BEIRUT — Protests over corruption and political dysfunction are rattling Lebanon, threatening more instability in a country already hobbled by a huge influx of Syrian refugees and attacks by Islamist militants.
On Sunday, demonstrators clashed with police for a second day in a row amid a crisis over garbage collection that has evolved into a broader protest against the government. Thousands rallied in downtown Beirut, calling on the government to resign. Dozens of youths threw water bottles and rocks at police, who tried to disperse the crowds with tear gas, water cannons and what appeared to be stun grenades.
Police said demonstrators rushed them and tossed molotov cocktails, while the protesters accused security personnel of excessive force during what are shaping up to be the largest protests in the conflict-prone country in years.
Dozens of demonstrators and officers were wounded during similar clashes the previous evening, prompting Prime Minister Tammam Salam to issue conciliatory remarks on Sunday afternoon.
“I will not cover up for anyone,” he said. “I am ready to hear your demands.”
The protest organizer, a group calling itself “You Stink,” has promised to press on with the rallies until the government resigns.
“It’s not about the trash anymore. Our demands are more — we want this corrupt government to resign,” said Tarek, a protester. He gave only his first name, citing concerns about his safety.
Lebanon has avoided the violent upheaval that has plagued other nations in the region in recent years, including next-door Syria. But many Lebanese say that the protests are a necessary and inevitable response to broader problems related to official corruption, deteriorating public services and increasingly dysfunctional institutions.
The government struggles to provide such basic services as electricity and garbage collection, which halted here in the capital last month because of the sudden closure of a landfill. Beirut’s streets, as a result, began to fill with putrid mounds of uncollected refuse. Much of the trash has since been cleared. But it is being dumped at unregulated sites, causing some officials to warn of an impending environmental crisis.
“This is a total mess,” Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said. He described the trash issue as a “potential disaster.”
“We are a paralyzed society, and the government is paralyzed. It’s all really frightening because you’re starting to see signs of the state failing,” he said.
For more than a year, the country has gone without a president as politicians have continued to squabble. Last year, parliament decided to extend its own mandate until 2017, effectively reelecting itself because of an inability to resolve a dispute over formulating a new election law.
The political inaction has been exacerbated by tensions over the civil war in Syria. This has caused even more friction among Lebanon’s quarreling religious groups, which fought a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia unilaterally intervened militarily in Syria, joining forces with the government against the rebellion. Many Lebanese were infuriated by the move, which has sharpened divisions in parliament and, Hezbollah opponents say, dragged the country into the Syrian conflict.
Militants linked to Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate and the Islamic State militant group have carried out attacks in Lebanon. They briefly seized a border village last summer, kidnapping two dozen Lebanese soldiers before withdrawing. The militants have executed several Lebanese soldiers.
But what has further riled many Lebanese is the government’s inability to resolve seemingly basic issues such as the lack of electricity, a tough proposition for residents during what has been an unusually warm summer. In some areas of the country, residents have received only three hours of power a day.
“I’ve had enough of this country and the corruption,” said Mona Dahdah, a 47-year-old university instructor from Beirut. She supports the demonstrators, she said, but the electricity and garbage crises have persuaded her to move to France. Dahdah also holds a French passport.
“All these politicians care about is how they can make money from their positions of power, but they don’t think about us, the citizens, ever.”
Lebanese officials say that providing basic services has become more difficult because of the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees. This has brought a surge in demand for public services and strained Lebanon’s economy.
But at Sunday’s rally, the protesters placed the blame solely on the country’s elite, including its political leaders. Those demonstrating demanded revolution, chanting slogans that were popular during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Still, distrust of authorities runs so high that many protesters did not think much would come out of their demonstrations.
“Nothing will happen. After all this is over, we’ll just fall back to the status quo,” said Mark Sawaya, 32, a bank employee who turned out for Sunday’s rally.
“It’s hard to overcome these powerful and wealthy elites.”