On Sunday 13th October 2019, a series of 100 forest fires broke out in Lebanon, devastating both agricultural and residential communities of the Chouf District and areas of south Beirut. Fortunately, there were few civilian fatalities, however, this would not have been possible without the cooperation of the Cyprian and Greek emergency services. The Lebanese Civil Defence was forced to call upon foreign aid due to the inability of their own services to tame the fires. Their incapacity to independently resolve the blaze is indicative of the country’s failing public service sector and, on a larger-scale symptomatic of their fragile political situation. Tensions have long been brewing in Lebanon owing to persistent problems with governmental policy and on Thursday 17th October 2019, over 100 civilian activists took to the streets of Beirut. A growing dissatisfaction with the government as well as the poor handling of the forest fires and the imposition of new taxes on Tobacco and WhatsApp voice calls became the breaking point. Although the protests subsided over the holidays, this week they took a much more violent turn. Central banks in particular suffered great damage, with some burnt to the ground.
Lebanon’s political configuration is unusual - maintaining a sectarian government. For those unfamiliar with this concept of sectarianism in the political realm, it means that the 18 officially recognised religions in Lebanon must share power and each religion receives a specific number of seats in parliament. At the top of the hierarchy - the President must be a Maronite Christian; the Prime Minister a Sunni and, the speaker of the house a Shia. Whilst at surface-level the mass protests may seem to be about matters such as the WhatsApp tax, objecting sectarianism. This is particularly remarkable as the sectarian democracy has been in place since Lebanese independence in 1943, and the system runs deep in the country’s history.
It is not difficult to see how this sectarian system may prove controversial. Cooperation becomes increasingly difficult in a sectarian government as it entrenches religious differences, and with a two third majority needed for laws and motions to be passed, action becomes near impossible. Case in point - the presidential election took 2 years, and after this a further 3 years until a president could be decided. Public trust in the government has deteriorated exponentially and what is remarkable is that the population is crossing their own sectarian and political divisions in order to unite in the protest for a secular government. Breaking their sects in order to break the government.
Prime Minister Saad Hiriri has already announced his resignation only weeks into the protests. He claims that his resignation serves “the country’s dignity and safety”. However, this has only led to greater fear and uncertainty. If Lebanon does not suffer first from an economic collapse due to its intractable government debt, it will suffocate under the pressure of its environmental crisis. A lack in governmental authority has led to severe ecological issues in Lebanon, and environmental politics have become a national priority. State negligence has caused a complete dysfunction of Lebanon’s waste disposal system, and as journalist Sune Haugbolle writes “the environment has deteriorated apace with public trust in the government and hope for the future”.
There is a desperate need for a stable government who can provide long-term waste-management strategies, as stop-gap measures will no longer suffice. The call for a cleaner Lebanon reflects a call for fundamental human rights, as the gases emitted from landfills have rendered living conditions dire and cases of emphysema, heart conditions and asthma are increasing. Lebanon will remain a country paralysed by political dysfunction if it doesn’t address the certain shortcomings of its sectarian system and despite the obvious progress of the protests, whether they will be able to force a change of government is yet to be seen. One can only hope that change will come before the imminent economic and ecological crises.