No Exit: The Politics of Garbage in Lebanon

Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”, a play that was long ago staged in Arabic to entertain Beirut’s literati, captures the current dilemma: The way out of the morass is obvious but the political class in Lebanon, long trapped by their own selfishness and vicious internecine struggles, simply cannot leave their self-created inferno.

Beirut, once dubbed the Paris of the Middle East, is literally drowning in its own garbage and young Lebanese who are fed up and can’t take it anymore have in turn flooded the streets around the main government building, protesting the lack of governmental action to remedy the situation. The government’s helplessness in facing the crisis is but the latest, if most absurd, example of political paralysis compounded by the greed, selfishness, and corruption of Lebanese politicians. The crisis may well be the proverbial straw that breaks the back of the Lebanese state–and for good this time.

For over a year now, Lebanon has had no president because of a political stalemate: the two major blocs in the country, March 8 and March 14, have both failed to muster the required two-thirds majority in parliament to get their own candidate elected, and they have not been able to agree on a compromise candidate (as has been the tradition in the past).  Parliament has extended its own term twice because a new election law could not be agreed on by bickering parties, each wanting a law that favors its own candidates and constituents.

Parliament, as a result of failure to agree on a new president, is paralyzed on all policy matters and senior appointments. The current government–formed after a political vacuum that lasted ten months–was originally designated to oversee new elections, which of course have yet to take place. Essentially a caretaker cabinet, the Tammam Salam government has been stymied by the cabinet’s own rules of consensus from taking action on the big issues that face the nation, such as the war in Syria, Hezbollah’s involvement in it and the resultant spillover of the conflict into Lebanon. Now, the government is no longer able to even collect the trash from the streets of Beirut, and to a lesser extent from other districts, threatening Beirut and the country with disastrous environmental and health consequences. It’s time to finally admit it: the Lebanese state has failed!

Briefly, the facts are the following: A landfill in Na’meh, south of Beirut, closed due to the surrounding community’s complaints. The landfill was designed as a temporary two-year measure to take in a maximum of two tons of treated garbage. Almost ten years and over twenty tons of garbage later, it is full to way-beyond capacity of largely untreated refuse and is harming the immediate community living around it.  Sukleen, the company that has had the contract on collecting, recycling, and dumping trash in the Beirut area and Mount Lebanon, stopped collecting on the obvious premise that the garbage had nowhere to go–which was evidently true as the government tried, and failed, to convince other municipalities in Lebanon to take Beirut’s trash.

Accusations have mounted that Sukleen has been bilking the Lebanese government for nearly ten years by overcharging while improperly treating, and not recycling, the garbage. The cabinet, which had already awarded contracts to other companies that service other districts of Lebanon, has been pressured by the strong street protests into reviewing all contracts previously awarded. The charge, justified by the admission of the politicians themselves, is that ministers and factional leaders insist on granting the fat contracts to their immediate relatives, and then look the other way as these companies get rich with complete disregard for the environment and the health of the people of Lebanon.

Fed up with the stench and energized by solidarity, young people got together on social media sites and, informally organized by civil society groups, poured out onto the streets. First they demanded solutions to the problem. Only after suffering police violence and infiltration of the demonstrations by political opponents to this particular cabinet, the youth movement demanded that the government step down. March 8 ministers have already staged a walk-out from the cabinet on the grounds that Prime Minister Salam has been making decisions (against their wishes) based on the majority principle and not the traditional consensus vote. However, should Salam actually step down there would be a complete void of authority, in all branches of the government. The state institutions of Lebanon will have come to a complete stop.

The garbage crisis in Lebanon is not a technical problem. Lebanon, a country with a large educated middle class, employs technology in various sectors of the economy, from media to banking and telecommunication networks. And despite economic pressures resulting from a fifteen-year civil war, followed by only a brief period of reconstruction, Beirutis still managed a resilient economy and a lively tourist sector.

The political stalemate, however, exacerbated by the war in next-door Syria, has reached an all-time low, while leaders continue to pursue individual gain and political advantage at the expense of the national interest. The fact that even a technical and seemingly mundane issue as trash collection has to be decided by consensus at the cabinet level, by political factions that cannot reach consensus on anything nowadays, is a sign that Lebanon’s famed National Pact–once the salvation of Lebanon because it represents all sects via a quota system and demands consensus on decisions of national import–has become an albatross around the necks of the people. As it is virtually impossible for any one faction to accept a possibly diluted voice in a majority system, the National Pact has outlived its usefulness and the country, as an organized polity, is badly in need of a new social contract.

What then? Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a play that was long ago staged in Arabic to entertain Beirut’s literati, is a very apt description of the current dilemma: The way out of the morass is obvious but the players, long trapped by their own selfishness and vicious internecine struggles, simply cannot leave their self-created inferno. As the three branches of government collapse and fold the various sectarian and feudal communities of Lebanon will be left to fend for themselves–politically, economically, and socially. The most dangerous aspect of this, aside from the disastrous environmental abyss facing the country, is the security situation. With no central authority to direct the policing of the various communities, the strong will muddle through while the weak suffer most–all while the Syrian crisis next door is spilling into Lebanon socially, economically and militarily.

Rather than the total chaos of a Hobbesian society, another option may soon present itself: A military coup, led by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and backed by Hezbollah, is a distinct possibility if the paralysis continues.  As the only power on the ground which has strong influence on the LAF and, more importantly, has the muscle and the organization to take advantage of the crisis and fill the void, Hezbollah may be tempted to act via the LAF, especially that the LAF’s commander, Jean Qahwaji, is a presidential aspirant who may well be acceptable to many and may be able to act where the political leadership has failed.  Hezbollah’s general secretary, Hassan Nassrallah has recently indicated in a speech that the way out for Lebanon may well be in a secular state that no longer enshrines the sectarian quota system. Domestic opponents of Hezbollah may be hard pressed to resist an army takeover but Hezbollah’s outright dominance will have serious implications for Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and–last but not least–Israel and the United States.

Nabeel Khoury is non-resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. On Twitter: @khoury_nabeel.