The garbage crisis that left Beirut knee-deep in trash

"Lebanon, the bin-Republic": that is how the French daily L'Orient Le Jour entitled the article published on its front page on Thursday, August 20. It is not so frequent that a city gets to experience the failings of government quite so literally pungently. But Beirut, the Lebanese capital, the same that until mid 70’s was used to be dubbed the Switzerland of the Middle East, has been drowning in garbage for over a month.

Beirut, Lebanon - A truck unloads trash into a garbage filled-area on the edge of Beirut river, Lebanon August 29, 2015. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

The Lebanese largest landfill, where out of 2,800 tons garbage per day were sorted, shut down on July 17. The same day the contract with Sukleen was over, with no alternative to the only company that ran the waste collection for 18 years in the Lebanese capital and the area sorrounding the Baabda district.

Since then, rubbish has been piling up on the streets of Beirut every day. And while authorities are warning about serious health consequences if fires and rotting of garbage will still stifle the city, the protest, initially born as a reaction to the inability of the government to clean up the city, is taking on the feautures of a civil war.

After the riots of August 22, when 49 among civilians and police officers suffered serious injuries and a man died, thousands of protesters poured again into Martyrs' major Square in Beirut last Saturday. And once again, the crowd has been broken up by the police.

It is not difficult to understand that the Lebanese trash crisis echoes a much deeper ones. As never before, garbage stenches flooding the city in the summer heat are issuing a warning to the government crisis that has been troubling Lebanon for years. The country, which got rid not less than twenty-five years ago of the last civil war and that is now grappling with the Syrian conflict, is paralyzed by a fragile and corrupt politics: politicians are divided among local and intra-national problems and Lebanon has been without a President for more than a year. Presidential crisis already broke a record after more than fifteen months deadlock from Michel Suleiman’s mandate in May 2014. 23 votes have not been probably enough for Lebanese MPs to elect a new President.

To date, a national unity government has managed to maintain a semblance of central authority and to contain sectarian tensions. But time passes, and the interim presidency of the Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who has already threatened to resign after the recent uprisings in town, is limping.

Nassim Njeim, a 25 years old student just came back to Beirut after nine months of Erasmus abroad, says: "What are we surprised for? There is too much corruption, that is why the trash crisis cannot be solved: each politician would like to get out a share of profits from the next company that will get the garbage procurement. But garbage is just one among many problems in Lebanon. Electricity, for example, is another big issue: since the end of civil war in 1990 there are several power outages per day. Since I was born we never got a 24/hours electricity at home. We are even paying two different bills: one public and one private. The same happens with water, which is another important issue: although Lebanon is rich in water resources, distribution systems that have been installed a long time ago are not able to reach all the families, who are forced to find other solutions or to remain without water for hours. "

For a country which largely sat out the wave of mass protests that swept through most of the Arab world in 2011, the intolerance erupted in the last weeks is shaping up as the most significant protest in years.

"The stench of garbage is suffocating us, but the very agony is the government's reaction, which does nothing for us, but it is rather against us. This is why I decided to take to the streets once again: I am here because of the violence that has been used against us during the last weekend, and I will continue protesting", said Ali Ataya, 32, who joined last Saturday the march against rubbish organized by the group calling itself YouStink.

Many people have criticised the riot police's use of force, with Prime Minister Tammam Salam also admitting it was "a bit excessive". Tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets: that is how police responded. And citizens, believe it or not, are not going to forget it. There is little hope, now, that the demonstrations will continue pacifically. Ali continued: "Last week the march was smaller: let’s look how many we are today! And we will keep growing until the entire government will resign. We gave the politicians a 72-hours ultimatum and will escalate our protest movement if the government does not meet the requests by Wednesday morning"

Members of YouStink keep on saying that no party or figure is exempt from their criticisms. Their slogan "All of them, means all," speaks clearly about the general feeling of dissatisfaction against the Lebanese politics.

"There is no way that Lebanon will develop and grow as a Nation unless the majority of politicians are replaced by new, young and qualified people. So far politicians have been the same for too long and, as it often happens, they take into more consideration their seat in Parliament rather than citizens’ needs and rights", Nassim Njeim resumes.

Police already built a barbed wire fence around the Parliament to protect it from possible break-in of the demonstrators, who have pitched their tents in the square and don’t want to give up unless their requirements are accepted. Not in this very moment. Meanwhile, as the 72 hours ultimatum is due to expire, megaphones from trucks loaded with loudspeakers shout their slogan along the city streets. "From north to south, from Bekaa to Beirut, united people never die".

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