Trashy Politics in Beirut

The Garbage Crisis and Lebanon's Political Future

Water bottles are gathered to be recycled near a statue in Martyrs' Square in Beirut, August 25, 2015. Jamal Saidi / Reuters

It was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam, expressing support for ongoing nationwide protests against his own government, which has failed for weeks to collect mountains of trash in the streets of Beirut. It was an absurd but revealing statement; Lebanon’s political class is either stunningly oblivious to its own failings or, perhaps worse, incredibly adept at avoiding responsibility for any of the country’s woes.

If only the problem were limited to sanitation. Only half the people in Lebanon are connected to official water supplies, most of which barely function. Only a tiny minority gets full electricity coverage; the rest are on strict power rationing or live in the dark. More than a third of young people in Lebanon are unemployed. Public education is the surest path to long-term joblessness. Government health care is a death wish; expensive, private insurance a must.

A general view shows a garbage filled-area on the edge of Beirut river, Lebanon August 29, 2015.
A general view shows a garbage filled-area on the edge of Beirut river, Lebanon August 29, 2015. Jamal Saidi / Reuters
Security is not a public good but, rather, a selective service. Each major sect gets its own police force and spy agency. Some, such as the Shia party Hezbollah, even get an army. Not surprisingly, many crimes go unpunished in Lebanon, and prisoners are prematurely set free. In one prominent example, the murderers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, have yet to be brought to justice. Syrian refugees make up nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s population—the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and that’s not even counting the Palestinian refugees that are scattered in camps across the country and who make up around ten percent of the Lebanese population.

Many will tell you that the root of the problem is the destabilization caused by years of civil war and constant foreign intervention. Lebanon was prosperous and functioning just fine, the argument goes, until foreign nations conspired against it and war broke out on its soil in 1975. But Lebanon’s protestors have had enough with such excuses. They believe,

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