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Everything Stinks: Beirut Protests and Garbage Politics

Lebanon is a land of ironies, where institutionalized and dissonant sectarian governance allegedly serves to maintain harmony among the nation’s 18 officially recognized confessional groups. A trash crisis is currently gripping the capital and the protests it has engendered have only served to underscore the country’s deep sociopolitical and economic divisions, all the while ostensibly hoping to end them.

Located southeast of Beirut, Naameh is Lebanon’s largest landfill. When local villagers and nearby residents became weary of their community being the dumping ground for the refuse of two million citizens—which it has for nearly 20 years—on July 17, they blocked access to the site. That was also the day when the government’s contract with the waste management company Sukleen ended. Since then, garbage has been piling up on Beirut’s streets.

Protests erupted downtown, with rallies operating under the banner and hashtag “YouStink.” But they were not just about the government’s failure to deal with the garbage problem, for they also called for an end to the entrenched, dysfunctional sectarian political structure which led to it. In Lebanon, all parliamentary seats as well as the posts of president, prime minister and parliament speaker are distributed strictly based on sectarian affiliation.

The failure to collect the trash is only the most recent manifestation such a framework naturally ensures. Indeed, the rivalry between the two main parliamentary blocs, the March 8 coalition led by Hezbollah and the March 14 coalition led by Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement, has long paralyzed progress not only in the political arena but in the civic one as well. This has affected the state’s ability to reliably provide such basic services as water, sewage and electricity. As testament to the stalemate, there have been no parliamentary elections since 2009 and no sitting president for more than 15 months.

namehlandfill

Naameh Landfill, Lebanon.

In yet another irony, YouStink protests against the impasse are taking place in the very downtown squares where these two parliamentary blocs were born and named: on March 8, 2005, it was Hezbollah and supporters who held mass demonstrations in Riad Al-Solh Square in support of Syria and Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation. On March 14, 2005, a counter-demonstration took place in nearby Martyrs’ Square championing the so-called “Cedar Revolution” which saw the exit of Syrian troops from the country in the wake of late Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination.

In Lebanon though, only irony can replace irony.

It did not take long before demonstrators singled out other protestors based on class and sect. When Lebanese from the poorer neighborhoods of Beirut and less prosperous areas of the country joined in along with those identified as being Shia Muslims, calls for unity rang hallow. “They were different than us,” one activist said, with pro-March 14 media outlets labeling them as “agitators,” “infiltrators” and having caused “riots.”

The promise of an inspired rebellion will quickly evaporate if such sentiments continue and spread, for one cannot rightfully call for the resignation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam or Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk and simultaneously adopt the same rhetoric.

The revolutions of the “Arab Spring” have been hijacked by counter-revolutionary forces sponsored by countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi and Qatar and include those in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. All were successfully thwarted and dictatorships maintained, installed, or replaced by one fanatic religious group or another. The resultant suffering, destruction and wanton killing has been truly extraordinary.

The March 14 coalition is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The accusations leveled by their supporters against the less affluent and those of a particular sect participating in the YouStink rallies are disheartening. Whereas Saudi Arabia and other GCC nations overtly preempted the success of nascent revolutions in other Arab countries, they may not need to do so in Lebanon. There, it seems, the Lebanese may do it themselves.

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Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

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