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Karim Barakat

Sectarian trash: How secular demands brought about sectarian solutions

Activists say the government's proposed solution reinforces Lebanon's sectarian divisions [AFP]

Date of publication: 3 November, 2015

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Comment: The failure of Lebanon's civil society to balance the call for resolving the garbage crisis with ending sectarianism allowed the Lebanese government to push for sectarian solutions, writes Barakat.

A solution for the refuse crisis in Lebanon appears to be imminent, pending the approval of all political parties and the resolution of a few remaining obstacles.

The public movement denouncing the nation's political failure began with targeting the accumulation of trash, a potential gateway to tackle other problems all falling under tackling the corrupt sectarian state.

But whereas the demands stemmed from a secular ideal of a functioning modern state, the resolution of the refuse problem came to further celebrate sectarian divisions through allocating landfills by region, and thus, by default, allocating resources along sect-specific lines.

While the movement certainly cannot be held responsible for such a reversal of ends, critical scrutiny requires asking what went wrong - even if that only serves the purpose of beginning to understand the sectarianism that continues to reproduce itself and instill itself in every state practice here.

Accordingly, one ought to ask how it is that the pressure applied by a secular movement has only served to hasten the development of a solution that echoes a further entrenched sectarianism.

     Since its inception, the movement has neither been unified, nor did it have an agreed-upon set of goals


Movement mistakes

Since its inception, the movement has neither been unified, nor did it have an agreed-upon set of goals.

Two sets of demands were articulated. While some groups, including YouStink, decided to limit goals to the resolution of the trash problem, others called for the dismantling of the sectarian regime altogether.

For a while, this duplication of demands did not constitute a problem, but served to expand the movement's scope and promote inclusion. Additionally, both sets of demands had their justifications. Those who argued for focusing on the trash crisis adopted a gradual plan of escalation that aimed at achieving small goals.

Those achievements would then further buttress the movement and provide added clout, allowing it to transition towards more complicated demands - the electricity problem being one of the main future targets.

The final goal would be to slowly pull apart the bureaucratic beast of state by eliminating sectarian considerations and introducing accountability.

The philosophy of the other camp, meanwhile, seeking to replace the sectarian political regime all at once, had its advantages. The concern was that calling for resolving the trash crisis on its own would lead to implementing just another temporary solution that would lead to the resurfacing of the problem within a decade.

Any resolution would have to target the cause of the problem - a defunct state that employs tribal allegiance as means to reduce political responsibility to a minimum.

Yet both strategies have backfired. The radical task of undoing the sectarianism inherent in the political regime proved to over-reach itself by setting an impossible goal, and thus failed to sustain its zeal.

This becomes especially difficult with the unfortunate overwhelming support that political parties still retain in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the divide-and-conquer tactics have also met with failure, by which the solution offered by the political leadership for the trash crisis appeared to undercut the strategy aiming to gradually push corrupt groups out of the circle of influence - by maintaining sectarianism and corruption within the resolution itself.

The state's manipulation

It should come as no surprise that a state formed out of ethnic groups that have controlled the masses through mere manipulation for decades has now succeeded in devising a solution that leads to the collapse of any hope for change.

The fact that a solution for the refuse crisis only began to take form at the very last minute, when streams of water carried trash down the streets, is indicative of another political tactic at work.

The disastrous solution came when no one could reasonably object anymore - activists were forced to choose between continuing to contaminate underground water reservoirs or succumbing to the decisions of the ruling parties.

     The state's solution thus took advantage of the divisions of the movement


The state's solution thus took advantage of the divisions of the movement. If finding a solution to the problem of the trash was the main demand, then a resolution could come at any expense - even if it entailed further partitioning and compromising national unity.

The movement was unable to maintain a commitment to the rejection of sectarian and corrupt solutions while pushing primarily for resolving the trash problem, and the ruling parties exploited that space.

In the aftermath, it is clear that several concerns need to be raised concerning the movement's continued efficacy.

The movement's splintering into several groups, along with the recent monotony of its organised events have led to a sharp drop in public enthusiasm.

This renders new tactics necessary in order to guarantee that pressure continues to be applied against the government. But with regional political settlements looming on the horizon, it becomes legitimate to ask whether any grassroots movement could ever unsettle the status quo in Lebanon.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy in the American University of Beirut. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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