Garbage crisis in Lebanon sparks a larger movement against the country’s political class

Trash piles up on a Beirut street. (Photo credit: Jackson Allers)

Street protests continue in Lebanon for a second week as a political crisis triggered by a garbage build-up has exposed a much larger set of issues related to endemic corruption, cronyism and the dysfunctional sectarian based-political system that governs the country. Lebanon is already in the throws of a huge refugee crisis that is a spillover from the 4-year Syrian civil war and has been without a president for more than 20 months. Protest organizers are calling for a mass demonstration on Saturday aimed at holding to account those in the government they say are responsible for the crisis. Jackson Allers has more from Beirut.

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Singing the Lebanese National Anthem and calling for the overthrow of the sitting government, protesters from the YouStink movement last weekend clashed with Lebanese security forces after demonstrations aimed at addressing the country’s garbage crisis turned violent.

Video footage of the demonstration showed unprovoked attacks by baton-wielding riot police against the non-violent protest of over 10,000 people.

More than 50 people were hospitalized over the weekend and dozens more injured by security forces who fired rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and water canons at crowds that swelled to an estimated 25,000 people.

Founded in early August by a small group of activists, bloggers, and concerned citizens – the YouStink movement is demanding the resignation of Lebanon’s environment minister, Mohammed Machnouk.

At a Monday press conference, YouStink movement organizers called for the prosecution of waste management policymakers and demanded an investigation into who ordered the crackdown against protesters last weekend.

At the heart of trash problem are government contracts with private waste management company Sukleen dating back to the mid-1990s. According to Ali Swaidan, an analyst at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies – Lebanon’s privatized trash collection is among the most expensive in the world.

“All the governments since the 1990s failed to deal with the garbage issue,” Sukleen in 1994 when in started working for the country – it was for $3.5 million, and it has risen to $150 million.

Swaidan said the bidding process for these contracts was not competitive and lacked transparency, with contract details remaining highly confidential.

“The leaders who are in authority in this country – they are sharing the piece of cake,” commented Swaidan. “The people didn’t have interest in complaining about this issue. But now it’s a matter of living for Lebanese people, not just a matter of garbage. There are electricity problems, water problems, security problems. The people are fed up with this government, with this political class in Lebanon.”

With garbage – and protests – building up in the streets, the government accepted new bids for trash collection this week.

Prominent dissident Mohammad Farida this weekend’s mass action has a message: “We’re going to show all the rotten corrupt politicians that we want freedom. We don’t want you anymore!” Some predict it could be the single biggest rally in Lebanese history without religious or political affiliations.”

Farida says organizers are taking special care to keep the rapidly-growing movement non-partisan: “Another observation is that all political parties – they envy us for what’s happening. They would like to capture it in one way or another – there have been tries. This is what we’re trying to protect – we’re trying to protect this movement from being captured by political parties because then it will fall under their agenda.”

Farida refers specifically to two of the biggest political players in the Lebanese system; the Shia political party Hezbollah and their Christian allies in the Free Patriotic Movement. Both have thrown their weight behind the demands of the protesters – walking out in protest on Tuesday during a cabinet meeting to discuss the trash issue.

But protest organizers and many on the streets have been quick to tell FSRN that all of the political parties suffer from corruption and cronyism – and they refuse align with any religious sect or political party.

For Lina Sahab who describes herself as a concerned citizen and artist – the success of this protest movement depends on shaking off the apathy that comes from 40 years of rule by a small political class invested in the status quo.

“We don’t believe we can make change and that’s huge,” said Sahab, describing constant arguments over the efficacy of protests. “That’s a huge problem. Of course we can do something! We must believe we can make a change, but not if we keep on thinking that we can’t.”

Meanwhile, garbage truck drivers with Beirut’s private waste management company have gone on strike and trash is piling up in the nation’s capital. Still unclear is if this pressure tactic – or the protests – will decide who will handle Beirut’s trash.

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