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Why Lebanon is protesting over garbage

A November 1 protest over garbage collection in Beirut.
A November 1 protest over garbage collection in Beirut.
(Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Karantina, a lower-income section of Lebanon's capital Beirut, is under siege. But the attackers aren't an enemy army — they're flies.

Lebanon's Daily Star, in a piece published on Monday, described "swarms" of flies "devouring Karantina neighborhoods," covering items on the street "like sesame seeds." Abou Saleh, one of roughly a dozen Karantina residents interviewed by the Star, called the onslaught "unnatural." And it's not just flies: "The rats, don't get me started on them," Saleh added. "They enter our homes ... my daughter was bitten by a rat on her chin one month ago."

The reason for the pest infestation is simple: There's trash, everywhere, and no one's picking it up. This isn't an isolated incident; garbage collection is broken in Lebanon, and it's a huge issue. A months-old protest campaign called "YouStink" has put together street protests, demanding that Lebanon get clean.

The origins of the trash crisis

An impromptu garbage dump on the streets of Beirut.
(Ratib Al Safadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

This all began in July, when the Lebanese government closed a landfill.

The Naameh landfill, just south of Beirut, used to serve most of the Beirut area. But it was overtaxed: Voice of America reported that by late July, it held more than five times as much trash as it was supposed to. Amid complaints by locals and activists, the government was forced to shut it down on July 17.

But officials didn't have a backup plan for getting rid of Beirut's garbage. Sukleen, Beirut's garbage collection company, just stopped collecting trash two days after Naameh's closure, saying its own dumps were full. Trash began to pile up everywhere, roasting in the summer sun.

If it seems like an obvious foul-up by Lebanon's government — well, it was.

"The problem is a long-term issue that had been flagged by the Ministry of Environment and Lebanese activists months earlier," Maha Yahya, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes. "The ministry failed to launch a process through which to identify a sustainable and eco-friendly solution to this crisis, including working with the municipalities to sort garbage at the source, which would have been a more cost-effective option."

Lebanon's citizens were furious. Just eight days after Naameh's closure, a coalition of activists called "YouStink" formed, putting together a roughly 1,000-strong protest in downtown Beirut. The protests grew in late August as the trash crisis dragged on.

These protests are really about Lebanon's corrupt political system

Activists dumped out a trash bin in front of the Environment Ministry in Beirut. Point made.
(Bilal Jawich/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images))

According to Transparency International, Lebanon is the sixth most corrupt country in the Middle East and North Africa, tied with Iran, after Libya, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen.

Since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the country's elites have used the government services as personal patronage networks. Things like trash collection become fronts for funneling money to leaders' friends and political allies, weakening the government's ability to provide basic services. The YouStink protests are the expression of long-simmering anger at this state of affairs.

"Private utility service providers directly associated with the ruling elite have taken advantage of the shortage of public services such as household electricity and water, waste management and reconstruction," Jamil Mouawad, a research associate at the Institut Français du Proche Orient, writes in the Guardian. "They have gradually hollowed out state public institutions. The rubbish crisis is a clear example of this."

Lebanon is a famously divided country: The country's slim Muslim majority is divided between Sunni and Shia; about 40 percent of the country is Christian. Lebanon's "confessional" political system is explicitly designed to keep the peace between three groups: By law, the president must be Christian, the speaker of the parliament must be Shia, and the prime minister must be Sunni.

In practice, however, there's still an enormous amount of political competition between the groups. This can play into even the garbage collection crisis.

"The country’s politicians have bickered and, apparently, engaged in secret backroom negotiations over which company should be awarded the lucrative garbage collection contracts. As so often, the talks took on a sectarian flavor when multiple bids were launched based on geographic or sectarian considerations," Yahya writes.