Lebanon News

Local MPs split on rushed Electricite de Zahle law

A general view of the city of Zahle, Sunday, May 8, 2016. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Zahle MPs Tuesday were divided over a new law rushed through Parlaiment the night before giving local firm Electricite de Zahle a two-year operation contract to continue providing 24/7 electricity.

“There is a 90 percent chance lawmakers passed this bill without knowing what it said,” Zahle MP Anwar Jomaa, a member of Hezbollah’s bloc, told The Daily Star Tuesday. “In the chaos of the session there was very conflicting information presented, some that was wrong and some that were blatant lies.”

Jomaa, along with Zahle MPs George Okeis and Qaisar Maalouf of the Lebanese Forces, Assem Araji of the Future Movement and Independent MP Eddy Demerjian had supported an alternative bill that would have extended a concession rather than create a contract given to EDZ by two years, ahead of its expiration on Dec. 31. All of them except Jomaa voted against the bill endorsed Monday, Araji told The Daily Star.

Jomaa said he had been forced to vote with his Hezbollah bloc despite opposing the alternative bill.

The alternative bill, endorsed at the end of Monday’s legislation, was suggested on the fly by caretaker Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil about an hour before its adoption, in the midst of disagreement among lawmakers over the original bill.

It was supported by Zahle MPs Michel Daher and Salim Aoun, who, like Abi Khalil, are members of the Free Patriotic Movement. The pair have long been opposed to renewing EDZ’s concession, claiming Zahle residents were being overcharged.

Parliament endorsed the bill after Speaker Nabih Berri ordered a sideline meeting to be held on the matter between the Zahle MPs, Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel, LF MP George Adwan and Abi Khalil.

A source with knowledge of the meeting said it was tense and that the MPs had left in disagreement, but upon walking back into the chamber, “there was a strong atmosphere that some kind of law had to be endorsed on the matter, and we ended up voting on something that was pushed on us.”

The law transforms the concession into an operation contract, resembling a public-private partnership, Abi Khalil said during a news conference Tuesday, hailing it as a step away from “the concessions that are of the Ottoman Age and were [renewed during the French mandate].”

Abi Khalil said that Zahle’s 24/7 electricity coverage would continue and at a lower cost for residents as a result of the bill. He also said EDZ’s “great” service, administration and employees would stay on.

The renewal of EDZ’s concession had been a divisive topic for months in Zahle, and though Abi Khalil said he would not renew it, he hadn’t presented an alternative to preserving 24/7 electricity.

Had the contract expired with no other plan in place, residents would have moved back to a system followed by much of the rest of the country, whereby the state provides electricity for a certain number of hours a day, while residents pay separately for generators to cover the remaining hours.

Meanwhile, EDZ CEO Asaad Nakad told The Daily Star he was cautiously optimistic about the new bill. He too said he believed the MPs had voted on the law without knowing its contents, and said he was studying it before taking a position.

The main issue is the cost at which Nakad will be allowed to sell his electricity. He met with Abi Khalil – who he has been at odds with in recent months over the matter – Tuesday afternoon, announcing, “We are trying to turn a new page ... I didn’t win and they didn’t win, Zahle won.”

But Jomaa remained pessimistic.

“They have put the one nice thing we have [EDZ] under the authority of a failed institution, which is Electricite du Liban, and which like everything in this country is a failure, because the state is a failed state.

“Do you know what this means?”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 14, 2018, on page 2.

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