Lebanon cabinet meets to discuss waste crisis after weekend protests

Friday 21/08/2015
General battle against political class

BEIRUT - Lebanon's cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the country's waste crisis after weekend protests that began in response to the problem of uncollected trash evolved into calls for the government's resignation.

The cabinet meeting is the first since the demonstrations that brought thousands of people into central Beirut to decry government impotence.

The session, headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, is intended to discuss awarding new contracts for rubbish collection across the country, including in the capital and its surroundings.

But ahead of the meeting, ministers expressed doubts about the costs of the new contracts, and it was unclear whether the cabinet, which has been deadlocked by political disputes for months, would be able to take any decisions.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets on Saturday and Sunday for demonstrations organised by the "You Stink" campaign.

The protests were sparked by a collection crisis that saw garbage pile up in Beirut and beyond.

The demonstrations have now evolved into an outlet for deep-rooted, broad-based frustration over political stagnation, corruption and crumbling infrastructure.

Over the weekend, Salam acknowledged protesters' frustrations and warned that his government risked becoming irrelevant if it cannot address the public's concerns.

"We're heading towards collapse if things continue as they are," he cautioned.

But it was unclear whether Tuesday's cabinet session could solve the problems that brought protesters out for a rare display of non-sectarian anger on a social issue.

The 18-month old government will discuss a list announced on Monday of companies that have qualified for waste removal contracts across Lebanon.

The list, announced by Environment Minister Mohammed Mashnuq, quickly drew fire from activists who said the companies were tied to a range of influential political figures and would charge exorbitant prices.

Several cabinet ministers have also criticised the collection costs.

Lebanon already pays some of the world's highest per-ton waste collection rates, and local media said the companies recommended for the new contracts were set to raises prices even more.

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 valleys.

Mashnuq on Monday refused to be drawn on where the trash could go.

Local media said that even if a solution was found, it could take up to six months for new contractors to begin collecting and disposing of Beirut's waste.

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 press 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.