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Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems
Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems
Picking Up the Pieces One Year After the Beirut Port Blast
Picking Up the Pieces One Year After the Beirut Port Blast
Lebanese protesters are sprayed with water during a protest against corruption and against the government’s failure to resolve a crisis over rubbish disposal, near the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon on 23 August 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanon’s Un-collected Problems

Crisis Group’s Lebanon Senior Analyst Sahar Atrache examines the underlying causes of the crisis and the possible scenarios that Lebanon faces.

Protests over corruption and political dysfunction are growing in Lebanon. Clashes between protesters and security forces have left dozens wounded over the last few days, increasing instability in a country highly polarised along politico-sectarian fault lines, threatened not long ago by sectarian clashes and violence, and already overwhelmed by nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees, ongoing border tensions as well as kidnappings by Sunni Islamist militants.

Given the political paralysis, was it just a matter of time before these protests broke out?

Popular resentment and anger toward the political class’s abysmal performance have been building up for a long time. The sight and smell of trash submerging neighbourhoods in Beirut and elsewhere constituted a tipping point; thousands took to the streets to give public expression to mounting discontent.

The crisis started when the government, yielding to pressure from residents and activists, closed the capital’s main landfill on 17 July, without a ready alternative. Opened on a temporary basis in 1998, the Naameh landfill was supposed to be closed in 2004, but government inaction kept it in use; eleven years later it was filled far beyond capacity, contributing to heavy air and seawater pollution in the area. Criticism of the cabinet’s waste management malpractices first started on social media and was followed by symbolic actions by a handful of activists who, for example, tossed garbage bags in front of the environment minister’s residence. There were a number of small demonstrations before protests started gathering momentum on the weekend of 22-23 August.

To see all types of rubbish (from food and beverages to medical waste, plastic, paper, glass, broken and old furniture…) piling up in city streets over the past few weeks brought home the point that the country is in deep crisis. Lebanon has been without a president for over a year, its government is inactive, its parliament has unconstitutionally renewed its own mandate. State institutions have become increasingly unproductive, unable to perform their most basic responsibilities. Many Lebanese have adapted to the state’s malfunctioning and its fading service-delivery over the years by resorting to privatised alternatives. Yet a state-initiated resolution to the garbage crisis, with its unbearably repelling daily effect, is imperative if stability is to be restored.

As we argued in a report published in late July, “Lebanon’s Self-Defeating Survival Strategies”, the Lebanese political class has tried to contain an unfolding governance crisis through temporary and imperfect stopgaps, invoking regional turmoil as an excuse, while only compounding the problems. And now we have seen, in the garbage crisis, that political divisions and disagreements are so deep-rooted that even flawed stopgap measures are difficult for the government to implement.

Are the protests likely to grow? Where do you see this going?

The high turnout – around 10,000 protesters on 22 August and at least twice that number the next day – surprised most Lebanese, including the organisers themselves.

But these protests are tapping into a deeper seam and offer a rare opportunity for Lebanese disaffected with partisan politics and opposed to both the 8 March and 14 March alliances (the two major coalitions led, respectively, by Hizbollah and the Future Movement). They have been cross-regional and cross-sectarian, breaking the apathy of many who, for some time, had become indifferent to public causes, and renewing belief that mass mobilisation outside of a political-sectarian framework is still possible.

Yet, their future remains uncertain. The organisers, an array of activists and non-governmental organisations, including an ad-hoc group called “You Stink” that initiated the campaign, lack the logistical requirements to translate the protests into concrete change, hobbled as they have been by problems in coordination, communication and organisation. Some of the participants raised divisive or unrealistic slogans, such as “regime change” or the downfall of the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, which provoked Salam’s supporters to block roads in some parts of the country. The organisers eventually withdrew these demands in a press conference, but they were unable to formulate clear alternatives. If they fail to do so, protests will start to taper off.

The use of force revealed a state of panic inside the establishment.

More significantly, a number of protesters – accused of being infiltrators intent on sabotaging largely peaceful demonstrations – destroyed private and public properties in downtown Beirut on 23 August. The actions of a few might dissuade many others from participating in the protest scheduled for 29 August, after one set for 24 August was cancelled (in order to make better preparations, according to organisers).

How do you judge the security forces’ harsh response to the protesters? What could government and security forces do to keep protests as peaceful as possible?

Images of water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets fired at protesters on 22 and 23 August shocked broad segments of the population. The use of violence against peaceful protesters has become a rare exception in Lebanon since the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops. Unsurprisingly, it served as a catalyst, pushing many to take to the street to express their outrage and their solidarity with the protesters.

Moreover, the use of force revealed a state of panic inside the establishment, which seemed deeply threatened by events, even though the protesters were unarmed. Authorities even erected a concrete blast wall the next day near the prime ministry in downtown Beirut, but under public pressure were forced to dismantle it within 24 hours. Excessive force and the building of the wall have widened the gulf between the government and large segments of society, and have further discredited the political class.

While aiming to protect the government and parliament buildings, and preserving Lebanon’s stability amid regional turmoil in volatile times, the security forces’ resort to brute force threatens the country’s fragile peace. To prevent things from slipping out of control, the government, political leaders and security commanders should agree to ban the use of force other than standard riot-control techniques, issue clear and public instructions against it, and hold security personnel accountable. Moreover, the government should immediately release dozens of activists arbitrarily arrested in the past few days.

How might these protests affect the current government? What are the likely scenarios?

Regardless of the protests’ outcome, the government is barely functioning, paralysed by deep divisions among its members. The demonstrations may have raised a red flag for politicians, reminding them of the urgent need to better manage the garbage crisis and avoid total breakdown. Indeed, the government has accelerated steps to resolve the issue, selecting winning bidders for new waste collection contracts in the country’s six governorates. However, many parties, including the protesters, are suspicious of these deals, given a long history of corrupt agreements and zero outcome. A day after their announcement, the cabinet cancelled the controversial contracts, invoking the bidders’ excessively high rates.

Lebanon is likely to continue to face a deepening crisis.

On several occasions, the prime minister has expressed frustration at the government he heads, accusing his political rivals of undermining its functioning. He has even mooted the possibility of resigning. Regardless of whether he follows through, Lebanon is likely to continue to face a deepening crisis. It is unrealistic to expect major improvements in the government’s performance when its constituent parts are political rivals whose allies in Syria are engaged in a life-and-death struggle with each other. If the Salam government were to collapse, it would only extend the political crisis. The formation of a new government could take months, if not longer.

Amid these tensions, there are also risks of renewed violence and/or sectarian clashes, although the two main parties, Hizbollah and the Future Movement, have an interest in avoiding open conflict. They are both motivated by a common interest in containing Sunni extremists and preventing intra-Lebanese disputes from spinning out of control. Neither wants to exacerbate the current crisis or to see the back of the Salam government.

What about Lebanon’s main backers Saudi Arabia and Iran? Where do they stand with regard to the protests? Could/would one of them try to tip Lebanon’s “flimsy political equilibrium” as part of their regional sparring?

For now, Riyadh and Tehran have not spoken out publicly about the protests. There appears to be a tacit convergence of interest between these two rivals in preserving the country’s status quo and in not jeopardising its fragile calm while the region is a mess.

What can be done to address the root causes of the garbage crisis and get past the current episode?

In the immediate future, the political class urgently needs to strengthen the country’s immune system, first and foremost by providing a sustainable and transparent solution to the garbage crisis in particular, but also by holding long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections to put the democratic process back on track. In the longer term, if Lebanon is to avoid teetering on the edge of endless crisis, radical changes will have to be implemented.

As we argued in July, these include: reinforcing state institutions, improving the quality and delivery of essential services, addressing social and geographic disparities, ending widespread impunity by promoting a culture of accountability, refraining from interfering in the judicial process, and fighting endemic corruption within both the political system and society at large. As the protests have shown, time may be running out for a political class incapacitated by incompetence and inertia.

On 4 August 2021, the Lebanese will commemorate the first anniversary of the terrible blast in the port of Beirut. Laurent Perpigna Iban / Hans Lucas via AFP.

Picking Up the Pieces One Year After the Beirut Port Blast

The enormous explosion that ripped through Lebanon’s capital one year ago left deep socio-economic and political damage as well as physical devastation. The challenge today is not only to rebuild but also to establish accountability for the disaster and ensure better governance in the future.

The glass carpeting the streets of central Beirut on 4 August 2020 was not the only thing the port blast shattered. It decimated livelihoods, tore the city’s social fabric and broke whatever tenuous trust people still had in the political elite. One year later, the broken glass has been swept off Beirut’s streets, but little else has been fixed. The country faces an economic crisis that the World Bank describes as one of the worst in modern history. A nine-month effort by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri to form a government collapsed in mid-July, and the lack of a functioning government has impeded efforts to negotiate a much-needed International Monetary Fund stabilisation program. Mechanisms to create some measure of accountability for the devastating incident are foundering. Against this backdrop, Beirut’s reconstruction has not meaningfully progressed, beyond a handful of proposals from outside actors who seem to have no clear sense of the city’s needs. These three challenges – governance, accountability and reconstruction – must be tackled together if the city and the country are to pull themselves out of their morass.

For now, the immense and immediate storm of economic collapse, hyperinflation and political deadlock that Lebanon faces dwarfs all other issues. Without a government to formulate a coherent strategy or the political will to form one, any initiative by the Lebanese state to reconstruct Beirut or its port is unthinkable. International institutions are unwilling to disburse funds beyond immediate humanitarian relief and recovery needs without meaningful political reform. The response framework and financing strategy launched by the World Bank, European Union and UN in December 2020 demands substantial systemic change and a government to deliver on recovery and reconstruction – both of which appear a distant hope. While private companies from various countries have expressed their interest in rebuilding Beirut’s port, Lebanon’s political, economic and financial collapse does not make it a welcome investment environment for private-sector enterprises.

One year after the port explosion shattered Beirut’s centre, the search for accountability is ... stalling.

One year after the port explosion shattered Beirut’s centre, the search for accountability is also stalling. Despite government promises to shed light on the causes of the blast and hold those responsible to account, politicians have done little more than trade accusations. A domestic investigation launched days after the explosion has raised more questions about its lack of transparency and political interference than it has provided answers about the blast. While the new lead judge has requested lifting the immunity of several high-ranking politicians, the elites in power are closing ranks to protect a system that is dysfunctional in all ways but preserving their own interests.

As for reconstruction, with the political elites responsible for forming a government unable to overcome their inertia, it has fallen to ordinary Lebanese to pick up the pieces of their broken city. The blast not only destroyed vital infrastructure, leaving the port at one fifth of its normal capacity to import wheat and grains and damaging nine out of Beirut’s sixteen operating hospitals, it also razed homes, shuttered businesses and crushed much of the city’s soul. The city’s woes have been compounded by the country’s economic collapse and the shortages that flow from it. An average two to three hours of electricity a day plunge the country into darkness, as shortages and prohibitive fuel prices silence the whir of the generators on which many rely to make up for Lebanon’s failing electricity provision. With pharmacies and hospitals lacking basic medicines, the lucky Lebanese with families abroad depend on periodic care packages in the form of suitcases filled with pills and sanitary products. There is no question that to restore Beirut’s life and Beirutis’ livelihoods, urban reconstruction is imperative. The question is how to go about it.

Beirut’s urban landscape is a mirror of its multicultural society – and of its sectarian and socio-economic divisions. Sectarian symbols demarcate neighbourhoods, announcing political party affiliation and religious identity, and reproducing a divided society in a divided cityscape. The stark contrast between Bourj Hammoud’s working-class settlements and downtown Beirut’s glitzy streets and shopping malls exposes another divide – between rich and poor – that exists on a larger scale throughout the city. In Beirut, urban space is political; how it is reconstructed matters.

Here, there are lessons to learn from the past. The city is no stranger to large-scale urban reconstruction. While the civil war (1975-1990) destroyed much of Beirut’s urban and social fabric in addition to the city itself, the plan to rebuild it tore up what little remained. Post-war reconstruction was handled under an exclusive mandate awarded to the construction company Solidère, founded by then-Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which was mired in allegations of corruption. Solidère’s project to create a commercial centre and tourist hub dispossessed thousands of people and erected socio-economic barriers to the high-end retail and business facilities dominating the area. The project further entrenched social divisions and highlighted the stark difference between government priorities and the people’s needs.

It is imperative that the city’s rebuilding today does not reproduce the mismanaged reconstruction that followed the civil war.

It is imperative that the city’s rebuilding today does not reproduce the mismanaged reconstruction that followed the civil war. So far, the only concrete proposal, put forward by German construction companies, risks doing just that by focusing on high-end real estate. Instead, reconstruction plans should be informed by the needs of all of Beirut’s residents and prioritise giving local businesses the opportunity to revitalise an economy decimated by the blast, COVID-19 lockdowns and hyperinflation. These plans should allow the local population to participate in development. Most importantly, they must create spaces of inclusion rather than exclusion by enabling residents, business owners and workers to return to and rehabilitate their neighbourhoods, creating shared public spaces and preserving the social fabric of the affected areas.

In the face of the country’s slide toward collapse, many young Beirutis and others across the country are confronted with the question their parents faced a generation ago: to stay or to leave? Many with the financial means or networks to do so have already chosen to emigrate. For those who stay, things may well get worse before they get better. The city’s fate cannot be divorced from broader challenges that, so far, the country’s leaders show no signs of meeting. To place its future on a solid foundation, Lebanon’s political elites will need to come together in a government that can deliver political and economic reform and win the trust of international partners and investors. They will also need to ensure that those who bear responsibility for the explosion and the country’s literal and metaphorical collapse are held accountable. Finally, they will need to avoid the mistakes of past reconstruction efforts, so that when rebuilding eventually takes place, it prioritises the Lebanese people.