Something is rotten in the state of Lebanon. Back in August a group of young activists took to the streets of Beirut to launch the “You Stink” campaign. Precipitated by the huge mounds of uncollected garbage polluting streets around the country, “You Stink” refers not only to the foul smell that pervades urban areas in Lebanon, but also to the rampant corruption of the Lebanese political system. The movement’s demands range from indicting the minister of environment for failing to manage the rubbish crisis, to conducting new parliamentary elections.
That was in August. A move to remedy matters in September broke down, and by early November the situation had deteriorated. Lebanon’s Daily Star described swarms of flies covering trash on the street “like sesame seeds.” Abou Saleh, a resident of Karantina, a lower-income section of Beirut, said: “And it’s not just flies. The rats enter our homes. My daughter was bitten by a rat on her chin a month ago.”
Unfortunately, corruption is ripe in Lebanon, compounded by the fact that the presidency has been vacant for more than eighteen months, and the parliament has been self-perpetuating itself for as long. Effectively, the rubbish crisis lies at the heart of the way that the state was redesigned in 1990 in post-civil war Lebanon. Ever since, the country’s leading figures have insisted that the state institutions charged with providing public utility services are weak and incapable. Using this as an excuse, some of them began supporting and promoting private utility services, turning them into personal patronage networks. Services like garbage collection, household electricity, water, waste management and reconstruction became fronts for funnelling money to leaders’ friends and political allies.
Over time, asserts Jamil Mouawad, a research associate at the Institut Français du Proche Orient, these practices hollowed out state public institutions, and lined the pockets of private suppliers. “Private utility service providers directly associated with the ruling elite have taken advantage of the shortage of public services.”
The garbage crisis erupted when the government did not renew the contract of Sukleen, the private company responsible for waste collection and street sweeping in greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The reality of piles of foul-smelling garbage on the streets brought the Lebanese face to face with the failure of their government. They could feel it and smell it.
The paralysis in effective government is exemplified by the fact that Lebanon has held no parliamentary elections since 2009 even though, according to the constitution, elections are supposed to be held every 4 years. The trouble is that the constitution requires parliament to elect a president every 6 years for a single term in office, but when President Michel Suleiman’s term ended in April 2014, parliament was unable to agree on a new candidate – and has been unable to do so for the past eighteen months. While the wheeling and dealing process wound its tortuous course, parliament has been renewing its own mandate, and MPs have not had to face re-election.
In point of fact the parliamentary Speaker, Nabih Berri, has called at least 30 sessions for the purpose of electing a new president, but on each occasion parliament has been unable to reach a quorum because MPs from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, and its ally Michel Aoun’s Change and Reform bloc, have boycotted the sessions.
Effective governance in Lebanon is bedevilled by two contradictory factors – on the one hand, the constitutional sectarian power-sharing system; on the other the fact that the Iranian-inspired and backed terrorist organization, Hezbollah, has managed to infiltrate itself into the body politic so effectively that it has become a state within a state.
In August Lebanon was favoured with a visit from Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran has been blamed for the impasse by many Middle East observers. They believe that Iran does not want a president in Lebanon for the time being, and is working behind the scenes to abolish the 1989 Taif accord, adopted after the Lebanese civil war. Taif adjusted the traditional balance of power in Lebanon, but still required the president to be from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister to be Sunni Muslim, the parliamentary speaker Shia, and the deputy speaker and deputy prime minister to be Greek Orthodox. Such an arrangement hardly accords with the underlying religious aims of the Iranian Islamic Republic or its Supreme Leader.
Nevertheless, the latest indications are that a compromise candidate may indeed be emerging. Suleiman Franjieh, who heads the Christian Marada party, is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and therefore has the backing of Iran and Hezbollah. But Franjieh is also expected to win the endorsement of Saad al-Hariri, whose Future Movement is backed by Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. The two men are reported to have met in Paris recently. The delicacy of such arrangements is exemplified by the fact that Hariri’s father, Rafik, was assassinated on the streets of Beirut in 2005, and although the investigation into his death is still on-going, it is widely believed that Hezbollah terrorists, backed by Syrian President Assad, were responsible.
Meanwhile, on November 20, journalist Nayla Tueni, one of the few female members of parliament in Lebanon, bemoaned the fact that Lebanon was still suffering from a presidential vacuum as it marked its 72nd Independence Day on November 22.
“The country is like an old man,” she wrote, “no longer capable of keeping up with ordinary life. State institutions’ work is almost at a standstill.”
Like Saad Hariri, Nayla Tueni endured the assassination of her father, Gebran. A fierce critic of the Syrian government and its policies in Lebanon, he too was killed by a car bomb in Beirut, just ten months after Rafik Hariri. It took seven years for two Syrian officers to be indicted, in October 2012, accused of Tueni’s murder.
“Electing a president will not protect us from terrorism,” writes Nayla Tueni, a week after a double suicide bombing in south Beirut left 43 people dead and 239 wounded in the Shia-majority district of Burj al-Barajneh. But she believes that electing a president would restore regularity to the work of institutions that have lost citizens’ trust.
“The cabinet has failed to resolve the trash crisis due to sectarian divisions,” she writes. “One party names a candidate, another vetoes him. It is all a waste of time, and a violation of the constitution as long as someone obstructs electing a president and boycotts parliamentary sessions on the matter. The collapse of the country will hurt everyone.”
And indeed Lebanon stands on the brink of collapse.