along with the FPM, had abandoned a principal necessary for any lawmaker running for a parliamentary seat.
“Serving the public is a question of three levels,” said Njeim, “the nature of public policy, the people, and electoral gains.”
“Opposition to high voltage cables united people in the region with FPM members like Ibrahim Kanaan and Ghassan Moukheiber,” Njeim noted, adding that it was odd how Bassil put an end to the MPs’ campaign in the Metn.
FPM leader Michel Aoun also began to back Bassil’s position on the project, after having supported the residents.
When asked whether Bassil’s policy would hurt FPM’s popularity in Metn and diminish support for current MPs, Njeim said Bassil wasn’t concerned with his allies in the country.
“It seems like he is trying to weaken all competing figures whom he considers opponents in the party,” Njeim said in a reference to the Change and Reform bloc’s Metn MPs.
Today, the evidence of the project is obvious in neighborhoods in several north Metn towns, where there is hardly a residential building that doesn’t have at least one high-voltage electricity pole near it.
Apart from the power poles, there are also gigantic pylons in the area, ready for contractors to install cables. But work on the project has yet to resume.
Over the years, families have confronted the contractors, preventing them from continuing the project.
The strength of the opposition to the project led Bassil to adopt tougher measures earlier this month to enforce the implementation of the project, including providing security cover for the contractors.
Metn MP Nabil Nicolas told The Daily Star that while it was important to keep residents away from electromagnetic fields from high-voltage transmission lines, the priority today was to provide full electricity service to all areas in the country.
“People have to decide whether they want electricity service or not,” said Nicolas.
But Nicolas personally believes the project is an environmental hazard and said he would not have adopted Bassil’s current position.
“If I were Bassil, I wouldn’t have taken responsibility for the issue,” said Nicolas, adding that the Cabinet as a whole should deal with it since the Council for Development and Reconstruction is involved.
“This matter will not be solved through political rivalry,” said Nicolas. “It’s a national crisis. If one region in the country adopts an underground system of transmission lines, other regions would also demand a similar project, which Lebanon cannot currently afford.”
While many residents in Ain Saade are firmly united against the project’s implementation, a resident told The Daily Star that mayors and mukhtars have different opinions, based on their political affiliations.
“While the town’s mukhtar and Beit Mery’s mayor have been backing the residents, Ain Saadeh’s mayor is currently campaigning in the area to convince residents of the safety of the project because he is affiliated with the FPM,” said Degaulle Azar, whose house is only few meters away from two 20-meter tall electricity pylons.
“I was an FPM member for 23 years and I have campaigned for this movement. Why are they considering us ignorant? We know the dangers of this project to our lives,” said Azar.
Recalling the demonstrations against the project in 2005 and 2006, Azar said that Metn MPs who are now silent were burning tires on the road in protest against the project.
“Let us wait and see how many votes these MPs will receive in 2013 elections. If they think that they can force this project on people’s lives, they are mistaken,” Azar said.
According to Azar, the FPM has gone back on its positions in other matters as well. “They [FPM] were in harsh rivalry with Hezbollah, then all of a sudden they became friends and we said, ‘Okay,’” said Azar. “They were against family politics but then all of a sudden Aoun’s extended family is in power. They supported women’s rights, [but] they didn’t even get one woman in the government.”
“We will try to get the support of Parliament members because what is important for us is not to let them put those cables over our heads,” said Azar.
Another Ain Saade resident said she has given up hope on all politicians because no one cares about the people. “I won’t vote for anyone in the 2013 elections, but I warn them against coming back here to install more cables,” said Haifa Haddad. “We will break the poles if they come again.”
“We will confront the government in all peaceful ways,” said a neighbor of Haddad whose children sleep only five meters from high voltage cables.
“I don’t understand the minister. Does he want to hurt us more? Most people in the area are FPM supporters, but I don’t know if they will vote for them anymore,” said Sleiman Shaaya.
According to many residents in the area, real-estate prices and the value of their houses are falling significantly because of the high-voltage transmission lines in the area. “It’s quite natural,” said Azar. “No one is interested in living here anymore because of these cables and the dangers they cause.”
As the standoff between the government and residents intensified after the government’s decision to provide the Energy Ministry security cover to implement the project, residents said more confrontations are on the horizon.
“I am definitely not voting for the same people in 2013 if they continue bothering us with this project,” said Shaaya. “There are healthier ways to provide electricity to the people," he added. “Isn’t public health important?”