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Beirut's Mounting Garbage Piles Reflect Government Crisis

A man covers his nose as he walks past a pile of garbage along a street in Beirut, July 22, 2015.
A man covers his nose as he walks past a pile of garbage along a street in Beirut, July 22, 2015.

The stench of uncollected refuse in the streets of Beirut is a stark reminder of the crisis of government afflicting Lebanon, where politicians divided by local and regional conflicts have been unable to agree on where to dump the capital's rubbish.

Mounting piles of garbage festering in the summer heat are triggering health warnings and protests by residents furious their government failed to avoid a crisis ignited by the long-scheduled closure of a major landfill site last week.

For lack of state planning, the tip at Naameh, south of Beirut, already had been kept open well beyond its planned closure date. The date set for its final closure - July 17 - was known, but authorities had no ready alternative when the day came.

"We got to this point - this crisis - because of the political struggle in Lebanon," said Mohamad Al Machnouk, the minister of environment. He blamed procrastination among politicians for the refuse now piling up in the streets.

A plan to dump rubbish from Beirut - where more than half the population live - at locations around Lebanon is meeting resistance from the regions. The front page of the French language newspaper L'Orient Le Jour on Thursday declared Lebanon the "Trash can Republic".

The crisis echoes wider problems facing Lebanon.

The weak state has long been criticized for failing to develop the country and its infrastructure: Beirut still suffers daily power cuts some 25 years since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

But government has been particularly poor since the eruption of the war in neighboring Syria. That conflict has exacerbated Lebanon's political divisions, often along sectarian lines that reflect the Syrian conflict.

The presidency has been vacant for more than a year, and parliament elected in 2009 has extended its own term and postponed elections until 2017 on the grounds of instability.

A government of national unity has maintained a semblance of central authority and helped to contain sectarian tensions. But it is limping along, at best.

Passing time

Many observers believe only a deal brokered by regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, which both wield influence over rival Lebanese factions, can set government back on course.

"This government views its role as passing time rather than governing: representing Lebanese legitimacy to get by with a minimal degree of stability, until the regional settlement comes," said Nicola Nassif, a columnist in al-Akhbar newspaper.

In the meantime, the costs for Lebanon are high. The political stalemate has obstructed plans to exploit potential offshore gas reserves, for example.

"They canceled our elections, they extended parliament, they stole our votes, and now they want us to live in rubbish," said Marwan Maalouf, a 31-year-old lawyer, during a protest Tuesday outside the government headquarters in Beirut.

The contract of the company that until this week was collecting the refuse expired with the closure of Naameh.

"Unfortunately, the streets are filled up with garbage, but we can't find an alternative now. The plan should come from the state, and we will then act upon it," said Pascale Nassar, communications manager for the company, Sukleen.

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