Rubbish and revolution in Lebanon


There were echoes of the 2011 Arab uprisings at the weekend when thousands of Lebanese protesters swarmed into downtown Beirut. They were protesting – ostensibly – against piles of uncollected rubbish causing a stench in the streets, though chants of "Thawra! Thawra!" (Revolution! Revolution!) could also be heard from the crowds.

Does it really require a revolution to clean up Lebanon? The answer, according to many of the protesters, is yes. If the politicians can't organise something as basic as garbage collection, then they too should be treated as garbage and swept away.

Rubbish is being recycled, so to speak, as a political metaphor. For Sami Atallah of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, the crisis over rotting trash "exemplifies what is fundamentally wrong with the country: A political class that has no interest in serving the public. They have intentionally manufactured a crisis because they do not agree on how to 'divide up the cake'." 

Atallah provides a potted history of the politics and economics of garbage collection in Lebanon over the last 20 years and points out that the Lebanese pay more per ton than almost any other nation. In Beirut, this is the result of some secretive, over-priced and non-competitive contracting, he says.

In Lebanon, unlike some other countries (such as Egypt), the barrier to change is not so much a deep state as a deep non-state where deadlock among the political and sectarian prevents government from functioning effectively.

This deadlock does have a positive side. General recognition that no single faction can gain the upper hand has probably helped to prevent Lebanon from sliding back into civil war but it has detrimental effects in other ways.

recent report from the International Crisis Group (also available 
in Arabic) says:

"Faced with persistent political stalemate, declining basic services and various forms of violence, Lebanese have adjusted to a malfunctioning state by lowering their expectations, bypassing its institutions and resorting to privatised alternatives. These apply to virtually all sectors, from health, electricity and water to more complex activities such as education, employment, justice and even security.

"Such default devolution of state powers has enabled Lebanese to get by individually and prevented collective collapse but also had pernicious effects. Most seem to have given up hope that officials may find (or even seek) solutions to their multiplying problems within the state's formal framework ... Many have embraced and interiorised the game's informal rules, according to which personal networks, patronage and corruption are the dominant operating mode and basic survival principles. A businessman put it starkly: 'No bribe, no deal'."

The Lebanese state has been further weakened by what ICG calls the 'militia-ising' of its institutions since the civil war of 1975-1990:

"The post-war arrangement did not just extend a blanket amnesty to rank-and-file fighters; it also rewarded many militiamen by assimilating them into state structures and their leaders by giving them key positions.

"This amounted to 'militia-ising' state institutions, as a former minister put it. Militiamen became ministers, parliamentarians and high-level civil servants, expanding their influence within the public administration and profiting from the post-war economic boom ... 

"Consequently, since 1990, Lebanon has perpetuated, as a ground rule of local politics, a culture of impunity that is exacerbated in times of crisis. Politicians maintain militias in various shapes and guises and protect their members from any accountability under the law by providing political cover. Recruits join, inter alia, to earn a living, acquire social status and draw attention to their otherwise neglected grievances."

Perversely, a non-functioning state strengthens, rather than weakens, the position those who are supposed to be running it:

"Representatives make themselves indispensable to constituents precisely because of the state’s shortcomings: their presence in state institutions ensures a modicum of redistribution through their patronage networks (which may have political, social, economic, judicial and security dimensions) and a measure of stability (as they share a vested interest in preventing, or at least postponing, collapse of the power structure they collectively live off). In other words, members of the political class keep the state weak but more or less functioning and hold their bases hostage to the system as it stands."

The result, as ICG notes, is that despite its abysmal performance, the political class in Lebanon generally remains unchallenged – and this is what makes last weekend's protests a breath of fresh air amid a welter of both physical and metaphorical garbage.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 24 August 2015