BEIRUT (Reuters) - The overpowering stench of the rubbish piling up in Lebanon's streets has become a potent symbol of the political rot protesters blame not only for the garbage crisis but a gridlocked sectarian power system unable to meet citizens’ most basic needs, from electricity to water, health to education.
As mounds of rubbish steam in the heat and humidity of the Lebanese summer, the broad-based movement of civic protest in the streets has taken aim at politicians with its campaign slogan: “You Stink”.
The government’s failure to deal with a breakdown in rubbish disposal it knew was coming has become a metaphor for the rot at the heart of a state that, beyond military and security functions, has all but ceased to function. The last thing a Middle East in meltdown needs is for Lebanon, barely recovered from its own 15-year civil war, to become another failed state.
For the "You Stink" crowd, the rubbish in the streets is the last straw. Not just most Lebanese but even some politicians agree the system is corrupt and broken.
Tammam Salam, the Sunni Muslim prime minister, said that serious as it, the uncollected waste is merely a manifestation of the “political garbage” crisis afflicting Lebanon.
“What we're concerned about is the continued steady erosion of the institutions, which is a fact, that’s why people take to the streets, there is a lot of inefficiency, there is no reform, and the government is not able to execute whatever decision it takes," said one Western diplomat.
"It's a pity to see this erosion at a time when the region is in crisis, when you have nothing but failing states around, these basic issues can actually be quite toxic."
If anything, the garbage crisis crystallizes how those in the ruling class have hollowed and weakened state institutions in favor of parallel networks of firms they set up or benefited from to provide major services.
The crisis began when the government did not extend the contract of the private company in charge of rubbish collection just as Lebanon's main landfill went beyond its capacity and could no longer process more waste. The company, Sukleen, is associated in Lebanon with Sunni leader Saad al-Hariri.
Two months on, the government has still failed to replace Sukleen. Six private firms, also connected to the ruling elite, failed to win the contract to remove rubbish because the fees they quoted turned out to be much higher than Sukleen.
In the eyes of the protesters, the mess is the result of corruption and incompetence at the heart of government, where lucrative contracts are routinely fought over by firms allied to politicians.
The demands of the protesters, who have broken down the traditional sectarian borders, vary from calling for the resignation of the environment minister to wanting an overhaul of Lebanon’s system of government, an end to the parallel state and, more and more, for new parliamentary and presidential elections.
Divisions between Lebanon’s 17 sects, unbridged since the 1975-90 civil war, have been widened by the conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims across the region. The Christians who played a dominant role before the war are divided between the two sides.
After the civil war, power was ostensibly redistributed, with parliament divided equally between Christians and Muslims, with a quota system for all sects in public office.
Far from recasting the sectarian system behind a new national consensus, the system solidified it – encouraged by Syria which occupied the country between 1976 and 2005.
When Syria was forced out after the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, the Sunni prime minister who presided over the rebuilding of post-war Lebanon, the spoils system monopolized by sectarian leaders continued unchecked.
Little was left for public investment, and aspects of the war economy carried on, with profitable provision of waste removal through private firms rather than municipal councils and power through generators, for example, rather than a functioning national electricity grid.
Institutions, meanwhile, have ground to a halt, exacerbated by the war next door in Syria, in which Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitary movement that has become Lebanon’s most powerful actor, has intervened to prevent President Bashar al-Assad being overwhelmed by an array of Sunni rebel groups.
But the rot had set in long before the uprising in Syria.
Parliament, where MPs are seen more as entrepreneurs than legislators, has not passed a national budget since 2005.
In the fight between Hezbollah and the Sunni-led government that followed the 2006 war with Israel, Lebanon could not assemble a cabinet or elect a president until 2008.
In the present paralysis, elections to parliament have twice been postponed, with deputies awarding themselves an extension. Successive attempts to elect a president failed as boycotts, mainly by Hezbollah and its Christian allies, left parliament inquorate.
The current caretaker government led by Salam, scion of a leading Sunni family, came after a year without a government.
Few people can tell the difference, since factional antagonism between the sects means it often lacks a quorum to meet and takes decisions even more rarely.
Bitter divisions within the Maronite Christian community mean Lebanon has been over a year without a president who, under the sectarian power-sharing 1989 Taif agreement that ended the civil war, is always a Christian.
“They cannot put people in a rubbish bag for a month and half and not expect them to do anything. They already have no power, no water and no jobs. People exploded. People went out to say enough is enough”, says a Sunni politician aligned with Hariri.
“Ordinary citizens are asking for jobs, electricity, water and denouncing us as corrupt”, says Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze minority who has often been a kingmaker in Lebanon’s complex sectarian equation.
“I am the first who said I am not innocent. It is for others now to say the same”, Jumblatt told Reuters. “I don’t want to name names, I am part of this political class which has been broadly denounced by the public. I have been part of this political class for more than 38 years”.
Jumblatt inherited power from his father, Kamal Jumblatt, assassinated in 1977, just as Saad Hariri inherited his position from his murdered father in 2005. The same pattern obtains across most of Lebanon's sects.
These sectarian dynasties have found it easy to usurp citizens’ rights in a system where there is little public provision of services or welfare, and their co-religionists look to them to provide everything from jobs and preferment to education and even security.
Kamal Hamdan, who runs Lebanon's “Consultation and Research Institute” said the 2015 World Bank report estimates that Lebanon’s confessional political system costs the country around 15 percent of its gross domestic product or national output.
“A huge number of employees are given jobs according to sectarian distributions, quotas and allocations as part of the redistribution of revenue practiced by the political class to keep hold of its sect for electoral calculations."
He said the economic situation was tragic and public debt, now close to one and a half times the size of the economy, was on the rise.
“This confessional system is not only corrupt. It is built on vested interests by all the sects (whose leaders) keep their grip on their people... The politicians have devoured Lebanon,” Hamdan said.
Many hope the crisis will create a rare opportunity for a civil movement to pile pressure on the ruling class to stop usurping powers and ensure new parliamentary elections that could lead to presidential polls.
Shi'ite Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri has already responded to the demonstrations by calling rival politicians to a Sept.9 "dialogue" but previous attempts have failed.
“We must boost this dynamic democratic movement to restore a public service mentality based on laws, transparency and give people the right to good education, jobs, housing,” Hamdan said.
Many of the sectarian leaders under fire are warning the protesters they risk sowing chaos. They contend the protests, taking place while war rages next door in Syria, will jeopardize Lebanon's fragile stability.
But analysts, diplomats and even some politicians, say the erosion of the institutions is the real threat.
"No one should ring the alarm bell that these protests will cause civil war," says Gibran Araiji, a pro-Syrian politician. "They (leaders) have made the institutions dysfunctional under the pretext of preserving stability but collecting garbage, providing water, electricity must not be neglected."
editing by Janet McBride