Beirut protesters struggle to find an effective strategy

01 September 2015

Demonstrators risk the interference of sectarian factions if unrest continues

  • Protesters occupied Lebanon’s environment ministry on 1 September
  • Activists tell MEED that many believe that those instigating violence with the police were thugs sent in by different groups
  • The problem the Beirut protesters face is that very few in the country have answers to what practical changes need to be made

When tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in Beirut over the weekend demanding the resignation of the government, it was reminiscent of scenes in 2011 during the unrest that gripped the region.

The protests in the Lebanese capital began last month, after the country’s only landfill reached full capacity and was shut down leading to a public dispute about the uncollected rubbish. The impasse in negotiations with the private sector over resolving the refuse crisis quickly became synonymous with the government’s broader mismanagement of the economy, and demonstrators expanded their protests to include other social issues.

Seeking a change

“We are seeking a change to the current political system. We are demanding the resignation of the government and early elections,” says Joey Ayoub, a senior member of the You Stink movement that mobilised the original demonstrations.

“It is difficult for us to pin a political ideology to our movement, which was set up a month ago. All we are trying to do right now is point out that the current political system is illegitimate. Beirut’s population is left in the ridiculous situation where we cannot turn on our air-conditioning units because of power cuts, and we cannot open our windows because of the stench from piled-up garbage.”

At the heart of the dissent are issues more damaging than an ailing waste collection system. Unemployment and rising living costs, coupled with tensions caused by an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, have left the population increasingly restless. Meanwhile, the government continues to be fixated by power sharing and regional issues rather than focusing on delivery of basic services.

The government recently extended its own term and postponed elections until 2017 on the grounds of instability. The country has also been without a president since May 2014, with the authorities having been unable to agree on the appointment of a successor to the previous President Michel Suleiman.

Violent protests

On 29 August, it was reported that up to 100,000 people had taken to the streets in the largest demonstrations since those that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The You Stink movement put the number of protesters even higher, at 250,000. In further echoes of the regional unrest in 2011, demonstrations turned violent on the evening of 29 August and security forces were blamed for using excessive force to stop people from storming parliament.

On the ground, activists tell MEED that many believe that those instigating violence with the police were thugs sent in by different groups “who are aiming to undermine the peacefulness of the protests”.

The problem the Beirut protesters face is that very few in the country have answers to what practical changes need to be made. Lebanon lacks a dominant political regime that can be toppled, and its two dominant military forces, the army and Shia militant group Hezbollah, are too preoccupied by extremely volatile situations on its borders with Israel and Syria to force any political change.

Inclusive politics

Some have suggested that an end to the political paralysis can be achieved through a change to the post-civil war constitutional attempt to alleviate any sectarian issues. Lebanese politics is forced to be inclusive to reflect the country’s mixed demographics. The president is required to be Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

The protesters have vowed to continue to take to the streets until their demands are met. These include the resignation of the government followed by snap elections, as well as the resignation of Environment Minister Mohamed Machnouk. Demonstrators have given those in power 72 hours to respond. Protesters occupied the environment ministry on 1 September.

As protests continue to disrupt the capital and gather increasing support, Lebanon’s political class needs to respond and offer hope that the social and economic problems can be solved. Meanwhile, secular movements such as You Stink will struggle to ensure violent sectarianism does not infiltrate the voices on the streets. 

Lebanon’s refuse problem

Lebanon’s garbage problem goes back to the mid-1990s, when the government contracted a private firm to collect waste at inflated prices despite local municipalities being able to do the same work at a fraction of the price. Corruption allegations have since surrounded the contract awards for the companies appointed to collect the rubbish.

“Since then, the value of the contract has increased much faster than the scope of work originally slated for the private company, which started with an estimate of $3.6m in 1994 and has increased to more than $150m today,” says Sami Atallah, executive director of the Beirut-based Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

“In fact, the cost of solid waste collection has been increasing at an annual average of 5 per cent in real terms since 2002. Furthermore, the contracting was devoid of any competitive bidding and the details of the contract remain confidential. Consequently, Lebanese nationals pay one of the highest costs per tonne for garbage collection in the world.”

The matter came to a head when the landfill reached capacity and was closed, and negotiations dragged on to conclude new contracts for waste management in the capital.

During a cabinet session on 25 August, ministers rejected the selection of the winning bidder to manage Beirut’s refuse collection because of high costs and a questionable procurement process, according to government sources.

Popular mountain destinations are now being used as landfills as the government attempts to clear some of the garbage off the streets, although the authorities have only managed to clear out affluent areas of Beirut, which has further angered protesters. Prime Minister Tammam Salam suggested dumping the waste in the Akkar region in exchange for $100m of development projects.

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