Lebanon cabinet fails on trash crisis amid new protests

AFP , Tuesday 25 Aug 2015

Workers remove concrete barriers near the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, August 25, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

Lebanon's cabinet ended an acrimonious meeting on Tuesday with no solution to a trash crisis that has sparked violent protests and calls for the government's resignation.

The cabinet meeting came as people continued to gather in central Beirut for demonstrations that began over a trash crisis but evolved into an outlet for deep-seated frustrations over government impotence.

After more than five hours of talks, the cabinet decided to reject a list of tenders for waste management contracts across Lebanon and refer the problem to a ministerial committee.

"Given the high prices (quoted by would-be contractors), the council of ministers has decided not to approve the tenders and is charging the ministerial committee with finding alternatives," a cabinet statement said.

The decision came after a session that saw six ministers from one political bloc walk out.

For months, the 18-month-old government has been paralysed by political disagreements between its two main blocs, rendering decision-making virtually impossible.

On Tuesday, large crowds carrying Lebanese flags and chanting gathered for spontaneous protests in Riad al-Solh Square near the premier's office.

It came as Prime Minister Tammam Salam ordered the removal of a concrete blast wall at the site, which Lebanese had dubbed the "wall of shame".

The wall was erected after protests on Saturday and Sunday turned violent.

The crowds swelled on Tuesday, despite the "You Stink" campaign which has behind the street protests scheduling its next official demonstration for Saturday.

Protests were also taking place elsewhere, calling for greater accountability.

At the weekend, Salam acknowledged protesters' frustrations and warned that his government risked becoming irrelevant if it could not address the public's concerns.

"We're heading towards collapse if things continue as they are," he cautioned.

But Tuesday's cabinet meeting was unable to resolve the social issue that has united protesters for a rare display of non-sectarian anger.

It was intended to discuss companies qualified to bid for new waste removal contracts.

The list had drawn fire from activists who said the firms were linked to political figures and were seeking exorbitant fees.

Several ministers also criticised the proposed costs ahead of the cabinet meeting.

Lebanon already pays some of the world's highest per-ton waste collection rates, and media said the companies sought to raise prices even further.

The core of the crisis, which erupted after the July 17 closure of the landfill serving Beirut and its surroundings, remains unaddressed.

When the Naameh landfill closed, the government failed to identify sites for new landfills or alternative arrangements.

Trash began piling up until local municipalities found temporary solutions -- dumping in empty lots, river beds and even forests.

Tuesday's cabinet statement made no mention of potential landfill solutions.

But it said $100 million (around 87 million euros) of development money was being allocated to the northern Akkar region, which some politicians have proposed as a potential landfill site.

Media said that even after new waste management contracts were approved, it could take up to six months for collection and disposal to begin.

On Monday, leaders of "You Stink" said they were regrouping after the weekend violence.

They blamed the clashes on "troublemakers", but also acknowledged that they needed time to organise better.

They called a new demonstration for Saturday night against Lebanon's "corrupt political class".

"In the beginning, this was a battle over the trash issue... But now there is a general battle against the political class," organiser Marwan Maalouf told reporters.

Experts said the protests had become a rare outlet for Lebanese frustrated by an out-of-touch political elite and an atmosphere of impunity.

"People are on the streets because they feel that at every level there is no one there for them," said Maha Yahya, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank.

"It's an alarm bell for all the political leadership."

Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year, and parliament has twice extended its own mandate since the last elections in 2009.

The country has long suffered chronic electricity and water problems and has seen its resources stretched yet further by an influx of more than a million Syrian refugees.

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