The Rafiq Hariri solution to Beirut’s rubbish crisis

A Lebanese activist protests against the ongoing rubbish crisis in the capital Beirut. There's too much politics in rubbish, argues Faisal Al Yafai (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
A Lebanese activist protests against the ongoing rubbish crisis in the capital Beirut. There's too much politics in rubbish, argues Faisal Al Yafai (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Silvio Berlusconi today has a rather trashy reputation, but the man who was Italy’s prime minister three times understands the vital importance of collecting the rubbish.

Back in 2008, straight after an election victory, Mr Berlusconi took his entire government to Naples, then in the grip of a serious rubbish crisis. He pledged to end it, and did (albeit briefly).

Mr Berlusconi understood that no leader could expect to survive politically if basic services are not met. If that message was not understood in Beirut, the past few days of protests, with riot police firing tear gas at demonstrators, will have been instructive.

Rubbish is inherently political. The ability of a state to manage infrastructure services like rubbish collection, water and electricity says a great deal about its stability and functionality.

In Lebanon, the politics of rubbish is not limited to rubbish.

The dysfunction of the Lebanese state is not merely expressed by its inability to pick up the rubbish – it is also expressed through the lack of electricity, the lack of water and the lack of road infrastructure.

This summer has been one of the worst for years for electricity shortages, which even in Beirut average three hours a day in summer.

All of these responsibilities come under the heading of public works. Lebanon does have a public works ministry, but also divides these essential tasks among other ministries: transport, telecommunications, energy and water all have separate ministries. Rubbish disposal is actually the responsibility of the minister of the environment.

Unsurprisingly, having such a division of responsibility exacerbates the problem.

In the cabinet, for example, the ministries of public health, the environment, energy and water, and public works are each headed by a minister from a different political party and a different faith group.

The politics of faith run through the politics of everything in Lebanon.

Ministries are divided along confessional lines, but even the salaries of public sector workers, and their number by faith group, are watched by political leaders to ensure no sect is disproportionately advantaged.

The problems of rubbish collection in Beirut, then, are not limited to rubbish collection. And seeking to find a solution to one aspect of government leads, rather rapidly, to questioning the entire basis of how that government is formed.

Yet the answer to this rubbish crisis in Lebanon’s capital cannot be to call, as some have done this summer, for the end of the confessional system.

Dismantling the system has to be done carefully, with a clear idea of what will replace it. A warning, if one were needed, of what can happen otherwise exists over the border in Syria.

Instead, a simpler solution is to seek to remove rubbish collection from the confessional system; to take the politics out of the trash.

And not merely rubbish. Water, electricity and transportation should be removed from the confessional system and placed into technocratic ministries. By depoliticising public works, there is a greater chance they will work for the good of the public.

Call it the Rafiq Hariri solution. Hariri, when he was prime minister of Lebanon, famously ran two governments: the main one, split between sects, and a second one made up of technocrats (and paid for by him).

Doing that, for example under a new ministry of public works, would allow the confessional system to remain for most ministries, but remove the dysfunction of political competition.

Indeed, given how many aspects there are to public works, there’s no reason a new public works ministry couldn’t be sure to incorporate balanced numbers of employees of all sects, so that none can cry foul.

Lebanon’s rubbish crisis is serious. Demonstrators have been injured in the protests, tourism has been affected, and daily life has been disrupted.

But it is only the tip of the iceberg. The problems of ageing infrastructure in Lebanon are only exacerbated by the confessional system, which enforces a constant drag, and even a block, on development in the name of confessional harmony.

By removing part of the function of the state from politics, Lebanon could at least provide a model for how politics could be done without confessionalism. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be a step forward.

The best way to get politicians to pick up the rubbish is to first remove the politics from rubbish.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

Published: August 24, 2015 04:00 AM


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