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What a garbage crisis tells us about Lebanese politics

Garbage is piled around a car on a street in Beirut on July 23. (NABIL MOUNZER/European Pressphoto Agency)

During the past two weeks, Lebanon has been mired in a garbage crisis. The landfill used by Beirut since the mid-1990s has entirely overflowed, and local residents have forced the government to close it. Meanwhile, due to internal squabbling, the government has failed to extend its contract with the garbage company Sukleen and to find suitable alternative landfills. Civil society has attempted to step in to compensate for the lawmakers’ dereliction of duty, and Uber drivers have been called upon to help remove trash from the streets of the city.

This trash crisis mirrors and compounds 14 months of system-wide gridlock that has prevented the election of a new Lebanese president. Indeed, as one lawmaker from Beirut pointed out, “the [trash] issue is being used by politicians as a proxy for broader struggles.” The country is currently being managed by a caretaker government headed by Tammam Salam, the scion of a notable Sunni family that traces its origins back to the ranks of the Ottoman bureaucracy.

The stalemate in Lebanon is due largely to political polarization between pro-Hezbollah and anti-Hezbollah factions, a divide that reflects spillover from the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah’s hold on Lebanese politics is strong. Despite growing unrest among Hezbollah’s constituency due to the cost of its military support for the Syrian regime, it remains the main political force among Lebanese Shiites and one of the principle actors in the country’s government. In recent years, Hezbollah has put its weight behind the Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun, helping to effectively split the political clout of the Christian community. Aoun’s campaign to become the country’s next president and install his sons-in-law in major political positions has been met by resistance from both his Christian foes and their Sunni allies. While the Sunni community is not splintered its opposition, its own leadership is ineffectual and fragmented, unable to put forth a central representative.

I was recently in northern Lebanon, an area referred to as the “Sunni reservoir,” doing fieldwork among members of this community. As I navigated the streets, the disappointment with the country’s Sunni leadership was nearly tangible. This disenchantment with Sunni political representation was combined with a resentment and visceral hatred of Hezbollah, which many accused of controlling the state and persecuting the Sunnis, particularly Islamists. The lack of political leadership in Lebanon’s Sunni community is contributing to the perpetual gridlock and uncertainty in the political system.

One intriguing feature of Lebanese politics is that, in the wake of the 1989 Taif Agreement ending the country’s decades-long civil war, the Sunni community was the only major sectarian group without a representative party composed of former militia leaders. Indeed, most of the Sunni militias that existed at the start of the civil war had effectively disappeared by the mid-1980s. This was, in part, due to the importance of Palestinian forces as Sunni protectors during the war; instead of developing local leadership, Lebanese Sunnis tended to rally behind the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Syrian opposition also played a role. Fearing that a powerful Sunni militia in Lebanon might encourage Syrian Sunnis to rise up against the Alawite-led regime, Syria’s leaders actively and violently discouraged the development of any such organization.

After the war ended, Sunni political representation came to center not around a previous military leader, but rather around a business tycoon named Rafiq Hariri, also known as “Mr. Lebanon,” a larger-than-life figure who elicited strong responses ranging from admiration to disgust. Unlike most other post-war political figures, Hariri spent much of the conflict’s duration abroad, achieving great wealth through his business dealings in Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to Lebanon near the end of the civil war, he leveraged his financial resources to enter politics. Hariri was a central figure in bringing the civil war to a close, and he served as prime minister several times between 1990 and 2005. As the primary voice for Lebanon’s Sunni community, his assassination in 2005 — later followed by the encroaching chaos of the Syrian civil war — threw all of this into turmoil.

Rafiq Hariri’s son, Saad, inherited his father’s political legacy and much goodwill from the Sunni community. However, Saad’s lack of charisma, ineffectual political leadership and tendency (unlike to his father) to surround himself with loyalist sycophants and family members have turned both local and international public opinion against him. Many members of the Sunni community feel that Saad has forgotten his sectarian origins and is failing to promote the interests of his constituents. My interlocutors felt that he takes his community for granted, partly due to arrogance and partly because he feels there is no viable alternative to his leadership. As if to prove this point, most of these same disappointed voters agreed that if elections were held today, they would still dutifully cast their ballot for Saad and/or the candidates of his Future Movement party. Despite his self-imposed exile to Paris and Riyadh in recent years, Saad continues to appear as the only representative that the community can agree on.

Disappointment with Saad has created an opportunity for rival Sunni representatives to arise, but so far none have been able to make significant inroads. Najib Mikati, a somewhat pro-Syrian businessman and parliamentarian from the northern city of Tripoli, has established a strong political base in the region surrounding his home town. However, he is unlikely to develop much of a following among the wider Sunni community in Lebanon because of his perceived alliance with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Other prospective Sunni leaders include the heads of traditional notable families, such as interim prime minister Tammam Salam. However, the outlook for these notables is not positive in the long run. It took Salam 10 months from his appointment in April of 2013 to form a working government, mostly because he lacks a strong public constituency. Salam’s primary credential is that he can serve as a compromise candidate: his leadership is accepted by the regional powers and by Saad Hariri and is tolerated by Hezbollah and its allies. Sunni enthusiasm for Salam’s government is virtually nonexistent, however, so it seems unlikely that he will emerge as a champion of the community.

Second-tier Sunni politicians who have previously held only appointed positions, including Ashraf Rifi, the minister of justice and former head of the Lebanese internal security forces, and Nouhad Mashnouq, the minister of interior and a former journalist, are said to have ambitions for the premiership and have been vying to represent their community. Rifi champions the hard-line position and appeals to Sunnis who feel their community is increasingly persecuted—epitomized in the treatment of Islamist detainees in the infamous Roumieh prison. Mashnouq, on the other hand, presents himself as the moderate statesman, appealing intellectually to the upper and middle-class urban Sunnis. Nevertheless, both men are clients of the Hariri clan and neither can command a strong base of popular enthusiasm.

The leadership void in the Sunni community has provided an opportunity for Islamist factions to gain political clout in Lebanon. Marginalized during Rafiq Hariri’s tenure, Islamists, especially Salafis, have recently reemerged as a power to contend with. One can roughly divide Lebanese Sunni Islamists into two main categories. Modernists who accept the Lebanese state (such as Jama`a Islamiyya and Jam`iyyat al-Mashari` al-Khayriyya) have previously fielded candidates for legislative elections, though without significant success. In contrast, the so-called “scholastic Salafis” pursued a policy of rejecting the political process for many years. After Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, however, these Salafis began to mobilize their constituents and participate in elections. Currently, the Salafis are fragmented, lacking a unified leadership and voice. The main sheiks who represent the Lebanese Salafis today include Salem al-Rafe`i, Zackaria al-Masri, and Da`i al-Islam al-Shahal (the son of the founder of Lebanese Salafism).

It is important to note that these Islamists do not provide a viable alternative for Sunni leadership in Lebanon. Their version of Islam is not acceptable to the majority of the country’s Sunnis, which is why most of my interlocutors continue to dutifully line up and support Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, despite their limited enthusiasm. However, while Islamists do not have broad enough appeal to enter elite politics, they have become important enough to serve as unelected local community leaders and to disrupt political stability in some regions, as witnessed by the fighting between the local Alawites and their Sunni neighbors in the northern city of Tripoli over the past couple of years.

Lebanon has reached an era where the consociational system based on power-sharing between the country’s different confessional groups can provide only a limited guarantee of political stability. The reasons for this are twofold: Syria is no longer supporting but undermining the consociational system, and Islamist groups, both Sunni and Shiite, have begun to work outside the system and reject the elite power-sharing approach that has classically been the guarantor of Lebanese political coherence.

Amid all of the uncertainty in Lebanese politics today, the power-void in Sunni representation, the potential players who seek to fill that void, and the emerging influence of Sunni Islamist groups remain among the least understood. The Lebanese Sunni community is in disarray, unable to find one leader to rally around after their disenchantment with Saad Hariri’s performance. Meanwhile, the garbage continues to pile up in the streets of Beirut.

Rola el-Husseini is a researcher with the Middle Eastern and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and a non-resident fellow with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington DC. Her first book was “Pax Syriana: Elite Politics in Postwar Lebanon” (Syracuse University Press, 2012), and she is currently preparing a manuscript on the Lebanese Sunni Islamists.