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Lebanon’s massive garbage crisis isn’t its first. Here’s what that teaches us.

- September 18, 2015
A pile of garbage blocks a street in east Beirut, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Heaps of garbage that rot in the summer heat pockmarking crowded residential areas—poisoning the air and polluting the soil, causing respiratory diseases and fueling fears of cholera. A woman unable to ventilate her tiny, sweltering apartment, angrily lamenting that the waste now piling up to the veranda brings pests, smells and infections.

Beirut, 2015? No: south Lebanon, 2012.

While the scale of the current garbage crisis scourging Beirut is unprecedented, the phenomenon of protracted waste management problems is certainly not—a fact that seems to have escaped the abundant commentaries on the present crisis. Yet, commentators and protesters alike have much to learn from the lessons of previous crises. In particular, the demonstrators that now rightfully link Beirut’s trash management problems to the erosion of state and citizenship would do well to take into account the experiences of non-citizens dealing with the governance dynamics of waste predicaments.

The parallels between the current trash crisis in Beirut and the waste crisis that befell south Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee communities in 2012 — analyzed in detail in a recent article in Conflict, Security & Development — are particularly telling. Exactly because they lacked citizenship and the related service entitlements, Palestinian refugees were forced to play by the informal and politicized rules of local authorities and to accept quick-fix solutions that only entrenched their vulnerability and their dependence on corrupt politicians. Lebanese citizens should avoid this trap and rebuff the temptations of narrow, short-term “solutions.”

As protesters have started to call for a clean up of the government as well as the streets, no one doubts that Beirut’s trash crisis is about governance and politics as much as it is about waste. Claims for representation and citizenship are now at the core of the upheaval and it is broadly acknowledged that “the rubbish crisis lies at the heart” of Lebanon’s post-war state. This recognition alone, however, does not thwart the risk that the movement will collapse under either political co-optation or individual complacency.

Indeed, the movement has already split between pragmatists looking for a practical and immediate solution to the waste crisis — the original #YouStink initiative — and others demanding a more fundamental revolution — such as the #WeWantAccountability group. While these demands are inherently related, south Lebanon’s 2012 crisis shows that the reality of the country might very well make these demands mutually exclusive. As strategically enticing as clear-cut bread-and-butter issues might be, previous crises show that the only viable option is focusing the current upheaval on more comprehensive, and inevitably more elusive, issues such as stateness and citizenship.

The origins of both the ongoing waste crisis in Beirut and the 2012 crisis in south Lebanon lie in a governmental impasse caused by political infighting over lucrative deals. This deadlock was made acute by the foreseen-but-ignored closure of major regional dump sites (the Ras al Ain landfill in the south and the Naameh fill for Beirut). The implications of the garbage crises are similar in both cases, too. As noted, Beirut’s current trash predicaments are directly and increasingly linked to failures in governance. Garbage has been widely cast as the “perfect metaphor” for the rot of Lebanon’s chronically dysfunctional political system. The crisis makes citizens of Beirut wonder who speaks and provides for them — in essence, who represents them.

In 2012, the garbage crisis in the south particularly affected Palestinian communities living in informal settlements, so-called “gatherings.” After the closure of the Ras al-Ain dump a new recycling factory was eventually opened at Ain el-Baal. The new plant was under-capacitated from the start and reluctant to accept waste from Palestinian communities, who do not pay taxes and do not fall under municipal service mandates. While this problem was eventually solved for the UNRWA camps, Palestinian communities living outside these camps were initially excluded from the deal. As with the current crisis in Beirut, this raised pertinent questions of mandate, entitlement and representation for the Palestinians of the gatherings.

Because they fell outside the citizenship-based mandate of the state as well as the camp-based mandate of UNRWA, residents of Lebanon’s Palestinian gatherings had to accept ad hoc solutions such as illegal dumping under the name of sympathetic municipalities. Their eventual access to the new factory, allegedly brokered by Amal Party leader Nabih Berri, constituted de facto access to the facility but did not recognize the Palestinians’ right to such services, even as paying customers. The refugees’ coping mechanisms and the eventual “solution” they were offered in fact set a wicked precedent against structural institutional arrangements and entrenched the communities’ dependence on informal ‘connections’ and politicized deals. Refugee representatives were quite aware that the 2012 arrangement would not help them when the next waste crisis hits their community, which seems imminent now that the closure of other dump sites in the Tyre area is once again on the agenda.

The crisis in the south was “resolved” in an unsustainable and piecemeal fashion that pitted different categories of residents—citizens, refugees from the camps and inhabitants of the gatherings—against each other. Similarly, the government’s current attempts to address the waste crisis in Beirut by dumping waste in more peripheral and marginalized areas, such as Akkar, boils down to regional, which in Lebanon inevitably means sectarian, discrimination. This, inexorably, further undermines the credibility of Lebanese citizenship.

The practical, but short-term and narrow, “solutions” forced on Palestinian gatherings should and can be avoided by the citizens weathering today’s waste crisis in Beirut.

While the cross-confessional nature of the protests and their references to the Arab Spring uprisings are extraordinary, there are also plenty of signs that the regime has been increasingly successful at dealing with the crisis like business as usual. First, there were the attempts at sectarianization, suggesting that the protests were disproportionately directed against Sunni politicians, and the efforts to sabotage, alleging that demonstrations were infiltrated by hooligans. Then there was the reflex to once more “divide up the cake” of service contracts among businessmen tied to leading politicians.

While the movement has so far withstood these divisive government tactics, the risk that protest fatigue will eventually lead Beirut’s weary population to lower its expectations and resort to survival strategies is all too real. Even if this would only further invigorate informal networks, corruption and the political class that remains “entrenched and unaccountable,” as it did for south Lebanon’s Palestinian refugees in 2012.

The dire state of Lebanon’s Palestinian gatherings demonstrates the real price of such “self-defeating survival strategies.” While Palestinians, as refugees, did not have the clout to bring about the institutional and political change that is a prerequisite for reliable, equitable and affordable services, their Lebanese counterparts, as citizens, do. Never before has such a large segment of Lebanese society “so clearly and publicly” called for the overhaul of the Lebanese political system. The people demonstrating against Lebanon’s “trashy politics” today need to be steadfast in their demands that services are rights, not privileges and that they are citizens, not clients.

Nora Stel is a research fellow at Maastricht School of Management, a PhD candidate at Utrecht University’s Centre for Conflict Studies and an affiliated scholar at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs.

Rola el-Husseini is a researcher with the Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and a non-resident fellow with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington, D.C.