New rallies in Lebanon over months-old rubbish crisis

Thousands call for government to resign over failure to solve crisis triggered by closure of main landfill last summer.

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.

READ MORE: How Lebanon’s rubbish spurred a budding revolution

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.”

Protesters said corrupt politicians are responsible for the piles of trash which have accumulated across the country [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]
Protesters said corrupt politicians are responsible for the piles of trash which have accumulated across the country [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]

Scrambling for answers

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.

PHOTOS: Protesters in Lebanon defy police brutality

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.

‘Dysfunction and corruption’

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.”

READ MORE: Public anger grows as Beirut’s trash crisis persists

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.

Dramatic footage shows Beirut street filled with trash

“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

Source: Al Jazeera