BEIRUT: Chaotic protests over a high-voltage power line project in Mansourieh took a sharp sectarian turn Wednesday, setting the stage for further confrontation. Locals in the town “feel that the sovereignty of the state is being implemented in some regions and not in others,” said Metn MP Elias Hankash of the Kataeb Party, one of the protesters’ main supporters, referencing areas under the influence of Hezbollah and other powerful political groups. “The problem isn’t just Hezbollah. We know the government can’t impose its sovereignty and presence across all areas of the country,” he said.
Scuffles broke out for a second straight day Wednesday morning between security forces and the residents protesting the power line project, which they have long resisted over health concerns.
Although little solid scientific evidence exists to prove that high-voltage lines cause harm, residents and some local officials are still worried. Cabinet has also downplayed the potential risks, although no long-term study has been conducted on the effects of Lebanese power lines on local residents.
Local media broadcast live images of the security forces pushing back protesters who were attempting to press forward after blocking the road to Beit Mery. One of the demonstrators, a priest, could be seen carrying a large wooden cross.
“With all my respect to the cross, what does this have to do with the cross? Religion is not related to the issue in Mansourieh. This is a technical issue,” Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said Wednesday, speaking on behalf of Cabinet.
Hankash, who has called for construction works to stop and for the formation of a neutral committee to find alternative solutions, participated Wednesday in a solidarity stand with MP Sami Gemayel at the local St. Therese Church, condemning an alleged assault by security forces on a local priest.
He told The Daily Star that the sectarian turn Wednesday was “a natural reaction after they [the security forces] hit the priest of the local church. When this happened, [locals] were humiliated to have the priest ... hit.”
The Internal Security Forces could not immediately be reached for comment on the allegation.
The MP said that the issue was set to further escalate in the coming days if the security forces move to support the works on land owned by the Maronite Church. Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor Ghada Aoun phoned Boulos Mattar, the Maronite bishop of Beirut, to inform him that she had permitted the works to go forward, to which Mattar voiced his opposition, local media reported.
“The only way they’ll be able to get in is by breaking a fence. If this happens, it will only fuel what we saw today,” Hankash said.
The power line controversy presents an early hurdle for the implementation of Cabinet’s new energy plan, which calls for the country’s grid to be extended and upgraded to reduce waste of electricity and financial losses.
Energy Minister Nada Boustani said the line in question would reduce technical losses by 1 percent and save $20 million a year. According to the energy plan, 34 percent of Lebanon’s electricity is lost because of technical and nontechnical losses.
After meeting with Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, Boustani said the Mansourieh line would be implemented, though she said she had presented Rai with several solutions to the residents’ concerns and would meet with him again Thursday.