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Garbage Politics

[Abdul Aziz Street, near the intersection with Bliss Street, Beirut during the 2015 summer. Image by Ziad Abu-Rish] [Abdul Aziz Street, near the intersection with Bliss Street, Beirut during the 2015 summer. Image by Ziad Abu-Rish]

In late July 2015, mounds of garbage began piling up across Beirut and the towns of Mount Lebanon to the capital’s east. While not without precedent in poorer neighborhoods, such heaps of rubbish had never appeared in more affluent areas. By mid-August, Lebanese government officials, businesspeople, activists, residents and media outlets were all speaking about a garbage crisis. Some observers took a benign view of the accumulating trash, seeing it as one more symptom of the alleged absence of a state in Lebanon. For those inclined to more sinister interpretations, the crisis was the logical outcome of the purported strain that more than 1 million Syrian refugees have placed on Lebanese infrastructure. As the refuse rotted in the streets and political debates remained stuck in the above terms, a broad protest movement consolidated itself. Popular mobilizations challenged both benign and sinister accounts and called into question the conventional wisdom about the state, social order and politics in Lebanon. [1]

The protest movement began in late July and early August as a series of small demonstrations organized by a group called You Stink. The group established an online repository for digital video and photographs documenting the garbage crisis. You Stink also engaged in creative actions such as delivering bags of trash to the homes and offices of various ministers. Yet the initial rallies drew no more than a hundred people. A protest on 19 August was a turning point, as the government cracked down hard. Video of security forces violently confronting protesters went viral, leading family, friends and allies of the You Stink organizers to join the next demonstration on 22 August. But You Stink supporters were not the only ones who took to the streets. The participants now included formal groupings of feminists, queer activists, leftists and environmentalists, as well as residents of neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the state’s withdrawal of services and its routine repression. Security forces tried to disperse the crowds with batons, sound grenades, water cannons and rubber bullets.

On 23 August, there were more clashes between protesters, now numbering approximately a thousand, and the riot police and army. The You Stink network withdrew, claiming that provocateurs had infiltrated the movement. Some members of the group went as far as to call on the government to “cleanse” the streets. You Stink announced that the protest scheduled for 25 August was canceled. Despite this move, the biggest throng to date, estimated at several thousand, took to the streets that day. The movement now had an exceptional heterogeneity: People who had long disagreed came together in a broad cross-class coalition to express their discontent with the government and the status quo in general. Some of the new arrivals had never demonstrated before. Others were rank-and-file members or affiliates of some of Lebanon’s major political parties: the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, Amal and Hizballah. Realizing that they were no longer the vanguard, the You Stink group apologized for its condemnation and rejoined the rallies. The movement culminated on 29 August with tens of thousands descending on central Beirut in the largest protest that was not organized by a formal political party in several decades. During the period 24-29 August there was a near continuous occupation of several streets and squares downtown. In the following weeks, several new groups proclaimed themselves part of the movement, and garbage-related protests broke out in Tripoli, Sidon and other parts of the country.

Institutional Origins

A number of factors converged to produce the garbage crisis: the nature of the existing waste management contract; the polarization of the Lebanese political field; and the infrastructure of dumping. [2]

In 1994, the national government began subcontracting waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon to a corporation that would come to be known as Sukleen. The Council for Development Reconstruction initially hired the company to refurbish garbage processing centers in the northeastern Beirut district of Karantina and the south-central suburb of ‘Amrusiyya, which had become obsolete during the 1975-1990 civil war. The Council quickly expanded the contract to include the collection, transport, treatment and dumping of waste in all of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Prior to the post-war settlement, by law, it was local municipalities that oversaw trash removal everywhere in the country. The municipal garbage workers of Beirut had one of the strongest public-sector unions in Lebanon during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the post-war central governments—particularly the cabinets of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri—saw in the fragility of local authorities an opportunity to enrich themselves and their big business allies by deregulating and privatizing waste management. For example, the founding director of Sukleen, Maysara Sukkar, was a business partner of Hariri in Saudi Arabia before the post-war reconstruction and development began.

The cabinet extended Sukleen’s contract in Beirut and Mount Lebanon several times after 1994. Each time, the per-ton price for total waste management (collection, transportation, treatment and dumping) went up. In 2015, Sukleen charged the Lebanese government $45 per ton for dumping alone. The global average for such services was $11 per ton. The Sukleen agreements were lucrative for all involved.

The latest iteration of the Sukleen contract for Beirut and Mount Lebanon was set to expire on 17 January 2015. Yet the cabinet extended the contract for six months in December 2014 as part of an alleged comprehensive plan for dealing with garbage in the country. The plan featured the division of the country into six regions. One condition in this scheme was to limit each subcontracted company’s business to no more than two of the six regions. Another condition was that, once contracted, each company had to secure its own dumpsite in each region where it collected trash. This latter stipulation meant that the companies had to cooperate with local power brokers. By late July 2015, the six-month extension of the Sukleen contract had ended without the so-called comprehensive plan being implemented.

The comprehensive plan was supposed to provide a new formula for rent seeking and thus consensus among leading politicians. Yet Lebanese politics was gridlocked when the Sukleen contract expired. The March 14 and March 8 coalitions, both founded in 2005 in the wake of Hariri’s assassination and Syrian military withdrawal, remained at odds after an escalating series of cabinet crises. Each coalition holds one third of the current cabinet posts, with a group of independents occupying the remaining third. The parliament, elected in 2009, had a dubious mandate after decreeing two extensions of its own term in 2013 and 2014. Legislators were—and still are—unable to reach a simple-majority agreement on a president since the last regular presidential term ended in 2014. The distrust and dysfunction was too great to allow for a new agreement about picking up trash in the city. The Sukleen contract expired in a logistical void.

A third factor—infrastructural breakdown—proved decisive. This problem had to do with a dumpsite in Na‘ma south of the city, used by Sukleen and the national government since 1997. Originally, they claimed the site was temporary, part of then-Minister of Environment Akram Shuhayyib’s “emergency plan.” During the civil war, various government agencies and other groups began depositing refuse on a plot of land in the neighborhood of Burj Hammoud. By 1997, this dump had far exceeded its capacity and endangered the environment and public health. At first Shuhayyib called for the conversion of the defunct incinerators at Karantina and ‘Amrusiyya into modern waste treatment facilities. But the residents of adjacent areas protested, citing potential health risks. When Shuhayyib tried to insist, locals burned down the ‘Amrusiyya plant. Shuhayyib turned to Na‘ma, claiming it to be a temporary solution, while also committing the government to regulating the amount of garbage to be dumped there and the route of the trucks. But violations of the rules were systematic. Nearly four times the amount of trash initially quoted was unloaded in Na‘ma. Sukleen trucks drove right through residential areas. There was nothing temporary about the Na‘ma dump.

Beginning in 1998, residents organized against the government’s bad faith and the environmental and health hazards posed by the landfill. In 2013, these efforts coalesced in a Campaign to Close the Na‘ma Dumpsite. Activists and community members blocked the road to the dump in the summer of 2014. After a brief standoff, the government issued a statement committing to an alternative in exchange for a one-year grace period from the protesters. By the end of that reprieve in July 2015, however, there was neither an alternative plan for dumping nor any evidence that the government had tried to devise one. As the Campaign reoccupied the road, the government officially terminated use of the site on 17 July.

With no contract and no place to put the garbage, Sukleen just stopped operating in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Several activists speculate that it was no accident, but a purposeful move by the political elite to silence public dissent. But as the mountains of trash rose higher and higher, the opposite happened.

Government Tactics

In the first couple of days, the Lebanese government and major political parties were at a loss for how to deal with the protesters. As the popular movement grew, the government fell back on familiar tactics of brute force. But when the batons and rubber bullets deployed on August 19 only swelled the protesters’ ranks, and made them more diverse in class and political inclination, the authorities experimented with other tactics and became more selective in their use of violence. On 24 August, the government erected a concrete barrier around the Prime Minister’s Office building only to remove it a few days later after protesters turned it into a canvas of political commentary. On 25 and 29 August in particular, the security forces waited until the majority of the protesters had left the downtown squares before rounding up the activists who sought to camp out overnight.

The gendarmerie and both civilian and military intelligence agencies also began detaining protesters, targeting men and women, as well as children under the age of eighteen. The detention policy began on 23 August. The government subjected many detainees to urine tests in an attempt to demonize them as drug addicts. It also blindfolded several of them during detention and interrogation. Military intelligence held demonstrators incommunicado for twenty-four hours or more. The government also filed charges against many protesters, some of whose cases are still pending in criminal courts or military tribunals. A group of lawyers quickly formed a committee for defense. They publicized a hotline for reporting arrests and missing persons, as well as providing legal counsel. Police stations became sites of small protests as activists as well as the family and friends of detainees demanded the release of their loved ones.

Meanwhile, government officials and leaders of both the March 14 and March 8 alliances made ample use of their party structures as well as their access to and ownership of various media outlets to smear activists and stall the public. Many party heads forbade members from participating in the demonstrations. Two of Lebanon’s most popular networks—LBCI and NewTV—provided 24-hour coverage in the first couple of weeks. Yet key ministers used their influence in other media platforms to portray the mass of protesters as delinquents, foreign agents, potential terrorists or any combination thereof. In certain cases, notably that of As‘ad Thibyan of You Stink, politicians resorted to vicious personal attacks. OTV, a network associated with the Free Patriotic Movement founded by the Maronite Christian ex-general, Michel Aoun, aired accusations that Thibyan was an atheist who missed no chance to insult religion, Christianity in particular. The government and political elites depicted themselves as gamely seeking a solution to the crisis, claiming to be in consultation with each other, as well as with business and environmental specialists. Throughout the autumn, they simply waited for the momentum of the protests to slow.

At times, the government did seem to be bending to the popular will. On 24 August, the government announced fresh consensus on the comprehensive plan conceived by Shuhayyib in 2014. As before, no company would receive a contract for more than two of six regions of the country. But it was too little, too late—the protest movement was too large and too militant. The government returned to the drawing board. Soon after, the environment minister, Muhammad al-Mashnouq, declared that the government would start clearing the streets of refuse. Sukleen teams resumed garbage collection in several areas. But leaked footage revealed that the government was using makeshift dumpsites, in many instances through collusion with municipal authorities. Mashnouq stepped down from the ministerial committee overseeing the garbage issue, which he had chaired up to that point. Prime Minister Tammam Salam appointed Shuhayyib, now minister of agriculture, to replace him. By February 2016 there were an estimated 750 informal dumping grounds—some started by locals but many others by official agencies.

During much of September and October 2015, Shuhayyib and the cabinet advocated for a plan that called for a seven-day grace period in which to reopen the Na‘ma landfill and remove the trash buildup from Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Then there would be an eighteen-month transitional period in which the government would extend the Sukleen contract and designate two new dumps in the northern ‘Akkar region and the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. The government promised development funds in the form of loans and grants to these two regions, effectively seeking to bribe the residents and their political representatives. The proposal also included reopening the Burj Hammoud dumpsite. Shuhayyib said that responsibility for waste management would revert to the municipalities at end of the transitional period. Locals in ‘Akkar and the Bekaa Valley protested the plan. Most representatives of the demonstrators in Beirut joined them in rejecting the plan on environmental and technical grounds. Their skepticism was well founded: The government issued no decree or law to carry out the new Shuhayyib plan, about which there were no details in the public domain. And it was the same man’s “temporary” measure in 1997 that had created the mess at the Na‘ma site. The government effectively abandoned the Shuhayyib plan in December when the cabinet approved a proposal to export the country’s garbage. Activists decried the lack of transparency around the bidding process and terms of reference, both of which the government refused to reveal. On February 19, the cabinet announced the cancellation of the export plan amid a series of related political, legal and financial controversies. As of late February 2016 the government has returned to a variant of the Shuhayyib plan, seeking to identify locations for major new landfills. In the meantime, the government is avoiding a repeat of the ugly scenes in affluent areas, but garbage continues to pile up under bridges, in valleys and in the sea, to say nothing of poorer neighborhoods.

Strategic and Collective Action Dilemmas

The protest movement, for its part, faced strategic dilemmas from its inception, symbolized by You Stink’s decision to quit when the demonstrations grew beyond its control. There was intense debate among activists throughout the summer and fall over goals and tactics. For a while, a coordinating committee facilitated these discussions. But the committee’s membership was itself a source of conflict as questions of representation and decision-making authority arose. Negotiation also took place in social media and in person.

On 29 August, the protest movement laid out a unified, coherent set of demands: the resignation of Environment Minister Muhammad al-Mashnouq; the prosecution of all those responsible for violence against protesters, including Minister of Interior Nuhad al-Mashnouq should he be shown to be culpable; and a long-term solution to the garbage crisis that is both environmentally friendly and executed by municipal authorities. With these demands, the protesters sought to link government corruption and centralization of services as the chief causes of the crisis.

Yet another item on many lists—new parliamentary elections—exposed a bone of contention inside the movement. On one hand, there was a commonly acknowledged need to assert the illegitimacy of the existing parliament, which had twice extended its own term in contravention of the constitution. On the other hand, there was sharp disagreement about whether the movement should focus on holding the streets or turning to the ballot box. In the view of many activists, new elections would produce nothing but a parliament of similar composition, except with the stamp of democratic approval. Some activists nevertheless considered forming a new party and running for office.

An unresolved debate concerned whether the protest movement should call for additional resignations. Was not the entire political elite responsible for the government’s paralysis? Should not all the cabinet members and legislators be asked to resign? It was this question that led to discussion of “the fall of the regime,” the demand animating the 2011 uprisings in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, and how to define “the regime” in Lebanon. This discussion was not new. It, too, had first emerged in 2011, when Lebanon witnessed a much smaller protest movement under the banner “The People Want the Fall of the Sectarian Regime.” This slogan captured the feeling of many Lebanese that the central political problem in their country is not the particular personalities in charge of government but the complex system allocating parliamentary seats, top posts in the state and access to public goods by ethno-religious affiliation. This confessional system was set up under French colonial tutelage between 1920 and 1943, and cemented in the agreement that ended the 1975-1990 civil war. Yet some activists were concerned about losing touch with the public. It was one thing to galvanize the anger of average citizens about the rubbish reeking in the street. It was another thing entirely to speak of overhauling the political order. What had befallen the uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Yemen meant that such talk invoked the specter of political instability or even renewed civil strife.

Closely related to the question of demands was that of tactics, first and foremost how to respond to state violence. But activists also struggled to free the movement from the ambient polarization between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions. They wanted to challenge both coalitions, but not to empower one over the other. “All of them means all of them,” many activists said, but there was some dispute as to who “all of them” were. Of special relevance were the Shi‘i Islamist party Hizballah and its leader Hasan Nasrallah. Was Hizballah as guilty as others in the garbage crisis? The party was far from government when the Sukleen contract was awarded. Should the protest movement target Hizballah nonetheless? These questions divided activists and helped to form new alliances at the same time. They also colored the way that would-be demonstrators viewed the emerging movement and understood its medium- to long-term implications.

Activists attempted to go beyond the mass demonstration, experimenting with other tactics. On 1 September, You Stink members and others staged a sit-in at the Ministry of Environment demanding the resignation of Muhammad al-Mashnouq. Later that week, another group vandalized newly installed parking meters on the Corniche, asserting the right of public access to the seashore. Other actions followed at Electricite du Liban, Riyad al-Sulh Square and Zeytouna Bay. Of particular note was the tearing down of a metal fence enclosing a popular picnic area along the Corniche. These actions showed that many in the movement were concerned with more than uncollected garbage. They drew upon a long legacy of activism around issues of public space. Yet such actions also fractured the movement as different groups vied for leadership.

The protest movement ultimately succumbed to the divergences over these and other questions, as well as the water cannons and sound grenades of the police. The size of protests declined precipitously after 29 August. The media smear campaign went on. Activists, for their part, failed to present a unified message in terms of goals and tactics to the broader public. The failure to preserve and expand the initial outpouring of public support, and to create stronger linkages among protest groups in Lebanon, speaks to the broader challenges facing progressive social movements in the country. By 8 October, the government seemed to perceive that the public mood had altered. That day, security forces attacked demonstrators with a ferocity many activists say was unparalleled since the movement originated. Soon afterward, two major groups—You Stink and We Want Accountability—bowed out of the coordinating body.

Rethinking Lebanon

As of late February 2016, the protest movement against the Beirut and Mount Lebanon garbage crisis is effectively non-existent. The euphoric moment of mass mobilization proved as ephemeral in Lebanon as elsewhere in the Arab world since 2011. There is still activism, however. And the movement itself achieved some victories: the ditching of the 2014 “comprehensive plan” and the questioning of the new Shuhayyib plan; Minister of Environment Mashnouq’s resignation from the government committee on waste management (even if temporary, as he has since returned); and the government’s acknowledgement (even if only in principle) that municipal authorities should gather the trash. It was the research and advocacy of citizen activists that forced these concessions from political elites that had showed scant concern for public grievances in the summer of 2015.

Perhaps the most lasting achievement will be the new networks and alliances that emerge from the movement over time. It is true that fault lines remain. But a new activist landscape has come into view, along with a new set of questions previously hidden in the folds of sectarian and class conflict. How can the duopoly of the March 14 and March 8 coalitions represent the full diversity of Lebanon? What does it mean to be a progressive activist? Gender dynamics are also front and center. While some activists, men and women, were forced to admit complicity in patriarchy, others experienced a new kind of politicization around gender—in no small part due to the presence of feminist and LGBTQ activists in the protest movement. Such networks and experiences will be important should a renewed moment of mass mobilization arrive.

The protest movement amidst the garbage crisis compels reconsideration of several tropes. The Lebanese state, far from absent, was on prominent display throughout the summer and fall of 2015 as it beat up, arrested and “disappeared” scores of unarmed civilians. Furthermore, the protesters’ solidarity for several months, mirrored by the unity of the political elites arrayed against them, challenge the idea that sectarianism is the analytic lens through which to view social dynamics in Lebanon. Finally, there is the question of the past: Little sense can be made of the garbage crisis or the protest movement without understanding the history of state building, economic development and social mobilization in Lebanon.

[This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Middle East Report.] 

Endnotes

[1] I am grateful to Joelle Boutros, Tania El Khoury, Samer Frangie and Sherene Seikaly for feedback on an earlier draft of this article.

[2] For a detailed account of the trash management contract and dumping infrastructure of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, see Myriam Mehanna, “Milaff Idarat al-Nufayat fi Lubnan: Sharikat Sukleen, al-Fasad wa al-Ta‘addi ‘ala Salahiyyat al-Baladiyyat wa Amwalaha” (Garbage Management in Lebanon: The Sukleen Corporation, Corruption and Infringement on the Prerogatives and Funds of the Municipalities), al-Mufakkira al-Qanuniyya (October 12, 2015); Joelle Boutros, “Azmat al-Nufayat fi Lubnan, 1997: Sulta La Tataghayyar, Tarikh Yu‘id Nafsih” (The Garbage Crisis in Lebanon, 1997: Unchanging Power and a History That Repeats Itself), al-Mufakkira al-Qanuniyya (September 29, 2015). 

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