Stench of Trash and Political Decay Threaten to Overwhelm Lebanon

Trash crisis is just the straw that broke the camel’s back and joins a string of other serious problems facing Lebanon – the first of which is a lack of a real government in Beirut.

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Trash crisis in Lebanon grows violent in the capital Beirut. August 23, 2015. Credit: AFP

The story of Lebanon’s trash rather recalls the story of Tel Aviv’s light rail: committees, meetings, tenders, more meetings, a few under-the-table payments – only in Lebanon, of course – lots of over-the-table payments. And, in the end, nothing.

Back in May, discussions began about how to remove Lebanon’s garbage. Experts from Germany, Italy, Denmark and Arab countries were asked to offer advice, for hefty fees. A few tenders were issued, but some were canceled – because in a state where the law is merely a recommendation, it turned out the bidders didn’t meet the tender requirements.

One month later, the country’s main waste incinerator was closed. The government asked local authorities and private individuals with suitable lots to rent them out so new incinerators could be built. The response was poor. Nobody wants a dump in his neighborhood.

Monte Verde garbage dump, some 20 km northeast of Beirut. August 24, 2015.Credit: AFP

Meanwhile, the stench in Beirut has become overwhelming, and the government’s failure to deal with the trash has become a burning, stinking, political issue. The climax of the “trash rebellion” was on Sunday, when three people were killed and over 400 wounded at mass demonstrations. People in Beirut began talking about a “revolution,” about how “the people want to topple the regime,” like they did in Tunisia and Egypt, and about “games by foreign powers that seek to exploit the protest for political purposes.”

Since then, tempers have calmed a bit. The demonstrators feared the violence would spread, and that “thugs and hooligans” would turn a civic protest into violent clashes with the army and police. As a result, the demonstration that was scheduled to take place Monday afternoon was postponed. It seems the trauma of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war is still alive and well, and still preventing a fresh outbreak of civil violence.

Lebanese activist holds a placard amid ongoing trash crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon. Aug. 23, 2015.Credit: AP

But anyone wanting to foment a revolution would find there’s not really anyone to revolt against. The government headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam isn’t functioning. Salam toiled to form it for almost 10 months, and, in February 2014, it was finally sworn in. But since then it has been unable to make decisions, pass laws or even collect the trash.

Parliament met 27 times to try and choose a new president in place of the one whose term ended more than a year ago, but failed miserably. Lawmakers deliberately stayed away from the vote to ensure there was no legal quorum. New parliamentary elections were also supposed to have been held last year, but because of the political infighting over choosing a new president, parliament voted to postpone the election until 2017.

In short, there’s no one to revolt against and no government to topple.

In theory, new parliamentary elections could solve the problem. But holding elections would require reaching agreement on a new electoral law that would provide fair representation to each of Lebanon’s communities. Efforts to reach such an agreement failed in 2013, and it’s doubtful the stench emanating from the piles of garbage will persuade the decision makers to reach one now.

Another option, equally theoretical, is for Saudi Arabia and Iran to agree on who the next president should be, and then try to force the government and parliament to call elections. But given the hostility currently prevailing between these two countries, you’d need a wild imagination to picture any such agreement between them, especially since each has its own vision of what Lebanon’s government should look like. The government, and the country as a whole, has become a hostage of the Syrian civil war and the Saudi-Iranian struggle.

The third option is for Salam to resign, as he has threatened to do if the “decisive” meeting called for this Thursday doesn’t produce results. But that’s a dangerous option, because it would leave Lebanon with no prime minister and no president.

In the best case, the country would embark on another long process of appointing a temporary government. In the worst, it would find itself inundated with a new wave of demonstrations and riots, in which the army – whose commander, Gen. Jean Kahwaji, is also operating under a temporary order extending his legal term – would become the dominant player.

The trash is just the straw that broke the camel’s back, Lebanese analysts say. It comes on top of serious problems with the power supply; a public debt of more than $68 billion; a million Syrian refugees who are strangling the Lebanese economy; Hezbollah, which has dragged the Syrian civil war onto Lebanese territory, and the blow this war has dealt to Lebanese commerce.

But all of these could be postponed for the time being if the stench would only go away. And it most likely will go away, because both the political rivals and the demonstrators understand that given the current balance of forces in Lebanon, no party is guaranteed victory. Consequently, it’s better to preserve the status quo.

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