Nadim Shehadi
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme
For some, piles of uncollected rubbish represent the failure of Lebanon's political system. But picking apart the country's power structure may prove very dangerous.
Graffiti reading in Arabic 'tomorrow is a better day' is sprayed above piles of rubbish in Beirut on 28 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Graffiti reading in Arabic 'tomorrow is a better day' is sprayed above piles of rubbish in Beirut on 28 July 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

It is deeply engrained in Lebanese popular culture that politics is a dirty business and that politicians are an untrustworthy bunch of people, a separate class of their own. No Lebanese mother would encourage her son to join this dishonorable profession. It is therefore not surprising that barely 10 years after the Cedar Revolution that ousted Syrian troops from Lebanon, the Lebanese are back on the street, this time to oust their own politicians.

The protest movement, triggered by the government’s failure to collect rubbish, is aptly called #YouStink and is led by youth and civil society activists who, being opposed to politicians, claim to be ‘non-political’. They see the piles of rubbish as symptomatic of the failure not only of the political class but also of the Lebanese political system and its odd formula of communal power sharing that some protesters see as the root of the problem.

A long debate over reform

This is not new: for the best part of the 20th century the Lebanese argued about the nature of the state. The system remained an extension of an old Ottoman model led by a long-established elite composed of different sects. These political families divide the cake among themselves and their clients and thus maintain a more or less peaceful coexistence in a weak state.

Most of the conflicts and political crises that Lebanon has been through since independence have been about reforming this system. In the Lebanese civil war, the left-wing pro-Palestinian side had a declared agenda of abolishing what they perceived as a corrupt sectarian system. Their aim was a modern, secular, sovereign state providing services to a cohesive and homogenous citizenry, a model best represented in the region by movements like Kemalism, Nasserism and Baathism.

The civil war ended with the 1989 Taif agreement, which consolidated the old system instead of abolishing it. The agreement also charged Lebanon’s neighbour, Syria, with stabilizing the country. Much of the old political families were marginalized and a new class emerged that had participated in the war. Between 1991 and 2005 the Syrian regime tried to clone itself in Lebanon. Its security services − or Mokhabarat − penetrated every institution, be it the army, parliament, political parties, government ministries or even the church and mosque. The instruments of control were the same in both countries, and Syrian officers and their clients got rich. Corruption in the system became endemic and those who did not collaborate with the Syrian regime were imprisoned, exiled or killed.

After 2005 the main division in the country was between those who wanted to reverse the Syrian cloning process and those who wanted to complete it. The country was paralyzed by the tug of war between both sides. Efforts were made at compromise but, in the end, nothing worked and the limbo reached institutions like the presidency, parliament, army, judiciary and, of course, the cabinet. The current revolts can best be understood as part of a process of transition, both from the civil war and from Syrian occupation.

Political paralysis

While the protestors mean business and are genuinely seeking change, their claim to be non-political is unsustainable because the causes of the paralysis are deeply political. They are for now limiting themselves to the issue of rubbish collection, attacking the prime minister and the ministers of the environment and interior, who are probably the least corrupt and most inoffensive of the political establishment. They are carefully avoiding the scary ones − those with armed militias − who are the real problem.

If the protestors succeed in reforming refuse collection they will have to move on to other issues like control of customs in the port or airport, or the paralysis in the electricity sector. There they will face major problems, especially if they choose to confront any of Hezbollah’s interests. The protestors are aware of that danger and tread carefully: they did not include the image of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, in the poster with photos of politicians for fear of provoking violent retaliation. When a TV station did include his photo with other politicians under the slogan ‘all of them means all of them’, thugs attacked the stage and the photo was removed. The last time that the government tried to limit Hezbollah’s influence was in May 2008, which resulted in the militia attacking Beirut.

The movement also needs have a serious discussion about objectives, what reform means and defining the real problem. Lebanon’s sectarian system has withstood the test of time. Inclusivity and power sharing is part of Lebanese civility, and blaming the system for all the problems is wrong. Developments in the region have also shown that strong secular nationalist states can be just as corrupt and can also fail. The Arab Spring is, in fact, a revolt against such a model. In neighbouring Syria − as in Iraq and Libya − it is being dismantled at great cost and there is no clear vision of what will replace it. Having failed to acquire such a model Lebanon has nothing to dismantle and the Lebanese have about 60 years head start in living together without it.

In the Beirut Spring of 2005 the Lebanese managed to expel a 30,000 strong Syrian army through peaceful protests.  In 2015, the revolt against their own political class may prove more complicated and perhaps even more dangerous. 

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