Beirut garbage 'mafia' torching Lebanese governance

Mounds of garbage are piling up in the Lebanese capital, a testament to a political system that has provided stability, but also paralysis. 

Aziz Taher/Reuters
Residents set uncollected garbage on fire in Beirut, Lebanon last week.

The streets of Beirut have been filling up with huge piles of garbage in the past week, swamping parked vehicles, rotting in the sweltering summer heat, and triggering fury and protests from local residents at the government’s inability to tackle the crisis.

It is not as if Lebanon was short of problems: The 128-member parliament has failed to elect a new president in 26 attempts since April 2014, parliamentary elections have been postponed twice, the government is paralyzed, the war in neighboring Syria has spilled across the border in the form of suicide bombings and rocket attacks, and Lebanon has the highest per capita refugee population in the world, with an official tally of 1.1 million Syrians.

And all that's aside from the regular Lebanese grumbles of dealing with daily electricity blackouts and some of the most expensive and slow Internet service in the world.

Adnan Abdelnour speaks for many:

“Our government is useless. They are all thieves and liars. They do not care about the people, only about stealing money,” the plumber says, tossing two plastic sacks of trash onto an overflowing pile of garbage that threatens to cut off a narrow street in the Ashrafiyah quarter of Beirut.

Seemingly paradoxically, the dysfunctional nature of Lebanon’s complicated sectarian power-sharing system and patronage networks, which breed deadlock and paralysis as well as compromise and consensus, has enabled Lebanon to survive a series of crises that would have collapsed most other countries. The Syrian refugee situation alone is the equivalent of the entire population of Iran moving to the United States in four years.

“The sectarian system proves to be much more resilient than any other authoritarian Arab regime. It was the only system that was unaffected by the Arab uprising,” says Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of politics at the Lebanese American University and a co-author of The Politics of Sectarianism in Post-War Lebanon.

But he adds that the sectarian system is not something to celebrate, and carries heavy costs that are an “indictment of the country” and of the “callousness of the political and economic elite." The system "is based on crisis, otherwise you would need a complete overhaul which would lead to the kind of violence that no one wants at this stage."

Wasting management

The garbage crisis began on July 17 with the closure of the landfill at Naameh, nine miles south of Beirut. The Naameh landfill opened in 1998 and was supposed to be a temporary measure while the government of the time found a long-term solution to waste management.

But an alternative was never found, and the site, which was intended to accommodate only 2 million tons of garbage, ended up containing 15 million tons. Two days after the site closed, Sukleen, the company contracted since 1994 to handle solid waste management for Beirut and surrounding regions, stopped collecting garbage, saying it had nowhere to put it.

Critics accused Sukleen of indirectly blackmailing the government in order to win new lucrative garbage-removal contracts. According to SWEEP-Net, a regional solid waste management network, the removal of one ton of garbage in Beirut costs $130, compared to $40 in Amman, Jordan, and just $18 in Cairo, Egypt.

“There is a mafia taking advantage of the waste file and making profits at the expense of the Lebanese,” said Sami Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian political movement.

By Thursday, an estimated 22,000 tons of garbage had accumulated on the streets of the city, according to Mohammed Machnouq, the environment minister. As the mounds of trash grew higher and smellier, tempers flared and residents began burning the garbage. A reported arrangement whereby the garbage would be deposited in a new landfill in the impoverished Akkar Province in north Lebanon spurred local residents to block roads in protest.

“It’s not enough that [Akkar] suffers from neglect, but now they are seeking to turn it into a dump instead of allowing it to prosper like other provinces,” said Hadi Hbeish, a lawmaker from the area.

Fiddling while garbage burns

Adding to the anger of Lebanese, a government meeting on Thursday was dominated by bickering over the appointments of top security officials, including the influential position of Lebanese Army commander, and the cabinet’s decisionmaking process in the absence of a president.

Under the Constitution, the president’s powers fall to the prime minister if no head of state is elected. The Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party allied to the powerful Shiite Hezbollah organization, is demanding that all decisions be approved unanimously by ministers. Prime Minister Tammam Salam has rejected that demand, stating it is a recipe for government paralysis.

The garbage crisis, the most pressing issue on the minds of Beirut’s residents, was left to the end of the meeting, at which point the ministers decided to postpone the discussion until Tuesday.

On Saturday evening, as hundreds of protesters gathered near parliament in central Beirut, Machnouq, the environment minister, promised that Sukleen’s trucks would begin removing the garbage in Beirut the next day.

“This is a sensitive operation, and we hope to implement it despite the tense political ambiance,” he said in a statement.

But protesters on Sunday blocked the main highway south of Beirut to prevent dump trucks unloading garbage at sites near their homes in Iqlim al-Kharroub Province, throwing into doubt the promised street clearance.

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