Lebanon cabinet ends meeting with no solution to trash crisis

Friday 21/08/2015
Paralysed by political disagreements

BEIRUT - Lebanon\'s cabinet ended an acrimonious meeting on Tuesday with no solution to a trash crisis that has sparked protests and calls for the government\'s resignation.
After more than five hours of talks, the cabinet decided to reject a list of tenders for waste management contracts across Lebanon and refer the issue to a ministerial committee for review.
\"Given the high prices (quoted by would-be contractors), the council of ministers has decided not to approve the tenders and is charging the ministerial committee with finding alternatives,\" a cabinet statement said.
The decision came after a session that saw six ministers from one political bloc walk out.
For months, the 18-month-old government has been paralysed by political disagreements between its two main blocs, rendering decision-making virtually impossible.
The cabinet meeting came after a weekend of protests that began over a trash crisis but evolved into an outlet for deep-seated frustrations at the government\'s impotence.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets on Saturday and Sunday for demonstrations organised by the \"You Stink\" campaign.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Tammam Salam acknowledged protesters\' frustrations and warned that his government risked becoming irrelevant if it could not address the public\'s concerns.
\"We\'re heading towards collapse if things continue as they are,\" he cautioned.
But Tuesday\'s cabinet meeting appeared unable to resolve the issues that brought protesters out for a rare display of non-sectarian anger on a social issue.
It was intended to discuss a list announced Monday of companies that qualified to bid for new waste removal contracts across Lebanon.
The list had drawn fire from activists who said the firms were tied to political figures and were seeking exorbitant prices.
Several cabinet ministers also criticised the proposed costs ahead of the cabinet meeting.
Lebanon already pays some of the world\'s highest per-ton waste collection rates, and local media said the companies sought to raise prices further.
The core of the crisis, which erupted after the closure of the landfill serving Beirut and its surroundings, also remains unaddressed.
When the Naameh landfill closed on July 17, the government failed to identify sites for new landfills or alternative arrangements.
In the absence of a solution, trash began piling up on the streets, until local municipalities started finding temporary solutions -- dumping in empty lots, river beds and even forests.
Tuesday\'s cabinet statement made no mention of potential landfill solutions.
But it said $100 million (around 87 million euros) of development money was being allocated to the northern Akkar region, which has been proposed as a potential landfill site by some politicians.
Local media said even after new waste management contracts were approved, it could take up to six months for the collection and disposal of Beirut\'s waste to begin.
On Monday, the leaders of the protest movement said they were regrouping after violence erupted at the weekend demonstrations.
They blamed the clashes on \"troublemakers\", but also acknowledged that they needed time to organise better.
They called for a new demonstration on Saturday night against Lebanon\'s \"corrupt political class\".
\"In the beginning, this was a battle over the trash issue... But now there is a general battle against the political class,\" organiser Marwan Maalouf said at a news conference.
Experts said the protests had become a rare outlet for Lebanese frustrated by an out-of-touch political elite and an atmosphere of impunity.
\"People are on the streets because they feel that at every level there is no one there for them,\" said Maha Yahya, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank.
\"It\'s an alarm bell for all the political leadership.\"
Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year, and parliament has twice extended its own mandate since the last elections in 2009.
The cabinet has been unable to make decisions for months because of deadlock between two main political blocs.
The country has long suffered chronic electricity and water problems and has seen its resources stretched further by an influx of more than a million Syrian refugees.