Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Don’t be fooled by the trash talk in Lebanon

The recent demonstrations in Beirut against the government have prompted many people to describe what is happening in superlatives. While the effect shouldn’t be underestimated, it’s a mistake to assume the actions represent a fundamental challenge to the Lebanese political system.

The demonstrations against the government were provoked by the rubbish collection crisis, which began in July when the site that took refuse from Beirut and Mount Lebanon was closed down. The government failed to find an alternative location and waste soon accumulated all over the country.

Public anger led to the formation of groups demanding a solution to the crisis, but also denouncing the corruption of the political class – whose efforts to redistribute the profits from refuse collection was behind the crisis in the first place. This led to a widening of the protests as everyone with a beef against the state became part of a burgeoning effort to condemn the government.

Large demonstrations took place the last two weekends, with four conditions set by activists: firstly, the resignation of the environment minister, who oversees rubbish dumps. Secondly, an inquiry to determine who among the security forces fired at protesters two weeks ago and the resignation of the interior minister if he was responsible. Thirdly, parliamentary elections, which have twice been delayed and, finally, a sustainable solution to the refuse crisis, coupled with an investigation of the waste-management sector.

The government was given 72 hours to meet these demands. It horribly mismanaged the situation by ignoring them and, on Tuesday, activists took over the environment ministry to force the minister’s resignation. But beyond giving the government serious headaches, what can the activists really do to change the system?

For a partial answer it’s useful to compare what is happening today to the demonstrations in 2005, following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

At the time, protests took place for weeks on end, bringing together people of different sects under a single demand: a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, given Syria’s likely role in Mr Hariri’s killing. The protests culminated in a rally of one million people at Martyrs Square on March 14, 2005. By the end of April, Syria had pulled out its forces after a 29-year presence.

The ensuing euphoria led to a misinterpretation of what had happened. Like today, there were those who saw the protests and the unity shown by all as signs that the Lebanese had transcended sectarianism and that a new national identity had replaced it. The same talk can be heard today. Yet what happened in 2005 was inherently sectarian. Most of those demonstrating did so with the encouragement of their sectarian leaders, while supporting parochial political agendas. The power of the anti-Syrian rallies came from the fact that everyone came to Martyrs Square for their own reasons. The Lebanese were joined through their differences and their hostility to Syria.

Indeed, once the Syrians left, the different groups began to fragment. By the time parliamentary elections were held, the Lebanese were again bitterly divided and the idealistic interpretations that had accompanied the anti-Syrian demonstrations had disappeared.

While the protesters today are not being manipulated by sectarian leaders, the fact that there is cross-sectarian disgust with the incompetence of the state is unlikely to change much. The protesters have limited means to implement their demands and replace sectarian politicians. They can continue demonstrating, but this is a tactic with diminishing returns. The longer they rally the more they will be contested.

Nor is Lebanese society in any mood to challenge sectarian leaders. It is easy to denounce the political class in general, but when it comes to specifics people respond differently. For instance, while many poor Sunnis are bitter with systematic government negligence, they regard the demonstrations against prime minister Tammam Salam as targeting the post of the Sunni prime minister.

The denunciation of sectarianism is a common theme adopted by Lebanese who have a more modern vision of what should constitute a national identity. However, sectarianism is deeply rooted in the culture, and has gained in legitimacy because it has spawned a paradoxical form of liberalism. Paradoxical, because sectarianism is thoroughly antithetical to liberal principles.

How has it done so? Lebanon’s sectarian groups are collectively more powerful than the state, so political and social life has been shaped by interaction between these groups and their leaders. Such interaction – usually defined by compromise and pluralism – has, however, created spaces where state control is minimal and in which the Lebanese can enjoy significant liberty.

This system, with all its faults, contrasts with the authoritarianism throughout the Arab world. The Lebanese denounce their politicians, but also retain the freedom to denounce them. The system has not worked well, but it creates a sense of identity and security. Writing it off is a fool’s venture, and those honest people who want profound change in Lebanon should bear it in mind.

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