The Many Reasons Lebanese Are in the Street

The Many Reasons Lebanese Are in the StreetThe Many Reasons Lebanese Are in the Street

Like most public political dramas across the Middle East, the current events in Lebanon revolving around uncollected garbage are really about several different issues that have merged into one.

At the most basic level felt in every household is the urgent need to fix the government’s ability to deliver critical public services, like water, electricity and garbage removal and disposal, Rami G. Khouri wrote for Agence Global.

Citizen anger boiled over this month partly because of the visible problem of piles of garbage everywhere, but more so because of citizen outrage over the uncaring and disdainful attitude of the government.

As navigating the basic needs of daily life became more difficult for most people, they became incensed at seeing their government postponing meetings and decisions, while living in their privileged world in which they never felt the problems of electricity, water and garbage.

The second issue at hand today is the financial cost that households must bear due to the government’s inefficiency and disdain for its own citizens. The accumulation of deficiencies in numerous public services over the last few years has reached the point where for most citizens the basic irritation with erratic services was exacerbated by the need to pay for securing those services from private providers.

Most households in Lebanon now must pay twice for basic services like electricity and fresh water, once to the government and again to a private sector provider to fill in the gaps in the government service.

This dual payment system also operates in sectors like telephone communications, cable television, education, health insurance and others, reaching a point where many families simply could not afford to pay for the basic services that once were provided efficiently by the state.

  Two-Layer Corruption

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.

 Divided Governance

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 Shia Muslims, Druze and others).

This system that has operated since the country’s independence in 1943 has led today to almost permanent gridlock, mainly because after the Syrians left Lebanon in 2005, the two main Lebanese political blocs have been at odds, the Hariri-led, Sunni-majority March 14 group and the Hezbollah-led, Shia-dominated March 8 group that is allied with the biggest single Christian party of General Michael Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement.

The sectarian power-sharing that for decades gave all Lebanese equitable access to the halls of power has collapsed in the last decade, creating a bankrupt and mostly immobilized government whose work is continuously interrupted.

Ordinary citizens who benefited from the sectarian system now suffer its deficiencies; they seem to be serving notice that they demand and deserve a government that delivers basic services more efficiently and equitably to all citizens, because only the senior officials of all the religious groups in the land now seem to benefit from the old power-sharing formula.


The fifth issue at play behind all of these matters is the deepest and most difficult one. It is the urgent but elusive need to reconcile the military and political power of different parties with the power of the central government.

This glaring gap in the integrity of the national governance and security systems has been most evident since the Israeli withdrawal from the south of Lebanon in 2000 and the Syrian withdrawal five years later.

When the two major political parties in Lebanon cannot agree on even the most basic policies, the entire system grinds to a halt. Electricity is cut. Garbage piles up. Some households go broke.

Some Lebanese charge that this blockage is deliberately engineered to force a revision of the assorted national pacts that share power among the main confessional groups, aiming to change the 50-50 Christian-Muslim formula to a tripartite one in which Sunnis, Shias and Christians broadly each have one-third of key positions in the government.

Whatever the truth may be, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese are likely to be on the streets for the next few days, or possibly weeks, seeking to resolve these five related issues that have shattered a once functional government.

The critically important new development here is that citizens are taking to the streets in their own individual capacity as citizens who demand their rights and not only as members of one religious group or another who are sent to demonstrate by their leaders.