Trash Talking in Lebanon: It's the political establishment that 'stinks'
Lebanon is a unique country, there is no other like it in the world. Here the army barely has any weapons and doesn’t take part in military action. Neither the government, nor the parliament, nor the prime minister or the president have any say, even though there are detailed stipulations regarding the number of representatives from each religious group. When it comes to war and peace, Lebanese people easily get by without them.
One of the elements of the unique balance that exists in Lebanon is the authorities themselves. They occupy beautiful new buildings where they meet with their foreign counterparts. These meetings have no effect whatsoever, even if they are with the US Secretary of State.
In 2006, with war in full swing, Condoleezza Rice came to Beirut. On that day, the surprised population witnessed its own army appear for the first time since the shelling began: they showed up along Ms. Rice’s route and disappeared when she left. You can learn about the Lebanese army from Wikipedia, but it seems impossible to see it in action.
For a year and a half, Lebanon has been functioning without a president. Overall, it can continue to function without one, but in that case it’s unclear what the parliament should be doing. That’s why the parliament has been extending its term of office since 2009, and has recently extended it until 2017. Lebanon is a small country, with few prominent political figures. If the fathers retire, the sons, nephews or grandsons will take their place, so in their heart of hearts every protester understands that it’s impossible to change the existing structure.
Beirut is the most important political city in the world. It’s a capital for all intelligence services, except Israel’s. The balance of power among the rest of the residents remains unchanged. Political and military intrigue, spies and saboteurs – all work and meet here, keeping neutrality. It is from Lebanon that famous double agent Kim Philby fled to the USSR to avoid the worst-case scenario.
That’s the status Lebanon acquired after WWII. The hotter it gets in the Middle East, the more the representatives of the interested parties settle in in Beirut.
With Lebanon lacking an actual government, each religious group has their territory, self-governance, armed police and mobilized citizens. It’s much easier for the spies to operate in a country like that than in even the most liberal of places.
When I first came to Beirut, still in ruins after the civil war, in the 45 minutes it took to get to the city from the airport, the first person I talked to had lived through a massacre and had a big scar across his throat; the second was a Hezbollah fighter; the third was an officer of the Maronite police. (Maronite Christians are one of the most influential groups in the country; in the 1970s and 1980s they allied with Israel against Palestinians, but eventually discarded this stance.) The President of Lebanon is supposed to be a Maronite.
If they are not shooting each other, that means they have forged an alliance that can change its configuration as fast as the situation calls for. No moral scruples.
The bloodiest politically motivated terrorist attacks were carried out in Beirut, and most of the cases have not been solved still.
Keep in mind that in 1983 there was a suicide bombing attack on the US Embassy, where intelligence officers from all of the Middle East gathered for a meeting. The same year the suicide bombing of the barracks housing the US and French military forces happened, killing almost 300, including 241 Americans.
It’s worth noting that no country declared war on Lebanon in response, no bombs or sanctions were used, no diplomatic ties severed, like it happened with Iran, Sudan and Libya. In other words, it’s common knowledge that Lebanese authorities are not - strictly speaking - subject to international law.
The civil war that lasted 15 years and wreaked havoc from 1975 to 1990 clearly showed that openly declared political alliances are short-lived, and consequences of the secret ones manifest decades later. During that war the Syrian regime fought against the Palestinians, later becoming their political patron. The Shia also fought against the Palestinians, and now they are allies. Maronite Christians collaborated with the Israelis to bring about occupation, and now they support the Shia and the Palestinians.
Hezbollah, which didn’t take part in the Civil War, kidnapped Soviet diplomats in 1985, and soon after that established working relations with the USSR and later Russia. Beirut is the only place where Sunni and Shia, as Hamas and Hezbollah, still maintain contacts despite their completely opposite views on what’s happening in neighboring Syria.
Walid Jumblatt, the current Druze leader who is the son of the assassinated leftist Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, is the living representation of the ever-changing political stances as a concept. He has shifted his stance so many times that no one in Lebanon is surprised by his inability to stick to the political deals he makes.
Without understanding all of these fine points of Lebanese politics, it’s hard to see what’s so strange about the “trash protests” and the instant change in demands, from “clearing away garbage” to changing the government system, establishing a state, abolishing clans and the balance of power between the existing groups.
Metaphorically speaking, if what the protesters call political trash is cleared away, Lebanon will cease to exist.
Geography of street protests
Just recently, 15 years ago, Beirut did not have an appropriate square for massive protests. At first, downtown Beirut was in ruins after the civil war, and then there was construction all around.
Martyrs’ Square in Beirut has a short but eventful history of political protests.
In 2005, 500,000 people came to the square after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, demanding that the Syrian army leave Lebanon. The Syrians left after 30 years of occupation.
In 2006, there were spontaneous protests when Israel bombed Lebanon. When the victory was won, everybody – Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Druze – gathered in the square to celebrate.
In 2008, Saad Hariri organized a rally there to commemorate his father.
In 2010, the Armenian community used the square to protest against a visit by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In 2011 and 2012, the Sunnis demonstrated their support of the Syrian rebels, while Hassan Nasrallah urged them not to disturb the fragile peace in Lebanon.
The garbage protest on Martyrs’ Square looks like somebody’s cold-blooded and cynical political plan. And there are reasons to believe that many people don’t know what this plan is and what the final outcome might be.
Formerly, it was just Hariri’s supporters who were against sectarian representation in the government system. This time, though, protesters are against both sectarian representation and the country’s most powerful oligarch.
From trash to political protest
The first call to protest appeared on social networks in July. A few thousand demonstrators carrying Lebanese flags gathered on Martyrs’ Square on August 23, chanting “You Stink” and “Revolution” and banging on trash cans.
It was hard to tell which religious groups were represented on the square. Most of the protesters were young people from well-off families. It looked as if they had no idea that war has been raging on for four years in neighboring Syria.
After police broke up the demonstration, protesters abandoned their garbage doublespeak and demanded political reforms. Violence erupted, and about 400 people were wounded in clashes with police.
There were troublemakers hiding among the protesters, and they quickly escalated the conflict, provoking the police into a harsh response.
A day later, a concrete wall was erected around government buildings. Demonstrators covered the wall with graffiti, and the next day it was taken down.
This way, for a very short time, Beirut got something it never had: some semblance of the regime “stronghold” – and then its theatrical downfall – and all this in spite of the fact that there is no “regime” in Lebanon.
Saad’s Hariri trash problem
Commerce and construction in Lebanon are totally non-transparent, corrupt and controlled by a small group of tycoons. But any person in Lebanon can explain it all to you in five minutes and much better than any foreign expert.
Lebanon (just like Syria and Iraq) does not have a waste treatment plant.
Back in the 1990s, the government allocated the money to build one - but the plant was never built.
Saad Hariri, who inherited his father’s empire and who was prime minister in 2009-11, is directly related to the garbage issue. All the garbage in Lebanon is handled by people and companies related to his empire.
This empire wants Lebanon to pay a tribute of $70 billion – for trash. People in Beirut keep mentioning this figure, $130 for a cubic meter of trash.
The landfill, just like most of the coastline, also belongs to his empire.
For several years now, Hariri has been building an artificial island for millionaires from Gulf countries right next to the landfill. In fact, it is not an island; it is a massive expansion of the coastline. In fact, because of Hariri, there are basically no public beaches left in Lebanon now. Anywhere you go, there is some facility for the rich already built or in the process of being built.
In July, the landfill was closed. The authorities did not offer an alternative.
The civil war turned the whole country into one big dump. Garbage was not picked up in Beirut at the time of political and military crises, which happens in Lebanon more often than anywhere else. But nobody protested over garbage before.
To repeat, 15 years ago there was no downtown in Beirut. Now, in addition to government offices, there are beautiful hotels and nice apartment buildings sold off to rich people from Gulf countries. It is a weird paradise island for oil magnates and their families.
The place has somewhat lost its glamor since the garbage protests began. You cannot feel too comfortable in your fancy apartment if there are people outside banging on trash cans.
In February 2015, Lebanon marked 10 years since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, who, like his son Saad, was pro-Saudi. The assassination was first blamed on Syria's Bashar Assad and then on four Hezbollah fighters. Saad Hariri declared the Cedar Revolution, started a movement and eventually managed to drive the Syrian army out of Lebanon and become prime minister.
In April this year, Lebanon marked 40 years since the beginning of the 15-year-long civil war. It started with clashes between Palestinians and Maronite militias.
As a result of the war, Palestinians lost their positions in Lebanon, were squeezed out of the south and became a deprived mass of refugees in overcrowded camps, and Lebanon acquired that balance between all the different ethno-religious groups that gives the country its unique charm.
Many believe today that the world order that emerged after WWII is coming to an end. The process that started with the reunification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the European Union, resurgence of NATO and Western invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot bypass the Middle East and its heart, Lebanon. After all, it was WWII that defined borders in the Middle East.
If a makeover is inevitable, this means all the elements of the picture are going to change – not just of countries, but also political parties, movements and military groupings.
The process of recarving the world is getting closer and closer to Beirut.
This is why “garbage” matters – because it always stinks.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.