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, as do I, that the present garbage trail traces back to the country’s rotten system of government, and nothing else.

Ongoing protests are not only about government performance—they are about making a clean break with history by getting rid of the country’s political structure. They argue that the Lebanese system is beyond repair; its formula of political representation, which three Lebanese statesmen codified in the early 1940s, has expired. All it does, they say, is sustain political fiefdoms, encourage nepotism, generate deadlock, and block reform. As a result, Lebanon is incapable of creating a functioning government, national state institutions, and a strong army. As long as this system lasts, Lebanon will remain hostage to foreign meddling and devoid of any independence and sovereignty. And so, it should transition to a nonsectarian democracy through a new electoral law that gives honest, effective, and nonsectarian politicians a chance to get elected.

People carry Lebanese national flags as one of them holds up a trash bag on a broom as they take part in an anti-government protest at Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon August 29, 2015.
An anti-government protest at Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon August 29, 2015.
Jamal Saidi / Reuters
The protestors are on to something, but the odds seem stacked against them. First, it is not clear that the majority in Lebanon wants to reconfigure the political system. In fact, it is probably safe to say that most, although thoroughly dissatisfied with the government, are more interested in reform, not regime change. These people argue that the country’s system has allowed Lebanon to escape tyranny and theocracy. Its inbuilt checks and balances prevent any sect from dominating the other, ensuring that each group gets a piece of the political pie and coexists with all others. There is a central government, but the system also ensures plenty of political and economic autonomy across the country so that each region can be governed in accordance with the preferences of its own constituencies.

Pro–status quo Lebanese will admit that the system could use repair to make it more modern and merit-based, but any drastic reorientation of politics would invite chaos and conflict. In short, yes for good governance, no for new political rules. However, nothing could be more detrimental to Lebanon’s well-being. Lebanon’s quota-based system is simply unsustainable; it kills state formation, fragments the nation by inhibiting social integration, and keeps the country’s progression to full democracy—a goal codified in the Lebanese constitution—at bay.

The other factor working against the protestors is that the regional powers that have tremendous influence over policymaking in Beirut prefer the status quo. At a time when Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are burning, reengineering Lebanon may cost the country its fragile balance and expand the arc of crisis across the Middle East. Furthermore, a more representative, transparent, and accountable Lebanese system would most likely undermine the interests of these regional countries’ local clients. To cite a couple of examples, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri would not have survived all this time had Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively, not bankrolled and protected their political careers. No wonder, then, that Lebanon’s major sectarian leaders have issued strict orders to their constituents not to join the protestor movement.

Girls walk near garbage on fire, piled up along a street in the Chiah area in Beirut, Lebanon August 27, 2015.
Girls walk near garbage on fire, piled up along a street in the Chiah area in Beirut, Lebanon August 27, 2015.
Aziz Taher / Reuters
Even if the numbers don’t favor the protestors, it is undeniable that their mobilization is historic. Indeed, since the founding of the Republic, never has such a large segment of society so clearly and publicly questioned the Lebanese political system or called for its overhaul. In recent years, the Lebanese have held several national dialogues on Hezbollah’s arms and a national defense strategy. Unsurprisingly, they have led to nothing, only because all of these issues are tangential and are symptoms of deeper problems. The real issue is and has always been the country’s broken system.

The Lebanese government has already unashamedly sought foreign help to solve the garbage crisis. It’s also possible that the protestors will get their wish of kicking the Lebanese minister of environment and minister of interior out of office. They might even succeed in pushing for the dissolution of the Lebanese parliament and the election of a new president. (The country has been without a head of state for more than a year.) But what they have started, perhaps without even knowing, is far more profound. They have forced the entire country, and perhaps even its neighbors, to grapple with some major political questions.

Given its traditional role as an intellectual center in the Arab world, there is no better place than Beirut to have an honest debate about the future of Lebanese governance. But this conversation is too important to be confined to a Lebanese quarrel. As the Middle East struggles with questions of political legitimacy and social contract, everybody should listen and take part in the debate. 

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  • BILAL Y. SAAB is Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
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