Lebanon's garbage crisis: Can activists move beyond trash to politics?

Protesters stormed the country's environment ministry Tuesday, escalating a challenge to the country's government that began after uncollected garbage began to clog Beirut's streets. 

Bilal Hussein/AP
Workers reinforced barricades around the perimeters of the Lebanese government building in Beirut where antigovernment protesters have been holding almost daily demonstrations for weeks Sept. 1.

Antigovernment campaigners on Tuesday stormed Lebanon’s environment ministry, escalating a confrontation that began with a crisis over garbage collection and spinning it into a broader challenge to Lebanon’s sectarian system and its powerful political elite.

“We will stay here until our demands are met,” Imad Bazzi, one of the leaders of the Tolaet Rihatcom, or “You Stink” campaign, told Lebanon’s LBC International television station from the environment ministry.

The group’s four demands include the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammed Machnouq, accountability for the security forces who opened fire at an earlier demonstration, parliamentary elections – and a sustainable solution to the garbage crisis.

You Stink has garnered considerable grassroots support from a public long frustrated with daily electricity cuts, water shortages, expensive and slow Internet, endemic corruption, political paralysis, and now, uncollected garbage further clogging Beirut’s traffic-filled streets.

But the campaigners face a daunting struggle in challenging the entrenched political establishment, analysts say.

“They are up against a huge beast, and to fight something that big you have to understand your enemy’s capabilities. And the capabilities of the sectarian political system are huge – they are political, they are economic, they are clientilistic, and they are coercive,” 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."

Lebanon is often held up as a rare example of sectarian coexistence in the Middle East, an Arab country of relatively liberal outlook. Yet one need not look too deep to see the rot at the heart of its political system.

A ruling elite drawn mainly from sectarian feudal families and a post-civil war generation of former warlords has carved up the economic spoils and jealously guards their stranglehold. Political power is often handed down from father to son: In the past year alone, Amine Gemayel, a former president, stepped down as head of the Christian Phalange party in place of his son, Sami. Taymor Jumblatt is being groomed to replace his father, the veteran Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. And Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, has bequeathed his political mantle to his son-in-law Gibran Bassil, Lebanon’s foreign minister, and is angling for his other son-in-law to become commander of the Lebanese Army.

And an arcane sectarian powersharing system means that little is achieved without compromise – which often breeds political deadlock. Parliamentary elections were last held in 2009, with lawmakers having extended their mandate twice since then. The body has also been unable to select a new president since April last year, paralyzing decisionmaking.

But mounds of trash are different

Still, while Lebanese routinely grumble about their government and politicians, they ruefully acknowledge that they too are to blame, mechanically reelecting the same faces to parliament, often out of sectarian and feudal loyalty to a local dynasty or commitment to a political party. 

Even the daily trials of poor infrastructure are generally met with resilience and initiative. Generators compensate for electricity cuts, private water suppliers step in when taps run dry, and monthly financial remittances from the huge worldwide pool of Lebanese expatriates often ensure families manage to survive Lebanon’s relatively high cost of living.

But when garbage began accumulating on the streets of Beirut six weeks ago, something snapped.

“The garbage stinks and you cannot solve it. There’s no private alternative to it. It’s the lack of that option that is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Sami Atallah, the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “The government underestimated that fact. The government doesn’t really care what the citizens think, but this one blew up in their faces.”

The You Stink campaign grew from this dissatisfaction, using social media to spread the word and, in the past two weeks, to hold a series of demonstrations.

The largest was held on Saturday, when tens of thousands of aggrieved Lebanese took to central Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square.

“We are really fed up with the politicians – all of them: March 14, March 8,” says Marie Abi Saad, a middle-aged housewife, referring to the two rival parliamentary blocks. “They steal from us every day and throw us a few scraps to keep us happy. We say enough is enough.”

During the demonstration, You Stink issued its four demands and gave the government a 72-hour deadline to comply. That deadline expired Tuesday, leading to the storming of the environment ministry and the prospect of further escalatory responses from the campaigners.

The challenge for the You Stink campaign, however, is how to maintain the momentum against an entrenched system that shows little willingness to yield or reform.

“What we should take away from the legacy of the Arab Spring is that any kind of mass movement … if it doesn’t have organization then it will get nowhere,” says Mr. Salloukh. “[The protests] are the beginning of a very slow process where you start chipping away at the ideological hegemony of the sectarian system.”

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