The government just doesn’t seem to get it. The recent protests in Lebanon are no longer about the garbage crisis. They are fundamentally about the failure of successive Lebanese governments to provide basic services for citizens. They are about corruption associated with managing public resources and the subsequently high prices that Lebanese are forced to pay for very poor services. Let’s take power for instance; many Lebanese pay two bills – one to the unreliable Electricite du Liban and the other to the owners of overpriced private generator services. The same holds true for water. As of last year, we have been forced to pay more money to public water authorities for less water in our tanks, in addition to informal private water providers. What is common in both cases is that public providers failed to deliver and private suppliers supplanted the role of the state at a hefty price.
Lebanese found inefficiencies in garbage collection a much tougher pill to swallow though, not only because it is yet another example of a poor state service, but also on account of the physical properties of the garbage – its awful smell, the environmental and health implications, as well as the lack of private alternatives to deal with it. All this has exposed the arrogance and corruption of the political elite which has been willing to bury the country with trash until they extract more resources from each other. In one sense, the garbage crisis is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The crisis has not only revealed the contempt of the political elite for society, it has also exposed a conflict among the elite on how to “divvy up the pie.” Unlike previous arrangements, this one could not be negotiated behind closed doors. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War and the beginning of the process of reconstruction, members of the governing elite struck many deals among themselves concerning how to divide the spoils of state resources.
The reconstruction process after 1992 played a major role in securing enough funds to keep both Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s allies and rivals content. Since his assassination, the amount of money brought into the country has dwindled, leaving a smaller amount of resources for the elite to fight over. When this could not be resolved internally among themselves – in a sense luckily for us as citizens – it was brought to the public sphere, with leaders hoping to call each other’s bluff. The call by the speaker of the Parliament for a national dialogue session is little more than an attempt to put the house back in order, reinforce collusion among the political elite, and collectively address street action which has noticeably caught the attention of political leaders from across the spectrum.
Recent events have laid bare the reality that when the political elite disagree, the system is paralyzed and when they agree it leads to collusion. In both cases, this comes at the expense of citizens: Either we are denied services or have to pay a high price for it. It is against the backdrop of this system that people are collectively demanding accountability. Hence, the garbage crisis is a culmination of two major conflicts: One between citizens and the political elite and the other among the elite themselves.
Even though the roots of the garbage crisis go back to the mid-1990s, the ways successive governments have dealt with Lebanese citizens shows how indifferent they have consistently been to people’s concerns and welfare. For one, the government knew that a crisis was around the corner if no solution was found to address the already over-extended capacity of the Naameh landfill. Then the government suddenly acted as though it was doing something about the waste management crisis by calling for bids whose criteria remain unclear, and due in no small part to a lack of transparency in the bidding process, the results left Lebanese more perplexed as some companies won bids in some regions but lost in others, and the cost of services offered by the new firms appears to be even higher than Sukleen, which was already high compared to international standards. Then the committee administering the process declared the tenders successful late Monday only to cancel the bid results the next morning. If that was not enough, the government announced that it had decided to dump the garbage in Akkar in return for $100 million in development after years if not decades of neglect in Lebanon’s northernmost region.
Not only has the government mismanaged the process, it has demonstrated its complete disregard for initiatives by municipalities and civil society organizations that have attempted to pick up the pieces and resolve the garbage crisis over the last few weeks. Instead of opening up the decision-making process and inviting civil society to be part of the solution that could save the treasury a considerable amount of money, it did what it does best: monopolize the process, ignore the voices of society and attempt to split the pie among the political elite.
Furthermore, political parties had the arrogance to exploit the situation on the ground and are even attempting to leverage it to their own advantage against political rivals. For instance, one party openly supported the protesters by sending their minister to a demonstration. He was swiftly asked to leave. Another parliamentarian from the same party tried another gimmick, suspending his membership in Parliament. However, he lacked the resolve to actually resign from a parliament that illegitimately extended its own mandate. Another political leader, who contributed to the origins of the crisis, not only applauded the protesters but even asked them to stay in Downtown Beirut hoping to either deflect blame for his own role in creating the crisis or tarnish the credibility of the movement by supporting it, or both.
Another minister, who did not have the stomach to feign interest in alleviating people’s frustration, condescendingly questioned who the protesters “really are” and who they represented. This was the peak of arrogance from a public official. In fact, it is precisely this type of attitude that is fundamentally wrong with our system in which the political elite show complete disdain for people’s welfare. They are only ready to address some of the people’s demands as long as they are politically loyal to them.
Putting it differently, our political system recognizes people as clients and not as citizens. So people who demand services as rights or demand accountability from government and ministers who are failing to deliver are to be ignored, excluded, or denied any recognition. It is within this context that the aforementioned minister’s statement must be understood.
In fact, the real question is: Who do the political elite represent in the first place in a country where elections are an opportunity for this elite to select their constituency rather than for citizens to elect their representatives? After all, political parties have consistently engineered their path to power through a customized electoral law that ensures they receive votes through gerrymandering and vote counting, vote buying during the election season, and the use of sectarian discourse to strike fear among their constituencies so they are mobilized to head to the voting booths. Their electoral strategies have effectively silenced the majority of the electorate from expressing its true preferences. In fact, most surveys consistently show that the number of Lebanese citizens who trust both the government and Parliament does not exceed 10 percent.
Failing to outmaneuver the protesters thus far, the government has shamefully used violence to silence the people. They have beaten up citizens, accused detainees of being drug addicts and forced them to take urine tests to prove their innocence. The behavior of the security agencies shows that they are, at best, inept in protecting freedom of expression and human rights, all the while protecting the governing elite. This poses serious questions about all the investments made by international donors to advance security-sector reform and ensure that this reform was “people centered.” Accountability would entail gathering information about what happened to all that money, how it was spent and how it had an impact on the performance of security agencies in dealing with this crisis.
Once the forceful methods of ending protests failed, the interior minister went further by labeling protesters as “foreigners” – an irony of sorts, given that the current and past governments in Lebanon have been formed in part based on foreign intervention – in an effort to discredit them while hinting that they were being funded by a small Arab country.
What the interior minister and the government in general is not aware of is that the protesters are homegrown groups frustrated with the corrupt system of governance. The statements of the political leaders show once again how they are disconnected from society and remain adamant in their interpretation of the movement from a narrow prism of sectarian politics and foreign conspiracies – when convenient or when it suits them – to justify their relevance in this bankrupt system. In fact, the protesters express the anger and frustration of the silent majority who are simply fed up with the current state of affairs in Lebanon.
Sami Atallah is executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.