Lebanon's waste crisis continues amids plans for national dialogue

For two months now, garbage in the streets of Lebanon has not been collected, resulting in massive piles alongside roads and the illegal dumping of garbage in the Mount Lebanon area by frustrated civilians. For many citizens this waste crisis has become symbolic for what they call an “incompetent and corrupt” government. This led them to the formation of the “You Stink” protest campaign which has organized several protests during the last couple of months. Meanwhile, different political parties have agreed to join speaker of parliament Nabih Berri on 9 September for a “national dialogue”.

Initial frustrations

The “You Stink” movement began its protests when the garbage in the streets was no longer collected this July after the government failed to extend the contract of the company Sukleen. The private company had been responsible for collecting the garbage for years. In the past two months the government has failed to contract another company to pick up the garbage, leaving the citizens of Lebanon frustrated. Over the last two weeks the protest campaign, which is organized independently of the sectarian political parties, has expanded both in size and in its demands. No longer are the protesters satisfied with just a solution for the waste crisis, they want the resignation of the Minister of Environment Mohammad Al Mashnouq and an end to the state´s failure to provide basic services. Some 13 protesters aligned with “You Stink” have since started a hunger strike, which they intent to continue until their demands are met.

Political paralysis

But it is not just the waste crisis that people are frustrated about, as this problem alludes to bigger political problems within the state of Lebanon. The parliament, which has not passed a national budget in ten years, has voted on three occasions to postpone elections that should originally have been held in 2013 but are now planned for 2017. Due to boycotts in parliament by Hezbollah and some Christian parties it has been impossible despite 28 attempts to elect a new president since Michel Sleiman resigned in 2014, leaving Prime Minister Tammam Salam as acting president. After some of the protests turned violent when police attacked protesters PM Salam threatened to resign, a move that could leave the country, divided along religious and sectarian lines, in even more of a political deadlock.

Civil society activism

The “You Stink” movement seeks to unite the Lebanese, as it is formed as a civil movement that represents people of all sectarian groups, backgrounds and religions. In this aspect the movement is different from any the country has seen before, as they protest against politics from all camps. The movement’s tactics vary from the organizing big protests and social media activism to a sit-in at the Ministry of Environment after their deadline for the resignation of the Environment minister passed last week. But it is not just the attention of the Lebanese government they demand, they want foreign pressure on the government to act. And there was some success on their part as the UN security council last week called on the government to "elect a president as soon as possible” to “put an end to the constitutional instability". The movement also has organized protests in the USA, where a big Lebanese diaspora lives, who believe that “protest being held abroad will have a significant impact on the Lebanese people”.

Sustaining the movement

Although the “You Stink” movement has certainly surprised the government and has shown that it can unite people across the country and from different sectarian backgrounds, their full potential has yet to be seen. Planned protests on 4 September in the southern cities of Tyre and Zrariyeh and surrounding towns turned out much smaller than expected, a stark contrast to a protest that gathered tens of thousands in Beirut in late August. Meanwhile, some protests have been organized along the traditional sectarian lines, last Friday thousands of Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) supporters and some carrying Hezbollah flags expressed support for FPM leader Michel Aoun and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

National dialogue

Speaker of parliament Nabih Berri called for a “national dialogue” on 9 September, angering the “You Stink” movement who accuse him of diverting attention from their protests. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party said he would not participate. Interior minister Nouhad Machnouk said he was optimistic about Berri’s initiative. Both the Hezbollah and FPM led March 8 bloc and the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal led March14 bloc, who are political opponents, have agreed to participate in the dialogue. The “You Stink” movement announced nationwide protests that day.

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