The war's over but now it's a power struggle

Beirut Days

Spare a thought for Dr Levon Kardjian, the gentlest, most intelligent dentist in Beirut.

``You may know how to write," he muttered in my ear the other day, drill already whirring in his hand, "but you are a coward." Too true. Since the days when a Maidstone dentist worked away with 1940s equipment on the young Fisk molars, dentists have been high on my list of phobias, along with cluster bombs and flechette shells. In Beirut, however, you can be rescued by the EDL.

The EDL - Electricit du Liban - is the broken-down Lebanese generating company that still cannot supply us with 24 hours of power more than four years after the end of the civil war; 12-hours a day is the most we can hope for just now, the cut-off times supposedly scheduled in the press but often imposed haphazardly on vast areas of Beirut. And so it was, as Dr Kardjian prepared to cut away at an unhappy tooth, that the light flickered out and the chain-saw growl of the drill whispered to a stop. Somebody started a generator. The drill roared menacingly back to life. Then the power cut again. No sooner had it been restored when a man arrived to announce that authorities - still trying to clean up Beirut's civil war neglect - were about to cut down a tree outside the surgery.

The doctor and his staff rushed to the window to observe the offending tree while their timid patient remained in the chair, mouth filled goldfish- like with aspirators and cotton cloth. I never thought it would be like this when the war ended. But I never reckoned on the power - or lack thereof - of the EDL.

Back home an hour later, my landlord confided that within days the electricity supply was to be changed from 110 to 220 volts, that I would have to change my apartment's entire electrical system or buy a transformer to maintain the old voltage. All very complex - but not as confusing as the EDL which, as the people of the Ein el-Mreisse district found out the other day, decided not to warn them of the change to 220 volts: which is why every refrigerator, computer, bell, water heater and lamp socket in the area burnt out in three seconds.

But why bother to tell anyone about power changes when timetables are so hard to believe in. We were promised 24-hour electricity last year. Now we are promised 24-hour electricity by April, although an EDL estimate suggests the real date will be 1997. No matter, at least the war is over. Which is why thousands of Beirutis couldn't believe their ears when they heard bursts of rifle-fire in the west of the city last week, the first Beirut gun battle since the war ended. Even odder were the combatants; for it turned out that security guards for Nabih Berri, the Speaker of parliament, were shooting it out with security guards for Hussein Husseini, the former Speaker of parliament, who lives just across the road from Mr Berri's new home.

It seems that the shooting started after one of Mr Husseini's guards refused to move his car during a security sweep. The local police chief announced that one of Mr Husseini's sons had ordered his bodyguards to open fire, wounding a lieutenant in the head. Hassan Husseini, son of the ex-Speaker, claimed that Berri's bodyguards started the battle because Mr Husseini is a bitter critic of the present government (and, so it is said, still very angry at having lost his previous job). A count by the Independent showed 200 bullet holes in the Husseini residence, precious few in the Berri home. Husseini senior crouched in a back room as the bullets smashed through windows, missing the Persian carpets but hitting a photo of Husseini and the Pope.

"None of us," as one Beiruti announced afterwards, "deserve this". Which is true.

The elderly Mr Husseini should not have to cower in his living room and Mr Berri, a tough debater in one of the most democratic parliaments in the Arab world, should not be worrying about security. Beirutis should know when their lights will go out and when their refrigerators will burn out. And Dr Kardjian should be able to drill away in peace. I hope so - because I return to the dentist's chair on Thursday.

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