Lebanon’s trash crisis is Hezbollah’s chance for a power grab

Originally posted on The News Hub, August 30, 2015.

Dysfunctional politics, a country in crisis and without a president, Lebanon has stumbled face first into a veritable pile of political garbage. The continuing trash crisis that erupted into violence last Wednesday has pushed an already-strained government into a forceful confrontation with the growing mass of protesters in Beirut in what many have dubbed the YouStink campaign. And what started out as a simple protest against the government’s inability to provide basic public services has exploded into an all-out call on the government to resign. Despite the stink rising from the gutters it’s impractical to believe that the Lebanese parliament will simply walk away without a fight and much more possible that one of the few relatively stable nations in the Middle East is about to fall into a violent, bloody civil war.

Over the past week violence escalated as protesters launched rocks and small firecrackers at police officers and military personnel who retaliated with tear gas, water guns, and rubber bullets to quell the crowds. According to the Red Cross, more than 400 people were injured on Sunday alone. On Tuesday, in an attempt to assuage frustrations, cabinet members met with contractors to try and restart negotiations. Unfortunately, the meeting adjourned with Hezbollah-aligned members walking out.

Despite Lebanon’s strategic location (wedged between Syria and just north of Israel), the nation has been able to maintain a relative peace with its neighbors since the withdrawal of Israeli forces in the early 2000s and Syrian forces in 2005. Both were occupying nations and since 2006 have engaged in minor clashes but still able to avoid all-out war. Instead, Lebanon has been faced with internal political and religious divisions throughout much of the 21st century.

In 2008 the pro-West government under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora denounced Hezbollah (a Shiite Muslim militant group and political party) and Amal (largest representative Shi’a political party in parliament) attacks in Beirut as an attempted coup. The violence that erupted between the parties left dozens dead and it wasn’t until the Doha Agreement was reached that the violence ended and a unity government was formed, which granted veto power to the Shi’a opposition groups. Despite the win for the opposition parties, the unity government eventually collapsed in 2011 following the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which Hezbollah claimed was an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty by Western powers and unfairly targeted Hezbollah political members for the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Since then the Lebanese government has had to function in a fractured state, with all parties distrusting of one another and forced to deal with the large influx on Palestinian and Syrian refugees. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2012 Hezbollah took an active role and expanded its presence both in Syria and Iran, beefing up its populist credentials.

Now Hezbollah is at a crossroads. The Lebanese government remains in a stalemate and much of Hezbollah’s own political future and public standing depends on the role it plays in the Syrian civil war. Is Hezbollah truly representative of the Muslim Shiite population? Will it emerge as a champion against pro-Western interests?

As of now Hezbollah has been able to capitalize on the Middle East region’s instability, garnering support from both state and non-state actors but unable to swell their support within Lebanon. Now that public frustrations with poor public services have exploded into demands for the dissolution of the Lebanese parliament, Hezbollah isn’t wasting any time throwing their backing behind the public.

In its official statement, Hezbollah endorsed “the right to peaceful protest and the right to object,” and that ““constructive objection is legitimate, considering that fair solutions will calm down the people and lead to action for the benefit of the people.” It’s anyone’s game and right now it looks like Hezbollah has decided that in this confrontation it is the people who come out on top – and they want to be right there with them leading the charge.

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