Lebanon's Garbage Protests vs. Sectarian Paralysis

"Young people working together across religious lines for a common goal will begin to erode the perceived differences that inhibit national unity."

After more than a month of garbage piling in the streets of Beirut, the city finally broke. Organized by the #YouStink campaign and other groups on social media, tens of thousands of protesters marched demanding a solution to the crisis. Last Saturday, on August 22, the protestors were met by tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and live fire from riot police and security forces. On Sunday, though the police showed more restraint, the protesters’ demands escalated. They amassed in Riad al-Solh square chanting, “The people want the fall of the regime”—referring to the parliament that had again unconstitutionally extended its term last November. This past weekend saw even larger protests, and the #YouStink organizers said they would give the government until this past Tuesday to meet their demands: The resignation of Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk, the Minister of Interior holding police accountable for violence, new parliamentary elections and a solution to the garbage crisis. So far, the government has met half of one demand. Machnouk announced that he would not step down, but would instead withdraw from the committee tasked with finding a solution to the crisis. This hardly pacified the crowds, and #YouStink staged a sit-in in the offices of the environment ministry that resulted in arrests and injury to demonstrators.

Lebanon’s troubles go far deeper than an unresolved garbage crisis. The country’s current problems are rooted in its flawed foundational institutions that have resulted in division and deadlock. This paralysis has protected the corrupt leaders and warlords-turned-politicians who control the country and leaves Lebanon unable to guarantee basic services for its citizens.

Lebanon’s confessional system, a legacy of French colonialism, proportionally allocates political power among its predominant religious communities. While this was intended to prevent sectarian strife by giving each religious group their share, it was and remains a failure. The constitution institutionalized sectarianism where none needed to exist, leaving Lebanon’s political entities divided along religious lines. With religion and politics fused, the attitude prevails that one should “stick with” his or her co-religionists. The Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), the Lebanese Forces and the Phalanges Party claim the Maronite Christians; the Future Movement claims the Sunnis; the Amal Movement and Hezbollah claim the Shiites; the Progressive Socialist Party claims the Druze; and so on and so forth. The assumption is that these factions will represent the needs and interests of their respective religious groups. When these needs are not met, the failures are blamed on the obstinacy and intransigence of another sect.

Though the 1989 Ta’if Accord brought an end to the civil war by offering Sunnis and Shiites greater representation and rebalancing the confessional system, it left the government paralyzed. Parties that had barely stopped fighting were reluctant to work together, and with Muslim and Christian representation more balanced, they were able to block one another’s efforts and blame the failures on the other. While parties today do on occasion work together across sectarian lines out of necessity, all political activity in Lebanon is marred by mutual distrust among factions. Rather than the foundation for national unity, the Ta’if Accord merely serves as a prolonged ceasefire, and by and large the impasse continues.

The failures of the stagnant government are wide ranging to say the least. Lebanon has failed politically, now going fifteen months without a president due to the major parliamentary blocs’ inability to agree on which Maronite should fill the position. It has failed in crisis management, refusing to establish formal refugee camps, even though the country now hosts over one million Syrian refugees—about a fourth of the Lebanese population. This has created a massive urban refugee problem not only in Beirut, but also in towns and villages throughout the country. It has also failed in providing basic services. Lebanon suffers from a water-scarcity problem despite having an abundance of water; the electricity crisis has made daily power cuts a way of life; and after weeks of accumulation, Beirut’s trash has piled in the streets, resembling miniature replicas of Mount Lebanon. The government had full knowledge that the Sukleen garbage company’s contract had expired and that it would stop collecting, yet took no real steps to come up with an alternative.