Lebanon's cabinet OKs military postings, puts power plan on track

The Cabinet Thursday approved key appointments to the Military Council and cleared the way for the launch of a new plan to resolve the country’s long-running electricity problem.

  
A worker fixes an electricity cable damaged during recent clashes between the Lebanese army and gunmen of hardline Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 25, 2013.

A worker fixes an electricity cable damaged during recent clashes between the Lebanese army and gunmen of hardline Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, in Abra near Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 25, 2013.

REUTERS/Sharif Karim

BEIRUT: The Cabinet Thursday approved key appointments to the Military Council and cleared the way for the launch of a new plan to resolve the country’s long-running electricity problem. Despite sharp differences among ministers in the past that had thwarted previous plans to overhaul the electricity sector, improve power supply and reduce state subsidies to the state-run Electricite du Liban, estimated at $2 billion annually, hopes are high that this blueprint presented to the Cabinet by Energy Minister Nada Boustani has a better chance of success.

In a smooth session, the fourth since its formation on Jan. 31, the Cabinet overcame disputes over the nomination of four members to the Military Council, including an Army chief of staff, that had delayed the appointments since March 7. All four vacant posts were filled in the six-member Military Council, headed by Lebanese Army Commander Gen. Joseph Aoun.

Brig. Gen. Mahmoud al-Asmar was appointed as secretary-general of the Higher Defense Council, Brig. Gen. Amine al-Aarm as Army chief of staff; Brig. Gen. Miled Ishaq as inspector-general and Brig. Gen. Elias al-Shamieh as full-time council member, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah told reporters after the Cabinet session chaired by President Michel Aoun at Baabda Palace. The military appointments were part of a 55-item agenda discussed by the ministers.

After Boustani presented the electricity plan, the Cabinet agreed to form a ministerial committee, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which would have a week to further study it. The committee was also tasked with studying the law for onshore oil and gas exploration.

“The president gave the committee a very short deadline of not more than a week to return to the Cabinet with a complete study on the [electricity] plan to begin its implementation,” Jarrah said. He added that the committee was also given the same deadline to prepare a study on the oil and gas exploration law.

Speaking at a news conference later after the Cabinet session, Boustani underlined the need for “political consensus” among various parties to ensure the plan’s success.

“The most important factor of the plan’s success is political consensus on it in both form and content, because any delay might affect the plan’s overall path,” Boustani, who belongs to the Free Patriotic Movement founded by Aoun, said.

“The plan has two basic goals: To reduce the financial deficit of Electricite du Liban and improve electricity services to citizens,” she said, adding that this could be achieved through cutting the waste, increasing productivity and raising the tariff. Declaring that positions of all the parties represented in the Cabinet were “very positive” on the plan, Boustani warned that if the implementation of the plan did not begin within one week, “the Lebanese state would incur a loss of more than $150 million per month.”

The electricity plan focuses on building new power plants in Batroun’s Selaata and Nabatieh’s Zahrani - a process that can take between 18 and 24 months. Lebanon’s existing power plants are located in Kesrouan’s Zouk Mikael, Chouf’s Jiyyeh and Sidon district’s Zahrani, which would all be shuttered if the new plan materializes.

The plan also states that while the new power plants are being built, substations will be established across the country to increase the power supply by up to 1 gigawatt, a process that would take three to six months and secure 20 hours of electricity a day.

At the same time, work will be done to upgrade the country’s electricity supply network into a smart grid. The grid that distributes electricity from power plants to end users will have smart meters installed, so the power for an individual subscriber can be turned off if a bill is not paid.

Jarrah said Aoun asked the ministers to quickly finish drafting the 2019 state budget and present it to the Cabinet so that it can be sent to Parliament for final ratification.

Among other decisions, the Cabinet approved transferring funds to support the Tripoli by-election set for next month. Jarrah said the election would be held with pre-printed cards, which watchdog groups had earlier feared would not be used.

The government has been ridden by divisions over Lebanon’s ties with Syria and the return of displaced Syrians to their home country, as well as over attempts to fight corruption, not even two months after its formation.

Thursday’s session followed tensions over the weekend between the FPM and Hariri’s Future Movement.

Foreign Minister and FPM head Gebran Bassil last week lambasted the government and the Future Movement over the issues of Syrian refugee returns and fighting corruption that ignited a new war of words between the two sides, imperiling Cabinet solidarity.

However, tensions have eased after Bassil spoke by telephone with Hariri ahead of the Cabinet session.

Meanwhile, Aoun is set to visit Moscow on March 25-26 at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to a statement issued by the presidency’s directorate general.

Aoun’s talks with Putin and other Russian officials will focus on bilateral relations, the Syrian refugee crisis and the stalled Russian initiative aiming to secure the return of displaced Syrians in Lebanon to their country, an official source had told The Daily Star.

The source added that the offshore oil and gas issue would be discussed during the meeting with Putin.

Speaking to Russian media correspondents, Aoun said he would discuss with Putin ways to expand Lebanon’s “historic relationship” with Russia at various levels, in addition to the refugee problem in light of the Russian initiative. He also accused the international community of not helping Lebanon to secure the refugees’ return to their country.

“Lebanon is taking note of international conditions, but it acts according to its supreme interest. The international community does not help [Lebanon] while it is helping Syrians return to [their country],” Aoun said.

He added that the number of displaced Syrians who have returned from Lebanon to Syria reached 172,000.

Referring to the split over ties with Syria, Aoun said Lebanon wanted to be part of the reconstruction of Syria and emphasized that ties between the two countries were never formally severed. “Relations with Syria are normalized as there are ambassadors in both countries,” he said.

Commenting on U.S. economic sanctions on Hezbollah, Aoun said: “Since Hezbollah is financially besieged, we have become besieged globally because the negative impact of the blockade on Hezbollah is hurting all the Lebanese.”

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