BEIRUT, Lebanon — Mohammad Rizk sat glumly in his sandwich shop on Wednesday, waiting for customers. The scent of roasting chicken mingled with the fumes of a trash pile just outside. The garbage heap, which seemed to have taken on a life of its own, now dominated the curb where his drive-by clients once idled.
Mr. Rizk, 39, has a degree in economics. Yet without clout in any of Lebanon’s sect-based political parties, he said, he could not get a job in that field, and found himself slinging shawarma in a hot hole-in-the-wall. It was a lot he accepted until this summer, when political gridlock halted trash collection, a relatively reliable public service in a country with precious few of them, and sent protesters into the streets.
“Enough. This is enough,” said Mr. Rizk, declaring that he would join the demonstrators if only he could afford to leave the shop. “No electricity — we said, O.K. No water — we said, O.K. But the trash?”
The mounting garbage piles are one indignity too far, the ultimate physical manifestation of a failed political system that has left the state unable to perform even the most basic functions — so goes the central complaint of the demonstrators, who call their movement “You Stink.”
And while Lebanon is famously divided by sect and class, it is hard to find anyone who disagrees, from the modest, mostly Shiite Beirut neighborhood of Basta, where Mr. Rizk works, to the designer boutiques and fancy restaurants of the mostly Christian Gemmayze district.
After a bloody 15-year civil war ended in 1990, power and resources in Lebanon were essentially divided up among the former combatants in a system of sectarian political patronage. The perpetual inertia of the government, ranked the fourth least efficient on earth by the World Economic Forum, obstructs everything from the grand to the mundane.
That is bad enough in ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times: The chaotic, murderous conflict next door in Syria has forced Lebanon, a nation of four million people, to shelter more than 1.3 million refugees.
“They told us that this system was preventing civil war, and that’s why the Lebanese people tolerated it,” Maroun Khoreish, a gray-haired retired general, said at a demonstration Tuesday night, where he joined a group of young activists from a range of backgrounds at a sidewalk table in front of a cigar shop. “But these young people say enough is enough. And they are right.”
The garbage crisis is only the latest and most in-your-face of the myriad ways that political dysfunction deforms the social and physical landscape.
There has not been a president for more than a year, but Lebanese barely notice, they often joke, since the government does so little for them normally. The impasses with the most noticeable effect on their lives revolve around nuts-and-bolts issues.
Despite priding themselves on a country with natural beauty, rich history and entrepreneurial citizens — some of whom flaunt fabulous wealth — Lebanese have gotten used to life laced with struggles and absurdities, so used to it that it often seems to fade into the background of more dramatic issues of war and politics.
For instance, the country cannot generate enough power to meet its needs, forcing people to pay for private generator subscriptions or go without power for hours each day.
No new power plant has been built for decades. Among the reasons: The political parties cannot agree on who would reap the spoils, and in part because the network of generator operators — politically connected, of course — would lose money.
In a nation whose water resources are the envy of some of its neighbors, municipal water flows only at certain hours on certain days. You can tell which hours — because that is when streams of water from unrepaired pipes flow down the street.
Many families use salty well water to make up the shortfall, or buy water to fill tanks for daily use. It is delivered in trucks by private companies (some of it perhaps siphoned, it is hard not to suspect, from the public supply). Then people also pay for bottled drinking water.
Teachers regularly go on strike; otherwise, said Dalal Zawawi, a schoolteacher who came to demonstrate on Wednesday, they simply would not receive their salaries on time.
Protesting, indeed, is often the only way to get grievances addressed, to the point that blocking roads with burning tires has become a tradition.
Communities south of Beirut arose in protest after a landfill near the town of Naimeh exceeded its capacity and the government repeatedly failed to come up with a solution. Demonstrators blocked the road to the landfill, touching off the trash crisis.
One such protest trapped Amer Jabali, the owner of a wedding couture shop in Gemmayze, on the road just as he was headed to the beach last month. Mr. Jabali, 53, typically deflects his country’s problems with humor; like when he posted a notice on his shop window that a sale would continue until there was a president.
But he saw the huge traffic jam, which lasted for hours with cars unable to move backward or forward, as a metaphor for the country’s self-inflicted paralysis.
Indeed, a trip to the beach — one of the few ways to cool off for families who may not be able to afford round-the-clock generators that can cost $100 or more per month — encapsulates many of the problems Lebanese find exasperating, though they have somehow lived with them for decades.
The country has long marketed itself as a beach destination, and before the civil war drew tourists from Europe seeking to water ski near downtown.
But as war and its aftermath created a free-for-all atmosphere with few controls on land use, most of the country’s waterfront has been walled off by private clubs that charge $20 or more for a day at the shore. Families who cannot afford that can swim off rocky piers or at one sewage-laced beach near central Beirut. They can also drive two hours south to Tyre.
On the way, they pass a Turkish ship anchored off Sidon that generates electricity. They also pass through tunnels that periodically go completely dark because of power cuts.
The indignities occur even during protests against indignities. Demonstrators who were detained overnight said they had been forced to pay $30 apiece for urine tests for drugs that the security forces had required.
The stasis of the state also puts off major decisions, often exacerbating problems — most dramatically, the government’s failure to plan for the influx of refugees from Syria, who now make up one in three people in Lebanon.
Now, even Syrians fleeing war pronounce themselves shocked at the lack of infrastructure in Lebanon. Some of them, however, express a hint of jealousy that Lebanon’s weak state allows freedoms unavailable in Syria, where protests were crushed with deadly force. (Some Lebanese — especially those who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad — wonder why the Syrians revolted when they had free health care and college education, unimaginable in Lebanon.)
Back in Basta, a grocer sat motionless in a chair, watching flies from a nearby garbage pile swarm over his vegetables and reaching what he described as existential despair.
“I am living against my will,” he said. “I am obliged to live.”
One shopper, Mona Ramadan, covered her mouth with her head scarf against the stench. She said she had gone to the demonstrations, not only because food was rotting in her refrigerator because of power cuts, but also because economic woes were forcing her family to live apart: Two of her five children had gone abroad to find work and another was about to leave.
“I’m suffocating,” she said. “We are living in stagnation.”
Rania Hijazi, a housewife from Basta, stepped over garbage to pick through the vegetables, murmuring angry words: “May God send all the politicians to hell.”
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(via NY Times)