Police use water cannons on activists during a protest last month in downtown Beirut against a long-running trash crisis and government dysfunction. Garbage has been collecting on the streets after Beirut’s main landfill was closed down. (Hussein Malla/AP)

Protests initiated by “You Stink” activists against Lebanon’s garbage crisis and the government’s infamous corruption and dysfunction continue to grow. What insight can this garbage crisis and mounting public frustration provide us about not only the country’s sectarian political system but also broader regional trends?

Political scientists have long debated how best to engineer durable peace and democracy in post-conflict, plural societies. Lebanon is an example of a consociational political system in which the political elites of the various sectarian groups govern based on a predefined but static power-sharing agreement. Recent scholarship on post-conflict power-sharing agreements has highlighted the institutional variations between corporate consociation, which considers sectarian identities unchanging and constitute the main markers of political identity and, alternatively, liberal consociation, which regards political identity as malleable and shaped by institutional design, namely electoral law and federal structure. Consequently, these different power-sharing systems affect the incentive structures driving political identification and mobilization in post-conflict societies in different ways.

With its emphasis on predetermined sectarian identities, Lebanon’s brand of corporate consociationalism is a textbook case of how not to engineer post-conflict power-sharing arrangements. As my co-authors and I show in our new book, “The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon,” the key to Lebanon’s resilient corporate consociational political system is a sectarian political economy and ideological hegemony that has been reproduced through a complex ensemble of institutional, clientelist and discursive practices.

In typical clientelist sectarian fashion, the garbage crisis exploded when disagreements over commissions and profit shares among members of the sectarian/political cum economic elite surfaced. The public soon discovered that the cost of garbage collection in Lebanon far outstrips that of any other country in the region. Much like other sectors of the Lebanese economy — especially electricity, telecommunications, customs and port facilities, T-bills, stone quarries, maritime properties, and government contracts — garbage collection and waste management, it turns out, is primarily a medium to siphon off state resources into the sectarian/political elite’s ever-growing coffers. To be sure, other postwar sectors have had a far more damaging effect on the economy and public debt. However, the symbolic indignity of this particular episode has underlined the insouciance of a postwar sectarian/political elite bent on deploying the state’s public finances and the country’s resources to serve their private fortunes and those of their business partners, without the slightest regard for people’s well-being, the country’s aesthetic capital or environmental health.

Demonstrations organized by You Stink soon attracted other civil society groups and ordinary citizens fed up with the sectarian political system and the country’s economic nosedive. A massive rally in Martyrs’ Square on Aug. 29 protesting the sectarian/political elite’s monopoly over political and economic life drew Lebanese citizens from different sects, classes, ages and regions. It assumed the air of an anti-sectarian carnival of national conviviality, with people determined to creatively express their national, rather than sectarian, affiliations. You Stink activists followed their words with deeds, entering the Environment Ministry and organizing a peaceful sit-in to demand the minister’s resignation.

Using the democratic logic of accountability — a foreign concept in the lexicon of Lebanon’s institutionally entrenched and clientelist sectarian system — the activists contended that since the environment minister had failed to resolve the garbage crisis, he should tender his resignation. Not so by the logic of the sectarian system, however. The Interior Ministry’s riot police stormed the building and evicted the protesters. Having placed the country on political pause for years awaiting the fog of the region’s geopolitical battles to clear, the sectarian/political elite converged to condemn You Stink’s bravados and reassert their power.

Indeed, we should not underestimate the sectarian system’s political economy and ideological hegemony: Too many people continue to benefit from the sectarian system’s neopatrimonial networks. The system distorts their incentive structures, creating an environment of general lawlessness that protects all types of criminalities. The sectarian/political elite possess substantial institutional, material, legal and para-legal coercive capabilities. Their ideological hegemony, albeit not immune to challenge, remains strong, cemented by a network of corporatist institutions deployed to produce disciplined and docile sectarian subjects. Their ability to mobilize crowds in the name of the sect still outnumbers those of civil activists, at least for now. Their strategy vis-a-vis the protesters and sit-ins includes a combination of containment, infiltration, counter-mobilization, disinformation and, ultimately, brute force. Their aim is to turn this latest challenge to their sectarian political economy and ideological hegemony into a late summer ephemeral nightmare.

And yet this is precisely why the struggle against Lebanon’s sectarian system must be invariably creative and protractive — a series of ever-growing practices of resistance rather than a lightning strike. Indeed creativity is the hallmark strategy of You Stink and other groups, as they demand accountability, rule of law, a new electoral law and respect for basic civil rights. Another mass rally was held Sept. 9 to maintain the momentum of the protests, and many activists have gone on a hunger strike to force the resignation of the environment minister.

Some might contend that Lebanon is a regional outlier, that its sectarian contests are idiosyncratic, the consequence of an entrenched corporate consociational power-sharing agreement and a stubborn overlap between domestic and geopolitical contests. However, recent developments in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria seem to suggest that, unless the current regional trend is reversed, Lebanon may actually be the future of the Arab world rather than its past. Popular uprisings and the sectarianization and spread of geopolitical battles unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are consecrating tribal, ethnic and sectarian identities as the main markers of political mobilization and identification across the region.

This shift has nothing to do with a resurgence of traditional primordial sentiments. The invention or reinvention of ethnic, tribal or sectarian identities underway in the Arab world is instead driven by specific structural, situational and geopolitical factors. Be that as it may, these new identities may soon become reified, presumed by their adherents as unchanging, primordial givens. More ominously, prospective post-conflict political pacts may replicate Lebanon’s experience by institutionalizing corporate, predetermined rather than liberal, self-determined power-sharing consociational arrangements, with all the former’s instability and reproduction of sectarian and ethnic identities.

Despite this worrying regional trend, the anti-sectarian protests underway in Lebanon suggest that the institutionalization of corporate consociational power-sharing arrangements is not an irreversible process. Similar protests in Iraq are also an indictment of the failure of the post-Saddam sectarian/political elite to manage their own power-sharing arrangement, a direct result of the central government’s corrupt and sectarian policies. Demonstrators in Lebanon and Iraq are rallying behind the same set of basic demands: political accountability, institutional reforms, better living and economic conditions, and an end to the squandering of public resources along sectarian clientelist lines. In sum, they want a reorganization of the political order that moves beyond narrow chauvinistic sectarian calculations and opens up space for anti-sectarian actors in an inclusive civil state.

Whether they are gathering in Beirut or Baghdad, these protesters are risking life and limb to show that there are always better alternatives to established corporate sectarian orders and those nascent institutions currently being constructed. Though demonstrators may be struggling against far more powerful and more organized opponents, and the resurgent sectarian regional tide is operating against them, their opposition to the sectarian system’s disciplinary and illicit practices helps demystify its ideological hegemony, slowly but surely liberating more and more people from its shackles. Perhaps one day their efforts and sacrifices, like the ones of those who came before them and will undoubtedly follow, will sweep away the political garbage created by sectarianism and build fairer and more accountable political orders.

 

Bassel F. Salloukh is an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and co-author of “The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon,” (Pluto Press, 2015) and “Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World,” (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).