BEIRUT, Lebanon — The haplessness of the Lebanese government was evident on Tuesday when its attempts to contain a political crisis over festering garbage were thwarted on several fronts.
After the Environment Ministry presented the cabinet with a set of bids for new garbage collection contracts, members of Hezbollah, the country’s most powerful political party, called them extravagantly high and “a farce” and walked out of the meeting. The cabinet then rejected the bids, with no end in sight to the crisis over carting away the country’s refuse.
Meanwhile, outside the Grand Serail, the ornate government headquarters where the meeting took place, a crane took away sections of a concrete wall that had been erected the day before to shield the building from growing protests over the crisis. The wall was so widely mocked that Prime Minister Tammam Salam ordered it removed on Tuesday, but not before it had been covered with graffiti criticizing government corruption.
The public has grown increasingly infuriated over the government’s inability to collect garbage that has been piling up for weeks during the hottest months of the summer. The garbage has also become a symbol of all the basic services that Lebanon’s gridlocked, ineffective government has failed to deliver for years. The protest movement inspired by the crisis, known as “You Stink,” has drawn people from a broad spectrum of Lebanese political and social groups that are often at odds with one another.
The protests boiled over into violence over the weekend as thousands of demonstrators poured into downtown Beirut and the police tried to disperse them with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Some in the crowd responded by throwing rocks.
Afterward, as protest leaders debated whether to keep their movement focused on specific demands about garbage or to call for a broader overhaul of the country’s rickety political system, the new bids for garbage collection were revealed.
The bidding was meant to find lower-cost replacements for companies like Sukleen, which collected trash in and around Beirut for years and charged double or triple the tonnage rates other cities in the region paid. But many of the new bids came in even higher than Sukleen’s rates. Echoing the protesters, politicians across the political spectrum condemned the bids as far too high.
Making matters worse, the overflowing landfill where Beirut’s trash had been going was closed in July, and the government has yet to find an alternative.
In its first statement since the large protests over the weekend, Hezbollah said on Tuesday that the garbage crisis was a result of “accumulated rampant corruption during the last two decades” that could have been averted if the government had taken Hezbollah’s advice.
Though Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist organization by the United States and its allies, the militant group is an influential political party. Unlike some of its rivals, it produces detailed plans for addressing the country’s practical problems, like water management, electricity and infrastructure, though the country’s political gridlock generally prevents the plans from being carried out. Though Hezbollah has less of a reputation for corruption than some other parties, its opponents say it benefits just as much from the country’s sectarian political patronage system as its rivals do.
It was significant that Hezbollah did not oppose the You Stink protests. In a statement, Hezbollah endorsed “the right to peaceful protest and the right to object,” adding that “constructive objection is legitimate, considering that fair solutions will calm down the people and lead to action for the benefit of the people.”
Rola Amhaz, a government employee, declared after hearing about the garbage bids that she would join the next big You Stink protest, scheduled for Saturday. The inflated prices showed, she said, that “every leader has his man in the bidding — this shouldn’t be acceptable.”
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(via NY Times)