Play it again, Salam. Lebanon’s garbage protest won’t spurn crisis

Friday 02/10/2015
Lebanese demonstrators gather at Beirut’s Zaitunay Bay during a protest against the privatisation of public spaces, on September 1st.

There is an endearing scene in the Holly­wood classic Casa­blanca in which the police prefect (Claude Rains) berates the night club owner (Humphrey Bogart) as his officers cause mayhem behind him while closing down an illegal casino.
“I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” says Rains’ Captain Louis Renault as one of the casino’s workers hands him a wad of bills.
“Your winnings, sir,” says the casino employee.
“Ah, yes, thank you,” he replies.
Surely Lebanon has almost reached this farcical level in which the script writers are going to be sent over. As I write this, Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam is in New York discussing “progress” as his tiny homeland cannot deal with its own garbage crisis while regular water and electricity remain strangers to most folks in Lebanon.
Salam has an opportunity though and one he is patently squandering. Never before has the subject of colossal corruption been so aptly placed under the spotlight. Yet this diplomatic turtle, who is largely liked but considered ineffective, refuses to move at the required pace.
The conspiracy theories are abundant. But the “You Stink” movement has made headway into at least voicing an opinion, which is simply that the current confes­sional carve up of Lebanon is an outdated system.
The tacit deal struck between the corrupt political elite and the masses no longer works. The former was supposed to help itself to what was considered to be a reasonable bung in return for keeping peace in the country and making sure basic services at least function.
However, it is unlikely that the current format of protesting is likely to hurl Lebanon into the abyss.
Recent protests saw more than 400 injured but with no real impact on the establishment or the media, which the establishment controls.
What the protests are doing, however, is creating the basis of chaos for the Hezbollah bloc and its allies to argue that Michel Aoun is the solution. Aoun has been promoting himself as the next Christian president for Lebanon, while the Sunni-led opposition bloc has come out and largely supported the movement in its call for a complete overhaul of the system. But it is Lebanon’s own Magna Carta that will be the first victim of any coup if the Aounists get their way.
Some have recently linked the growing demonstrations sur­rounding the garbage crisis with the apparent intention of Hezbol­lah and Aoun to annul the post- Taif constitutional system.
The problem for Aoun, though, is if he were to succeed in doing this, it might cause too much civil unrest and possibly a crisis in the country. Central to the problem of instability is corruption and how politicians, bereft of the large cash payments from Arab countries, have had to diversify from embezzling public funds to the private sector.
It says a lot about the state of the country though when one of the dons culpable of having his hand in the till, Druze eccentric Walid Jumblatt, openly admits his “wrongdoing” and makes the point that journalists have done a poor job if it is only his name on the list.
You cannot make it up.
For the moment, the momentum of public support the “You Stink” movement has is impressive. But the political players are waiting patiently to see how much stamina the followers have, while their own compromise plan to handle the waste will garner more support once the rains come — and contaminated water from the rubbish permeates the water system.
Of most of these youngsters in the movement who I have spoken to, none are bothered which political camp gets chucked out of the boat, such is their anger and determination for change.
Lebanon needs a new system from scratch though and this is really the most far-fetched scenario for an outcome. If the movement can produce chaos, then the instability may well be the basis of suspending the cabinet altogether and allowing the army to temporarily run the country — not a bad thing at all. Most Lebanese are confident that the soldiers could at least organise water, electricity and garbage collection.
In fact, it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.