Hassan Ammar / AP

Talking trash in Lebanon

Beirut’s uncollected garbage is just one symptom of a noxious political system

August 24, 2015 2:00AM ET

Political discontent is nothing new in Lebanon. But now that expanding mounds of uncollected garbage have made life in Beirut and other cities an uncomfortable embarrassment, the Lebanese people have all but had it. Over the weekend, an explosion of anti-government political demonstrations shattered established sectarian political rules that have defined the country since its birth in the 1930s. 

Citizens widely believe that the garbage has gone uncollected because of a combination of government incompetence and corruption. Their discontent quickly morphed into dramatic calls for the resignation of the government and parliament. Anger shot through the roof when police tear-gassed and shot rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators Saturday night. 

Ordinary citizens declared they would no longer accept mistreatment and abuse at the hands of their leaders; humiliated, frustrated and helpless, they decided to take to the street to demand real change in how power is exercised and how the country is managed. 

This brought Lebanon into line with other Arab societies that since 2011 have risen up in protest against oppressive or corrupt central governments. 

The nearly 20,000 mostly peaceful protesters who showed up at the prime minister’s office and parliament on Sunday went to express their anger over the trash and other problems and annoyances that have plagued them all year. These include electricity cuts for 12 to 14 hours per day in some places, dwindling fresh water supplies, rising commodity prices, few new jobs, a dilapidated public transport infrastructure and no policy to deal with the multiple economic and environmental effects of the 1.3 million Syrian refugees in a country of 4 million citizens.

These practical matters are not impossible to resolve, but the deeper problems that this weekend’s protests speak to are much harder to fix. Lebanon has a deadlocked political system, with leaders who seldom experience the same daily inconveniences and frustrations as their constituents. The country has had no elected president for more than a year; its moribund parliament has extended its term because it could not agree on a new election law; the Lebanese Cabinet barely meets and can’t seem to reach consensus on any issues, big or small; and key political and sectarian factions such as Hezbollah, the Future Movement, the Amal Party and the Free Patriotic Movement have not met formally to attempt conciliation for years.

Lebanese politicians have turned their government into a big joke, but their people aren’t laughing. The garbage piles, for many demonstrators, reflect a corrupt, incompetent and uncaring political system that cannot or will not change. 

The weekend’s demonstrations were organized by an informal group of activists who call themselves Til’at Reehitkum (You Stink) — a reference to the pervasive garbage smell that wafts not just from the trash-strewn streets but also, protesters contend, from the rotting entrails of the central government. They ended the Sunday protest when a small group of troublemakers not associated with You Stink taunted and attacked the police, setting off several hours of street fighting that resulted in dozens of people injured and one dead youth. You Stink replaced the planned Monday evening demonstration with a less dramatic march through downtown Beirut as it awaits the government’s response and makes arrangements to prevent future troublemakers from derailing the nonviolent protests.

It seems impossible for political life to continue as usual in Lebanon, where some citizens, supported by a silent majority, have brandished the most dangerous weapon known to corrupt and inefficient governments: popular activism.

Whichever direction the demonstrations go, it is clear that two unprecedented political developments are taking place.

The first is that personal rage, rather than sectarian politics, drove the large crowds that came out to express their disgust with their country’s rotten system of governance. Previous protests organized by ordinary citizens on issues such as women’s rights or secular governance usually generated small and ineffective crowds of a few hundred people. Typically, large public protests with hundreds of thousands of people — such as those that followed the end of Syria’s 30-year effective occupation of Lebanon — take place only when political groups like Hezbollah or the Future Movement organize them. This weekend, citizens not only mobilized and marched on their own but also openly criticized the established political groups that they had always feared to challenge in public — in some cases calling them garbage and brazenly holding up placards with photos of the establishment leaders.      

The second significant development was the nature of the demonstrators’ demands. They called for nothing short of a complete government overhaul. Demonstrators wearing “revolution” or “uprising” T-shirts often chanted, “The people want the downfall of the regime,” a common cry during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. Unfortunately, the government’s response, too, mirrored aspects of the Arab uprisings. The prime minister and party leaders said that they were with the demonstrators, that wrongdoers would be punished and that actions to meet citizen demands would be expedited. Their concessions were small: A new garbage collection contract would be announced Monday, not Tuesday.

The political elite appears oblivious to the fact that many Lebanese are more eager to see structural change in the way the country is managed than to quickly fix the limited, albeit unpleasant, problem of uncollected trash. Many demonstrators called for ending the sectarian system that apportions power in the country and for getting rid of the political elite that has dominated the system for generations. 

The change in tone on the street is stunning. Lebanese people, who for years complained only about hard times getting good jobs or enduring inflation, now ask for their corrupt, incompetent and uncaring leaders to leave office and retire — and they name names on television, in front of hundreds of security officers and cameras. 

This dramatic expression of common grievances by ordinary men and women who went to Beirut from all over the country marks the birth of an idea that is also spreading around the Arab world: that citizens are entitled to equal rights and decent government services and they will not put up with being abused by their leaders for decades on end.

The sanctity of the country’s inconsiderate sectarian system was shattered in central Beirut this weekend. It seems impossible for political life to continue as usual in a weary and precarious Lebanon, where some citizens, clearly supported by a silent majority, have brandished the most dangerous weapon known to corrupt and inefficient governments: popular activism. Whether change occurs slowly, quickly or at all will become clear in the months ahead as the You Stink movement reveals whether it can handle the bruising bustle of national political change in a stubborn land that has refused to sway for four generations. 

Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Lebanon, Syria

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