Thousands of tonnes of uncollected rubbish in Beirut have become a symbol for the country’s deeper political malady.
Beirut, Lebanon – Thousands of people have rallied in Beirut to demand the government’s resignation over its failure to handle an eight-month rubbish crisis, as ministers put forward a temporary solution to the problem by opening three landfills.
More than 2,000 people marched on Saturday from east of Beirut’s busy Sassine Square junction to the Downtown area, shutting down roads and prompting residents along the route to come to their balconies and cheer.
Riot police watched on as the rally came to a stop in Riad al-Solh Square, where protest organisers called for a general strike to be held on Monday.
“If they want to attack us, we are not going anywhere,” said Asaad Thebian, co-founder of the You Stink group, a driving force behind the protests.
“Camps have been erected at the [Riad al-Solh] Square, and we call on families to come down here.”
A stone’s throw away, ministers held a day-long session to try to find a solution to the crisis, which began last summer when an overflowing landfill in the village of Naameh was closed.
That closure led rubbish collectors to pile mountains of untreated waste underneath bridges, by rivers and on the side of roads.
Large protests last summer over the issue failed to affect any change and eventually fizzled out. Saturday’s rally was the first major demonstration since then.
After eight hours of discussions, the cabinet declared that they would open temporary landfills just outside Beirut in Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava, as well as reopen the controversial site in Naameh.
Protesters rejected the proposal, arguing that the country needs municipal-led recycling schemes, instead of more landfills.
“This is 2016, we need a real solution, certainly we can find a better solution than this,” argued Jules Bakhos, a 24-year-old medicine student attending the protests in a centurion costume.
“This is not a normal situation any more. Things should change … we can’t live like this any more.”
For Lara Sabah, a 42-year-old filmmaker who was at the demonstration with her children, aged 10 and three, the outlook is grim.
“We don’t really feel optimistic,” she said with a sigh. “But we have to try, we have to do it. We know there are solutions that are put aside because they [politicians] can’t agree on who gets what, and we want to change that, simply.”
References to corruption, incompetence and nepotism could be seen on posters and heard in speeches throughout the afternoon, echoing widespread discontent with politicians’ failure to provide basic state services.
Anger was also directed at the government that has extended its own mandate twice and prevented a president from being elected for nearly two years, in contravention with the law.
“The state of the institutions in general has reached a level of dysfunction and corruption that I think its really unprecedented in the country and the garbage crisis has just revealed this,” said Sahar Atrache, senior Lebanon analyst for the International Crisis Group.
“We’ve never had a perfect governance system anyway, but I think that what Lebanon is witnessing now is something new.”
Question marks remain, however, over the movement’s ability to affect change.
“The political class is resilient,” Atrache added. “I don’t see that the protests have the capacity to come up with a real alternative to them.”
Follow Venetia Rainey on Twitter: @venetiarainey