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Lebanese protesters clash with security forces during a demonstration against the ongoing trash crisis in Beirut, August 22, 2015. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon's Garbage Politics

Lee Smith

Over the weekend, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to protest against their country’s corrupt political culture. The immediate cause of their concern, and anger, is that the country’s garbage has not been collected for a month and has come to pose, as Lebanon’s health minister warned, a “health disaster.” More generally then, the protests were directed at Lebanon’s political class and most of the country’s leadership, including Prime Minister Tammam Salam. Even after the violence that killed one demonstrator and injured many more, some observers are now hopeful that this growing protest movement (aptly named “You Stink”) might kick off a genuine revolution against the Lebanese political system and bring real democracy to the jewel of the Levant.

Tragically, this is not the case. In reality, the “You Stink” movement is conclusive evidence that for the majority of Lebanese, law-abiding and freedom-loving, their situation is hopeless.

The protests against Lebanon’s political class began in earnest and were quickly overtaken by proxy forces acting on behalf of a few very prominent members of that political class. Photographs show the political affiliations of the thugs sent to the streets to cause mayhem—tattoos and other markers identify them as members or allies of Hezbollah and Amal, the party of God’s sometime Shiite partner and frequent rival for communal favor. Some are saying that followers of Hezbollah’s Christian ally Michel Aoun joined Hezbollah and Amal to attack the army and security forces, who then escalated by opening fire—rubber bullets and also it seems live ammunition—on unarmed civilians. Hence the protest organizers, fearing more bloodshed, have decided to postpone future demonstrations, at least for the time being.

In the aftermath, it’s hard to piece together exactly what happened. Why for instance would Hezbollah send its followers to the streets to attack an army that it controls and has enlisted in its sectarian war against Sunni fighters? Some speculate that Hezbollah wants to topple the government, or that it wants to block certain political appointments. Other interpretations are even more elaborate: some are saying, for instance, that Aoun is mad at Amal chief Nabih Berri because he openly rejected Aoun’s presidential bid. Then Aoun went after the army because the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces hates him, and he hates him in exchange. Hezbollah lent some token support to Aoun because—well, why not? It costs them nothing because they know that it’s irrelevant.

In other words, it doesn’t really matter why thugs were sent because, well, that’s Lebanese politics—petty and pathetic. Which is to say that the premise of “You Stink” is right on the mark: Lebanon’s political class is venal and corrupt and that’s why they regularly put innocent Lebanese in the middle of their mafia feuds.

But the other reason that it doesn’t really matter is because the premise of the “You Stink” movement is missing the point entirely, because the real problem with Lebanon isn’t the country’s craven politicians. Indeed, it was the 800-lb. gorilla himself who reminded everyone last weekend that the real problem with the country is the well-armed terrorist organization that serves as Iran’s praetorian guard on the eastern Mediterranean. The problem is Hezbollah. Everything else pales in comparison.

When critics of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action explain that Iran will use the cash windfall from its multi-billion dollar signing bonus to assist its allies, we tend to emphasize that the money will buy more weapons for Iran’s regional proxies. That’s of course true, but in the case of Hezbollah, the money will also be lavished on a Shiite constituency that is very anxious about its central role in the Syrian conflict.

It’s true that some Shiites fear that Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian war, its central role in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, has stirred up vicious sectarian feelings, but there’s another reason they’re worried. After Hezbollah fought Israel in 2006, the money started rolling in (from Iran as well as Gulf states, Europe and even the United States) to rebuild destroyed Shiite areas and Hezbollah got rich. And then lots of people around the party also saw their standard of living improve—cars, houses, clothes, etc. The lesson that some drew was that war was cost-free—indeed, it was a profitable investment! Many of Hassan Nasrallah’s followers believed him when he called thousands of casualties and billions of dollars of damage a “divine victory” because it followed the logic of the most fundamental fact of warfare—money flows not to those who lose wars but to those who win them. Hezbollah must have won because it got paid.

The fact that Hezbollah has had to cut back on services as the organization fights in Syria is demoralizing. Iranian leadership boasts of belt-tightening—they call it a “resistance economy”—but they’re not on the front lines of the Syrian war like Hezbollah is. Now the JCPOA comes as evidence that Hezbollah’s steadfast resistance paid off. Nasrallah will use that shower of Iranian money to build a rainbow and show his followers that they’re on the winning side. Their blood bought wealth. And soon they will be under the protection of an Iranian nuclear weapon. And then the Sunni Arab states will acquire a bomb and that’s when the fighting will turn really bad, especially for the Shiites because they are outnumbered.

In the meantime, Israeli officials are worried that the cash flow may tempt a newly reinvigorated Hezbollah to try something foolish, even as it’s still bleeding badly on the Syrian front. This conflict, as Israeli officials have explained, will almost surely engulf all of Lebanon because Hezbollah has spread its enormous arsenal throughout the country. Seen in this context, the “You Stink” movement is a coping mechanism that suggests to the Lebanese there are practical steps they can take to solve their problems. But they can’t because the central problem for Lebanon is the terrorist group with 100,000 missiles pointed at an enemy who does not believe that the problem with Lebanon is garbage collection and corrupt politicians.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the Lebanese because their situation is tragic. Even if they do see that the fundamental problem with Lebanon right now is Hezbollah, there’s little they can do about it, except to make war. “Understandably, they have no wish to return to the horrors of the civil war years,” says Tony Badran, research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “For those Lebanese too young to recall that fratricidal conflict, they can look at Syria today to see what’s likely in store. And yet, even if they do not make war against Hezbollah, war is going to come for the Lebanese anyway—if not with Israel, then as a spillover from the Syrian conflict. They’re making war against all their neighbors, and they’re the weakest of them all.”

In other words, there are no good choices for Lebanon. And this is what the “You Stink” movement is really about—it is a gesture representing the inability of nearly 4 million people to avoid a catastrophe. It’s about a man whose foot is nailed to the floor and who walks in a small circle even as he tells himself everything is normal, that he is walking to the store, walking to the beach, walking his children to school. The “You Stink” movement is about something tragic—it’s about a country where people have no control over their lives. After all, if most Lebanese have to deal with the fact of Hezbollah, the party of God answers to Iran—and when the regime in Tehran sends them to their deaths, they will go and die and take down the rest of Lebanon, too. This is the saddest country in the world.

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