The summer of 2015 was a ‘stinky’ summer in Lebanon. Mountains of garbage began to pile up across Beirut and the towns of Mount Lebanon in poorer and affluent neighborhoods alike (Abu-Rish 2015). The growing trash heaps were dusted with white poison powder to ward off rats and insects but it did little to combat the overpowering odor (Al-Jazeera 2015). The trash crisis, sparked by the expiration of the government’s contract with its primary waste management services provider and the closure of the Naameh landfill without a contingency plan, spurred citizens into action. In July, thousands of citizens demonstrated against the government’s blatant corruption and failure to provide basic public services; the trash crisis was the breaking point.
This article examines the political context behind waste management policies in Lebanon and the factors that provoked the ‘You Stink’ [طلعت ريحتكم] social movement and protests throughout Lebanon. As they did during the summer of 2015, citizens must hold elected and appointed government officials accountable for their actions and for the consequences of the policies they adopt. Lebanese citizens were not content to wait for the government to act and they demanded that their government revive the role of municipalities and provide them with the resources they need to provide public services. Even though the ‘You Stink’ movement has largely demobilized, its former members have organized into an official political party – Beirut Madinatī [Beirut is my city] – that challenged incumbent political elites in the recent municipal elections held in May 2016.
Public service provision remains a problem in many countries in the Middle East as urbanization, informality, climate change, and financial constraints challenge residents and cities. The Lebanese case is illustrative for the broader region, as demands for basic services (garbage collection and management) and state failure led not only to protest but to experienced activists and urbanists turning to municipal elections and the subnational institutional level (the municipality, its capabilities, revenue, and authority) as a possible route to positive change.
Lebanon is a small country, home to four million citizens distributed along eighteen confessional groups, who have been struggling to coexist since the creation of the modern state in 1920. During the early days of independence, elites representing the various religious and social groups devised a consociational political system, the cleavages of which endure and represent and protect the interests of those same groups today. However, the recurrent breakdown of this power sharing system has led many social scientists to question the efficiency of consociationalism.1
The Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) that ended with the renewal of the national pact between Lebanese religious groups and installed Syrian hegemony over Lebanon’s politics for fifteen years, for example, demonstrated the limitations of consociationalism.
Between 1990 and 2005, the Syrian regime acted as a mediator between Lebanon’s feudal powers, warlords, influential businessmen, political parties, and other stakeholders and consecrated the marriage between political and economic power, ensuring that the same handful of politicians controlled both the state’s political institutions and major economic sectors. Since the assassination of the Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, the country has been in continuous political turmoil and institutional paralysis, with a dysfunctional government, a parliament that has extended its own term twice, and a vacant Presidency since 2014.
Amidst this complex political context, the government’s delivery of public services has been poor and marred by corruption.2
The World Bank classified Lebanon as a middle upper income country.3 Yet, it still suffers from poor infrastructure, the absence of a public transportation system, and vast shortages of electricity with some rural areas getting as little as three hours a day (despite the billions of dollars spent on this sector). Government corruption and unfair and inadequate public service delivery has led to repeated outbursts of protests. In recent years, citizens have responded to severe electricity power cuts in the summer by blocking vital roads with burning tires. The riots following these power cuts are often deadly. Yet, the government has largely ignored citizen demands, pacified them with vague promises, or adopted short term and inefficient solutions.4 The most recent trash crisis is yet another consequence of the large scale corruption and inefficiency of Lebanon’s public sector. Below is a brief overview of Lebanon’s waste management policy and its implementation over the past two decades leading up to the summer trash crisis.
Between 1995 and 2015, Lebanon spent more than two billion USD on waste management. The vast majority of this money was paid to two privately owned sister companies, Sukleen and Sukomi. Sukleen was responsible for street cleaning, waste collection, and compacting, and Sukomi (contracted in 1998) handled sorting, recycling, and storing waste in landfills (Tarhini 2015). The government was responsible for providing sites and the property to accommodate landfills.
In the post-war period, the waste management sector, as with many other public services, proved a gold mine for private businesses owned by powerful politicians who used the fragility of local authorities to their advantage and privatized and deregulated the sector (Abu-Rish 2015). “Skyrocketing costs, tender violations, and possible conflicts of interest repeatedly prompted accusations that this sector had become riddled with corruption” (Leenders 2012, 55). In 2015, the Lebanese government paid Sukleen $45 USD per ton for dumping alone; the global average for dumping services at that time was $11 USD per ton (Abu-Rish 2015). The founding director of Sukleen, Maysara Sukkar, was a business partner of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Saudi Arabia before Lebanon’s post-war development and reconstruction began (Abu-Rish 2015).
The two billion US dollars that the government paid to Sukleen and Sukomi came from Independent Municipality Funds (IMF), which were established in 1979 to allocate funding to local municipal units. Lebanon currently has 1,014 municipalities, which are composed of more than 11,000 elected members that serve as local governance bodies across the country (Information International 2015). However, the privatization of service delivery and the use of IMF funds to pay private companies such as Sukleen and Sukomi, has deprived municipalities of their fair share of the IMF. The IMF, in turn, has been underfinanced. While similar funds receive an average of 3% of GDP in other countries, Lebanon’s IMF receives only 0.4% (Atallah 2015a).
The IMF, in addition to being underfinanced, has also suffered from mismanagement. The central government controls the allocation of funds without input or approval from the municipalities and also changed certain taxation policies which reduced the municipalities’ revenues.5 Many policy experts consider the current method of distributing the IMF’s funds, regulated by Decree No. (1917/1979), unfair. For example, one of the criteria the fund uses to distribute money is based on the number of citizens that make up the ‘registered’ population as opposed to resident population, which is not an accurate indicator given the large discrepancy between the number of registered and resident populations. More than forty two municipalities have resident populations that exceed the registered population by at least a factor of two, while 324 municipalities have a resident population that is less than its registered population by at least half (Atallah 2011). These challenges, among others, have significantly weakened the municipalities’ capacity to provide public services.
The private contractors did little to recycle waste and thus the first landfill in Bourj Hammoud quickly reached capacity in 1997 and was no longer usable. The second dumpsite, Al Naameh, also closed after it exceeded capacity on July 17th, 2015. The Lebanese found themselves celebrating Eid el Fitr in July 2015 amidst piles of trash lining their city and town sidewalks. The government, and the Ministry of Environment in particular, was aware of the limitations of the second landfill, and had postponed its closure several times, but nevertheless failed to act in time.
The stench and high mountains of trash in Lebanon’s streets was the last straw for many Lebanese who already suffered from inadequate provision of state services. Beirut’s citizens complained: “we have reached rock bottom,” “the state does not respect or dignify us at all,” and “our life is literally garbage.” Yet, people were also enraged by politicians taking their constituents for granted and the cronyism of Lebanese politicians. These sentiments spurred a group of young civil society activists to start organizing the ‘You Stink’ movement that called for protests about the government’s corruption and inefficiency and demanded solutions. The group used an online platform to raise funds and social media to advertise their demonstrations.6 Over the span of few weeks, the number of demonstrators grew from a few hundred that took the streets on August 8th to more than fifty thousand who participated in the August 22nd demonstration.
The movement’s initial demands focused on three issues: environmentally friendly solutions to waste management; restoring the municipalities’ role in waste management by allocating public funds to them rather than to private companies; and holding those responsible for the crisis accountable. The proliferation of demands and movements snowballed as other groups such as “Badna N7asib” [We Want Accountability], “Shabāb Diḍ al-Nizām” [Youth Against the Regime], etc., came together under one umbrella to pool resources, develop new movement frames and tactics, and coordinate events.7
The scope of the protesters’ demands widened with each demonstration as they shouted out slogans condemning the corrupt state and how the confessional leaders benefited from the system. “Killon ya’ni killon” [all means all] became one of the most popular hashtags that people tweeted condemning ‘all’ political leaders and their parties, including those representing their own confessional groups. Reforming the electoral law to allow for proportional representation became a widespread demand among the protesters who called for terminating the current parliamentary session and holding parliamentary elections.
Despite their initial popularity and the vast media coverage that they attracted, these demonstrations were met by police brutality that included the government’s use of live ammunition against unarmed protestors. Certain parties currently in office used their militant thugs to beat up protestors to deter them from street protests. While the state violence did not prevent people from protesting and may in fact have contributed to the growing public support of the movement, the defamation campaigns that several of the ‘You Stink’ organizers faced may have led to their demobilization. Political elites and their loyalists engaged in a campaign to discredit the organizers, and they accused the protesters of accepting funding from different sources (including Qatar and the West) to destabilize the country. The security forces detained several protest organizers for short periods of time and threatened some with legal prosecution on the grounds that they were threatening security and stability.
The trash crisis is still a serious challenge and fears of the environmental and health consequences continue. However, after almost two months of mobilization, the ‘You Stink’ movement declined and dwindled in the fall of 2015. Fragmentation among its key organizers, state violence, the rise of new movements with different demands and visions, and the inherent difficulties in sustaining mass mobilization over a prolonged period of time demobilized the protests.
Despite its demobilization, ‘You Stink’ achieved a number of important successes and contributions to the Lebanese political scene. First, the movement managed to stall further privatization of the waste management sector by forcing the cancellation of a bidding process where private companies presented the Ministry of Environment with their plans for waste management. The bids, which some observers described as scandalous, would cost taxpayers even more, fail to propose environmentally-friendly solutions, and undermine the role of municipalities, once again. Under pressure from the outraged demonstrators, the ministry rejected those bids to further privatize sanitation services.
Second, ‘You Stink’ rekindled the contentious and critical debate about decentralization and the role of municipalities. The movement also brought into focus concerns about the chronic underfunding of municipalities and the unequal distribution of funds to municipalities which entitles certain municipalities to more or less funding based on their registered versus resident population. These concerns raise important questions about what the best practices should be for a just distribution of public funds moving forward.
The ongoing waste management crisis and the ‘You Stink’ movement also highlighted the dire consequences of Lebanon’s weak political accountability, both horizontal, i.e. checks and balances amongst state institutions, and vertical, i.e. the ability of the electorate to hold politicians accountable at the ballot box. As Atallah (2015a) from The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies argued, accountability poses a “national security threat” to Lebanese political elites, who for the past twenty five years have been happily dividing the pie amongst themselves. They have managed to do so thanks to the unswaying loyalty of their supporters who vote for them based on confessional and clientelistic considerations rather than their performance in the government (Cammet 2010). They have also succeeded in tailoring and re-tailoring the electoral law to ensure their re-election.
The ‘You Stink’ movement and the government’s reaction to it demonstrates the political elite’s commitment to maintaining its unquestioned reign over the politics and economics of the country, at any cost. They hastily resurrected the “National Dialogue” in September 2015 to reaffirm their position as the main “legitimate” representatives of the different confessional groups after the political threat of the ‘You Stink’ demonstrations and mobilization and the public debacle of rotting garbage in the streets.8
The discussion above has highlighted two essential steps needed to improve public service delivery in Lebanon, Egypt, and in many other Middle Eastern countries: strengthening the role of local municipalities and fostering political accountability. To strengthen the role of municipalities, the government has to reform its public financial management system and adopt further fiscal decentralization to give municipalities more resources and control over their own affairs. The government must also reform the IMF distribution of funds and ensure that the fund has sufficient financial resources to begin with. These reforms are a first step towards empowering municipalities and providing them with the requisite legal and political tools as well as with the financial resources to provide public services effectively.
The second step involves generating mechanisms for accountability, which will allow people to hold their representatives responsible in the event that the government fails to do its job and deliver basic public services. There are two means through which the public can hold public officials accountable, but both require reforms.
The first and more arduous path to greater accountability is through electoral reform. In order to break the cycle of sectarianism and clientalism and foster accountability, it will be necessary to reform the electoral law that has returned the same political figures to power over the past twenty five years. Adopting a new law that is based on proportional representation and larger electoral districting, which has been a recurring demand of the ‘You Stink’ protestors, may generate a new political elite. It may also force political parties to build national electoral alliances across sectarian lines and articulate national policy agendas that respond to citizens’ basic needs, such as collecting garbage.
The second mechanism for generating accountability involves the dissemination of information about public service delivery, expenditures, and investment. The public has already demonstrated its willingness to demonstrate in the public sphere against poor governance practices, but arming the public with information about the government’s decision-making process will allow opposition groups to point out concrete governance failings and coalesce around unified demands for change.
Until there are mechanisms for generating accountability Lebanon’s citizens should expect to continue to suffer from poor public service delivery while the same politicians continue to reap the spoils of the current political system. Social movements such as ‘You Stink’ can serve as the catalyst that pressures the government to strengthen the role of municipalities and implement reforms. But without waiting for government reforms, the public can work to gather the requisite data on government performance and decision-making in order to engage in informed critiques of current practices, pinpoint governance failings and create pressure for specific changes. In Egypt, for example, TADAMUN has disseminated information about and analyzed the distribution of public service delivery in Greater Cairo, and continues to advocate for urban governance reforms in order to help citizens claim their right to the city.
Political experiences from the ‘You Stink’ movement encouraged these new Lebanese political leaders to launch a campaign – Beirut, My City – and run for election in the recent May 2016 municipal elections. The same activists have now joined forces to unseat the old political establishment that has dominated municipal politics. Their experience of protesting the demolition of historic houses; promoting affordable housing, green spaces, open access to public spaces and the coastline, or safe public transportation and walking and bike paths; or lobbying the Lebanese Parliament for stronger environmental regulations and recycling has taught them a great deal about the city and its needs. Contesting municipal elections with an organized coalition of NGOs, urbanists, professionals, activists, and urban planners, created a noticeable shift in the race for seats on Beirut’s municipal council. The ‘Beirut, My City’ campaign recognized that the municipal councils are an important space for public policy and they are eager to reform them, make them more accountable, to secure more funding and technical capabilities, and root Lebanese politics in more grounded and pragmatic municipal politics (Bazy 2016).
‘Beirut, My City’ collected 32,000 votes (40% of voter turnout) in the May 2016 municipal election, which was not enough to secure them any seats in the municipal council due to the design of the consociational political system, which does not award its seats proportionately, but uses a “first past the post” system. According to a press conference held after the announcement of the official results, the ‘Beirut, My City’ campaign still considers their achievements an important success despite not winning any seats and held a celebratory event to thank their supporters. They view this election and the public awareness and mobilization that came about in the process as a first step towards presenting – and convincing – Beirutis and Lebanese citizens in general with an alternative to the current electoral system that is based on concrete campaign programs that serve constituents, irrespective of religious and/or political affiliations.9
While the political history and urban context of Lebanon and Egypt certainly differ, the ‘You Stink’ campaign’s metamorphosis into an electoral coalition seeking seats on the municipal council may be instructive for Egyptian NGOs and urbanists as new municipal elections in Egypt draw near. Cairo witnessed a surge of activism around public service provision immediately following the 2011 revolution. This activism continues today, although under a more restrictive political environment, as a diverse, young, informed, and pragmatic generation of urbanists and activists try to promote the democratic management and equitable right to the city among all Cairenes. Like in Beirut, Egyptian activists have launched campaigns to reform local administration (Maḥaliyyāt Al-Duqqī w Al-‘Aqūza), protect historic buildings (e.g. Save Alex, Heliopolis Heritage Initiative), the environment (e.g. Egyptians Against Coal), provide public services such as water and sanitation across the country (e.g. Catch a bill, Refuse), and improve public transportation (e.g. Transport for Cairo).
Egypt’s upcoming municipal elections represent a potential opportunity for those advocating an inclusive, democratically managed Cairo to expand the scope of their activism to local government, as the ‘You Stink’ movement endeavored to do through the ‘Beirut, My City’ electoral campaign. The 2014 constitution stipulates that young people fill twenty five percent of the Local People’s Councils (LPCs) seats and women fill another twenty five percent. LPCs may be captured by dominant parties supporting the regime as was the case under Mubarak, but these new, more diverse and youthful LPCs may also provide an opportunity for Cairo’s urbanists and activists and their allies to become directly involved in managing the city.
The ‘You Stink’ movement is striving to fight local corruption and municipal politics from within. Though that path may still be very challenging and their electoral aspirations were not fully realized, they have seized an opportunity to improve their city and raise public awareness about their right to the city. Though the trash crisis is still ongoing, their advocacy won important concessions from political elites and established new networks and alliances that may be called upon when the need for future mass mobilization arrives (Abu-Rish 2015). It remains to be seen if such a scenario can or will unfold in Egypt.
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Atallah, S. (2011). The Independent Municipal Fund: Reforming the Distributional Criteria. The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Beirut. November 2011.
Atallah, S. (2015). Liberate the Municipal Fund from the Grip of Politicians. The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Beirut. October.
Atallah, S. (2015a). Accountability: A “National Security Threat” to Lebanon’s Elites. The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Beirut. October.
Bazy, Yusuf. (2016). “Beirut, My City: The New Civil Movement Seeks to Win the Municipality of Beirut.” http://www.almodon.com, February 25. [بيروت مدينتي": الحراك المدني الجديد يسعى للظفر ببلدية بيروت]
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Leenders, R. (2012). Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-building in Postwar Lebanon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Lijphart, A. (2001). Democracy in the 21st century: Can We be Optimistic? European Review, 9(2), 169-184.
Tarhini, S. (2015) Sukleen’s Waste Mangement; Reality Versus Myth. A Series of White Papers on the Garbage Crisis in Lebanon Issue 1, 2015.
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