Will Lebanon’s ‘Garbage Revolution’ Usher In a Secular State?
Lebanon’s protest movements continued to defy the country’s authorities this week, striking out in a new direction by occupying part of the environment ministry on Tuesday.
The movements are diverse, with “You Stink” demanding that the government arrange for garbage collection and “We Want an Accounting” seeking a complete reformation of the republic in a secular direction.
Other demonstrations this week demanded jobs for youths and an end to the privatization of public spaces and beaches through underhanded deals.
The protests have in common an impatience with governmental corruption, paralysis and inefficiency that have left refuse in the streets and led to water shortages and frequent electricity outages during the sweltering summer. But, more important, at their foundation they take aim at the “confessional” or religious and ethnic foundation of the state, which has led to the dysfunction.
On Tuesday, some 50 youth activists occupied the building housing the environment ministry for six hours before being forcibly ejected by police. They demanded the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammed Machnouk, who refused to leave the building.
The occupation was controversial even inside You Stink, because until that point the movement had peacefully demonstrated in the streets and some feared that more aggressive tactics could result in violence. Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, representing the Sunni Future Movement, warned ominously that attempts to occupy buildings or public spaces would be met with force by the state.
When the government tried sending the trash to the far north rural Akkar region, a protest movement grew up there, proclaiming that “Akkar is not a trash can!”
On Thursday, We Want an Accounting staged a demonstration outside the Interior Ministry, demanding the release of arrested members and the return of their identity cards.
The crisis in the small Mediterranean country of 4 million began in mid-July, when a major landfill was closed. Machnouk, the environment minister, stands accused of having made no alternative arrangements, even though he had a year’s notice to act.
With no place to put the trash, city workers allowed it to accumulate in the streets, where it turned putrid in the hot summer air. Sometimes it was dumped in fields or streams, posing an environmental hazard.
The You Stink protesters want Machnouk to resign or be fired, and they are calling for new parliamentary elections. The sense of insecurity in the country, with a civil war raging next door in Syria and more than a million Syrian refugees crowded into Lebanese camps, probably fed into the people’s refusal to put up with the lack of basic social services.The Lebanese parliament is supposed to be elected every four years, but voters last went to the polls in 2009, and the legislature has simply extended its mandate by fiat through 2017 on the grounds that the rise of Islamic State and al-Qaida in neighboring Syria has made it too difficult to hold elections. Deeply divided along sectarian lines, the parliamentarians have held dozens of sessions in an attempt to elect a new president, but have failed to reach a consensus, so that the country limps along without one element of the executive.
Some of the country’s stagnation derives from its peculiar electoral system. Each constituency is assigned to be represented by a politician from one of the country’s major religious groups—Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Druze. So, for instance, in a district represented by a Christian, two Christians might run against one another. Voters who decide the contest can be from any religious background, but they are constrained to vote for one of the Christian politicians.
The system guarantees that 27 of the 128 parliamentary representatives will be Shiite Muslims, and that 64 will belong to some Christian denomination (thus, there is always an artificial Christian majority in the national legislature). The Shiite deputies are typically divided between two major parties, Amal and Hezbollah (which also maintains a militia). The You Stink leaders have deeply criticized Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, arguing that the party is part of the corrupt establishment and a contributor to deadlock.
The We Want an Accounting movement, with which You Stink generally refuses to cooperate, wants this religious or “confessional” system to be abolished. Indeed, many of the protesters this summer are determinedly multicultural, drawn from various religious backgrounds, and many of them want an end to the politics of religious identity. We Want an Accounting is rooted in the Lebanese left, including the Communist Party, but its promotion of secularism appeals across classes.
Beirut is a center for the Arab music and music video scenes, and popular diva Carole Samaha weighed in late last month, saying that a new, secular constitution is needed to end the impasse. Such a change would shake the country’s clan-based elites to their core, and might politically weaken Hezbollah. (In some polls, 50 percent of Shiite voters—who are obliged to vote for Shiite politicians—have said they don’t have strong religious convictions.)
It has not even been easy to install a prime minister and cabinet. The prime minister’s office was empty for 11 months before centrist Tammam Salam was chosen in February 2014. The parliament is divided into two major blocs: the March 14 Alliance and the March 8 Alliance. The March 14 bloc consists of Christians, Druze and Sunnis who mobilized in 2005 to push Syrian peacekeeping troops out of the country; the March 8 bloc supported Syria in 2005 and is made up of Shiites (including Hezbollah) and some Christians. The cabinet comprises 24 seats, with eight going to March 14, eight to March 8 and eight to centrists. Interior Minister Machnouk is a centrist. This even representation in practice leads to gridlock within the cabinet and an inability to accomplish virtually anything, a condition that afflicts parliament as well.
Because national politics since 2008 has been carefully crafted to balance the major competing factions, any change in the cabinet could upset that balance, which is why the prime minister is standing with Machnouk. When protesters were offended by his hard-line stance and called for him to step down, the Sunni Future Movement from which he hails objected to any resignation being forced on the cabinet from the street.
Lebanon’s government does not work. Living there, as a result, is a chore, with electricity, Internet, water and garbage services inadequate and intermittent. The country’s youths, echoing the region’s reformists in Iran, Turkey and the Arab world in recent years, are taking to the streets to demand services. They have created the first major environmental movement in the Middle East. Many have begun considering—in an age of Islamic State’s phony caliphate, the persistence of al-Qaida, Hezbollah militancy and ultra-Orthodox settlements in the West Bank—that a separation of religion and state may be the only way forward.Wait, before you go…
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