Transmission lines cutting through villages in rural Lebanon Photo credit: JossK /

Last month, Lebanon’s national electricity grid went dark—and this tiny Mediterranean country, known for its elite educational institutions, tourism and banking, but struggling to emerge from decades of conflict and corruption, found itself in newspaper headlines around the world again. 

The state’s two power plants had run out of fuel. Having visited family in Lebanon for years, and living there in 2010–11, I knew that electricity cuts had, in recent years, become an everyday occurrence, though they were more frequent and lasted longer in towns outside of Beirut. Like many places in the world—including fire-prone regions in California, where I live—people in Lebanon have become accustomed to relying on private electricity generators when the power goes out.  

But the collapse of the grid was only the latest in a series of devastating events that have laid bare the extent to which the Lebanese government has mismanaged basic infrastructure in the country. A massive explosion at the Beirut port in August 2020 killed over two hundred people and caused billions of dollars of property damage with still no accountability taken for the incident over a year later. Large institutions like hospitals have been unable to procure basic supplies. 

I have watched from afar with horror and sadness as friends and relatives have recounted how fuel shortages have made basic everyday life tasks impossible. In the wake of the financial crisis, banks have limited withdrawals, and the Lebanese lira has less than ten times the value it did in 2019. One friend sent me a photo of car batteries rigged to charge phones and laptops, and recounted multiple bouts of serious food poisoning due to the lack of reliable electricity. Others have described shortages of medications at the pharmacy, from basic over-the-counter medications to those medicines that treat life threatening illnesses like cancer. Many express a deep sense of exhaustion and anger at the political class that allowed this to happen and escaped unscathed with their own money in banks abroad.

In order to better understand what’s at stake in Lebanon’s current struggles, some background is needed. The Lebanese state is secular, but there are 18 different religious sects with corresponding religious courts that handle personal legal cases. Most of the larger political parties are sect-affiliated, and there is a (surprisingly unwritten) agreement, called the National Pact—enacted during Lebanon’s independence from the French Mandate in 1943—that provides a framework for sectarian representation at the parliamentary level. Some of the largest sects include Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Druze.

Many of Lebanon’s sectarian political parties and leaders were combatants during a devastating civil war between 1975-1990. But their conflicts then, as now, were not about religious belief, or theology, or so-called “tribalism.” 

Conflicts in Lebanon must be understood in the context of what has happened in the region over the past hundred years, including the mass murder and displacement of people during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, and during the British and French Mandates: the quasi-colonial governments that succeeded Ottoman rule before these former territories became independent states. Some of these events, like the 1915 Armenian genocide, resulted in the permanent settlement and eventual citizenship of Armenian refugees in Lebanon. The Nakba, or catastrophe of 1948, resulted in the mass displacement and permanent statelessness of Palestinians. Today there are about five million Palestinian refugees according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), with over 479,000 registered in Lebanon alone. Most Palestinians in Lebanon remain as stateless refugees. Palestinian Christians (including my own grandfather) were given preferential treatment and an ability to become Lebanese citizens. This latter issue is directly connected to the unwritten national pact enacted during Lebanon’s independence in 1943, its sectarian political formula, and a deeply controversial 1932 census, which was used by Maronite Christian political parties to justify exclusionary citizenship practices and tip the demographic balance. 

After Lebanon’s civil war officially ended in 1990, parts of the country were occupied by both Israel and Syria. Many Lebanese militias received support from other countries during the war. Some even acted as proxies, like the SLA (Southern Lebanese Army) did for Israel during its occupation which lasted until 2000. Today, it is widely acknowledged that political factions dominated by Shi’a and Sunni political parties (but including various Christian and Druze parties) receive support from different regional powers, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The factions have shifted since the Civil War, but those political leaders who led militias during the war are still in government. There has never been an official public reckoning with the war. In such a context there are lasting fears that civil war could return and a deep distrust of opposition parties and their motives remain, even at the level of urban planning

People in Lebanon want things to work, and they are tired of having to navigate more than one electricity bill and search out multiple vendors for a steady supply of water. Multiplying the sources of electricity and water enriches sectarian political leaders. Generator subscription systems, called Ishtirak, are often run by well-connected patrons who have a good relationship to the dominant political party in the area. These subscription services in Lebanon are in fact one way of the two ways the state is imagined by many people in Lebanon: the nation’s power grid represents a decrepit and neglected “public good,” while a network of generators represents a parallel source of power controlled by people with ties to the various sectarian parties. 

The problems with electricity are mirrored in almost every other aspect of public infrastructure, from sanitation to transportation to basic forms of social welfare. Sect-affiliated clinics and charities provide medical care, food coupons, and scholarships for school books or tuition. While some of these resources might originate from elsewhere (say, the ministry of health or a transnational charity), the interface for these services often starts with the connections to a sectarian organization of some kind. Many of these sect-affiliated institutions do not limit their services to members of the same sect and are in fact quite equitable in their distribution of medical supplies or other goods that come directly from the ministry of health. Still, they are part of a larger framework through which sectarian institutions, and those closely connected to them, get to determine where and how resources are distributed. 

In the Fall of 2019, nearly thirty years after the end of the Lebanese civil war, popular protests rocked Lebanon. The everyday refrain of “Wayn al Dawleh?” or “Where is the state?” was transformed from a sardonic grumble into a slogan of protest. While the final straw might have been a tax levied on the essential communications platform WhatsApp, the frustrations of decades of infrastructural mismanagement had led to a breaking point. 

I have watched Lebanon’s ongoing political turmoil from afar, my hope tinged with sadness. We have seen Lebanese hopes dashed over and over again. Just days after the total blackout in October, cameras captured scenes of armed men carrying rocket propelled grenades and machine guns into dense residential districts.  

The Lebanese people are protesting against a state that has failed to deliver reliable public services. While this is a failure that would have been unthinkable to many two generations ago, I have to wonder if a similar fate awaits other peoples around the world. I ask this while living in California, where private utilities in this drought-ravaged state frequently cut power to prevent their poorly maintained infrastructure from sparking massive forest fires. 

Other infrastructural breakdowns in the United States, like the deadly state grid failure in Texas in early 2021, further challenge the idea that there are separate developmental trajectories in the global north and south, or the idea that “it couldn’t happen here.” In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a grade of C- on its annual American Infrastructure Report Card. A growing demand for functioning infrastructure has animated protests in Lebanon and incited debates in the U.S congress. The mounting pressures of climate change and a failed neoliberal experiment have now resulted in decades of neglect and privatization. 

In other words, Lebanon’s many problems are part of a global struggle, with unevenly distributed consequences and stakes, against austerity and structural adjustment.

Still, I find hope in the courageous solidarity of the Lebanese people in the face of injustice, and their refusal, against all odds, to let the existing political factions dictate the contours of their collective future. 

Joanne Randa Nucho is a filmmaker and an associate professor of Anthropology at Pomona College. She is author of Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services and Power (Princeton University Press, 2016).