A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, August 31, 2015

Beirut's Summer of Discontent

More than four years after the "Arab Spring" we have Lebanon's "You Stink" Summer. Of events I didn't comment on during my recent vacation, this may have been the least predictable. A crisis surrounding Beirut's undelivered garbage quickly transformed into a widespread protest movement challenging the political paralysis that has gripped Lebanon for several years now. (The Presidency is vacant, the Cabinet impotent, and new Parliamentary elections on hold.

The clever hashtag #YouStink (Arabic #)  quickly gave the movement its name, referring to the garbage or the state institutions interchangeably. Lebanon is in many ways a more open country than most in the Arab world, but its institutions have been weakened by sectarian rivalry and other factors to the point where only the coercive instruments of the state still seem to function.

The Lebanese are some of the most eloquent analysts of their own tribulations, so here are some of the more thoughtful analyses, with excerpts, but do read all three in full:
Parliamentary elections will not bring an end to corruption or inefficiency; they likely won’t even solve the trash crisis in the short term. But no progress can be made on any front — waste management, the electricity supply, telecoms reform, infrastructure development — without a government that possesses basic legitimacy.
This links to the third issue at hand, which is the widespread citizen perception that a core problem in all these matters is corruption in the public and private sectors, which allegedly operates at two levels: Initially, public officials delay issuing contracts for basic services like rubbish disposal because they cannot agree on how to share the spoils of contracts and commissions, and subsequently political and communal leaders rake in millions of dollars from their links with the licensed or pirate private firms that sell citizens those services that they are not getting from the state. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at play in both areas, and the citizen is the one who suffers the most from this corruption.
The fourth issue the protesters are starting to challenge — and this is really historic for Lebanon — is the underlying confessional and sectarian nature of the political power-sharing system in Lebanon, which basically has ground to a halt in the last two years because of irreconcilable differences among key players.  The Lebanese model of governance formally divides executive, bureaucratic, legislative, and security sector power among the country’s leading religious groups (assorted Christian sects like Protestant, Maronite, Orthodox and Armenian, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Druze, and others).
Lebanon was reeking rottenness long before its garbage was decomposing. During and after the war, Lebanon began to lose its unique role in the region. Lebanese universities are no longer the magnet for Arab students; Beirut is no longer the place for regional conferences, and its once lively and freewheeling media has lost its regional dominance and non-Lebanese satellite news and entertainment channels have been dominating the Arab market for years. Many Lebanese have yet to come to grips with the fact that their country is diminishing domestically and regionally. Lebanon’s free space has been shrinking steadily because of the deepening political dysfunction and the growing military power of Hezbollah and its debilitating political aggressiveness
And of course, one may keep current at the #YouStink News website.

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