Luttes urbaines autour de l’électricité à Beyrouth

J’ai le plaisir de signaler la parution du livre Energy, Power and Protest on the Urban Grid. Geographies of the Electric City, dirigé par Andres Luque Ayala et Jonathan Silver, chez Routledge. On trouvera l’introduction et la table des matières en ligne sur Academia et voici la quatrième de couverture:

Providing a global overview of experiments around the transformation of cities’ electricity networks and the social struggles associated with this change, this book explores the centrality of electricity infrastructures in the urban configuration of social control, segregation, integration, resource access and poverty alleviation. Through multiple accounts from a range of global cities, this edited collection establishes an agenda that recognises the uneven, and often historical, geographies of urban electricity networks, prompting attempts to re-wire the infrastructure configurations of cities and predicating protest and resistance from residents and social movements alike. Through a robust theoretical engagement with established work around the politics of urban infrastructures, the book frames the transformation of electricity systems in the context of power and resistance across urban life, drawing links between environmental and social forms of sustainability. Such an agenda can provide both insight and inspiration in seeking to build fairer and more sustainable urban futures that bring electricity infrastructures to the fore of academic and policy attention.

Je publie dans ce livre un chapitre intitulé: Beirut, metropolis of darkness and the politics of urban electricity grids. En voici les premiers paragraphes à titre de résumé. Le fichier pour être lu sur ResearchGate, Academia ou Hal (en attente).

Despite massive investments in infrastructure reconstruction, Beirut has never fully recovered 24/7 provision of electricity after the civil war (1975-90). Since 2006, partly as a result of Israeli bombings, infrastructure decay has worsened the situation. In addition, an atmosphere of political bickering in the country has delayed the implementation of new projects. Lighting for the majority of households (93%) is supplied through a publicly owned transmission and distribution grid run by the state utility Electricité du Liban (EDL) (Central Administration of Statistics, 2008). However, on average, electricity is supplied for only half of the day, severely affecting the daily life of the city’s nearly 2 million habitants, who are forced to cope with extended periods of darkness and generalised power failures. As a result, across the majority of the population and through all facets of urban life, electricity flows have been substantially reorganized around alternative informal electrical grids running on privately owned small-scale generators. These emerging flows, crafted to cope with the pervasive reality of power cuts, build new infrastructural, social and political dynamics in the city. The multiple facets of electricity and its shortages have become the subject of heightened controversies in the political arena, fuelling various forms of political mobilisation and challenging government policies in several crucial areas. The domains at stake transcend the very materiality of power cuts, including the management of utility workers in an era of neoliberalization as well as struggles for power and control over the privately owned and informally established electricity generators now powering the city. Unfolding protests centred on electricity have taken to the street, threatening the nation’s political order, the unity of the country and, seemingly, its very existence (Figure 1).

[Figure 1] A smelting Lebanon, lit by candle.
Image copyright: Abdelhalim Hammoud, from AlahedNews, a website affiliated to the Hizbullah, downloaded march 2011

Researching electricity crises in Lebanon pose unique dilemmas, given their somehow embeddeness in everyday life. In Beirut, like in many other cities of the global South, everyday infrastructural interruptions—such as power outages, traffic congestion and road blocks—represent a ‘new normality’ (McFarlane, 2010). Yet, as McFarlane (2010:133) suggests, such « everyday forms of interruption have received relatively little attention in urban studies ». Beirut’s electricity crisis, as an everyday force, has become a major factor in the (re)production of the uneven geography of the city. Through this, it produces a new urban politics, the subject of this chapter. As McFarlane & Rutherford argue, “the politics underpinning urban infrastructural transformation are rarely more evident or visible than in times of crisis or rupture” (2008: 6). The electricity crisis is openly contested in the ‘back alleyways’ of the city (Bayat, 2009: 11) as much as in Parliament, on social networks through cyber-mobilisation, and on the streets through public demonstrations. This chapter thus intends to question how these new forms of electric ‘politics’ reframe broader ‘political’ domains in the city (Swyngedouw, 2011). In doing so, the chapter is in line with approaches which, within urban and infrastructure studies, displace the centrality of regulatory reform and the governance of the sector (Coutard, 2008; Graham & Marvin, 2001). Rather, its concern lies in an analysis of the impacts of infrastructure policies on the social fabric of cities (Jaglin & Verdeil, 2013; Monstadt, 2009; Rutherford & Coutard, 2014), unpacking issues of energy justice (Bickerstaff et al. 2013) particularly at an urban scale.

Consistent with other academic accounts on the politics of urban infrastructures (McFarlane & Rutherford, 2008; Graham, 2010; Heynen, et al., 2006), the uneven geography of electricity supply in Beirut reproduces existing social and political hierarchies. It favours Beirut and its richer population over that of its suburbs, whilst also reinforcing the political and sectarian lines that divide the country. The main objective of this chapter is to analyse the forms of mobilisation and politicisation around electricity issues in Beirut, recognizing the centrality of the material and spatial dimensions of the infrastructure network in these emerging forms of social protest. Here infrastructure acts to redistribute the agencies of power in the city, contesting existing social and political hierarchies and prompting the emergence of new, alternative but precarious, configurations of power. Such novel configuration can be further understood through Timothy Mitchell’s notion of a “power from within the energy system” (Mitchell, 2011: 12), in this case via the city’s electricity grid. This involves reflecting on the grid’s political geography and examining the articulation of how urban politics shape grid politics. The main body of the chapter is divided in four sections. The first, drawing on the work of Mitchell (2011) and Cupples (2011), proposes a framework for analysing the politicisation of infrastructure in cities. This is followed by a geographical analysis of the social and political context of the Lebanese electricity crisis, highlighting the prevailing uneven access to electrical power and the resulting street protests that, with little success, have occurred during the last ten years. The third section examines the different forms of protest and dissent that, drawing on its material and relational properties, are entangled in the electricity grid. Specifically, two forms of grid embedded resistance are examined, both of them in what has been termed as ‘the end of the (electricity) line’: the ability of electricity workers to disrupt the system through strikes and the capacity of users to establish forms of passive resistance through meter tampering. The fourth section scrutinizes the new social and power relationships built around alternative and informal electricity networks based on private generators. Finally, the conclusion elaborates a typology based on various combinations of grid and urban politics.

The chapter’s empirical material consists of interviews with a variety of stakeholders within the Lebanese electricity industry. This included representatives of public and private electricity companies, civic and industry associations, political parties, government and municipal officers, consultants, informal entrepreneurs operating the emerging network of generators and electricity users. These interviews were complemented with an analysis of official documentation, data provided by the utility company and a review of the Lebanese press and blogosphere relating to this issue since 2005. This analysis helped in capturing the discourses justifying policy interventions, supported in mapping key controversies, and identified the most visible forms of protest.

Une réflexion au sujet de « Luttes urbaines autour de l’électricité à Beyrouth »

  1. Ping : Les crises infrastructurelles à Beyrouth au prisme de l’écologie politique urbaine | Rumor

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