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Lebanese say #YouStink to government’s garbage crisis and corruption

In Lebanon, citizens are angry that their government cannot provide them with even the most basic services. After years of water shortages and rolling blackouts, its halting of garbage collection was the tipping point, provoking protests that transcend religious differences. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on how a trash crisis is raising calls for revolution.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    We turn now to another corner of the Middle East, Lebanon, where a crisis surrounding trash and what to do with it has sparked a political movement that's shocking the country's leadership.

    NewsHour special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports from Beirut.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    People here are angry that their government cannot provide them with even the most basic services.

  • MAN:

    We want to say that this is enough, no electricity, no water. We are in 21st century, and we are asking for our needs.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    The Lebanese government is increasingly so ineffective, people cannot even rely on trash collection. After years of water shortages and rolling power blackouts, the halting of garbage collection was the tipping point.

    Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, or Druze, life without basic services is a struggle. These popular protests are the first in Lebanon's modern history to not be centered on religion or political parties. Keeping it that way will be the biggest challenge for their organizers.

  • WOMAN:

    When you walk between the people, you can see people from everywhere. You can see people from all the religions. You can see people from all the regions in Lebanon, from the south, from the north, from everywhere.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Is that unusual in Lebanon?

  • WOMAN:

    Yes, it is unusual.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Lebanon's government is carved up between the country's Muslim, Christian and Druze factions. After the brutal sectarian civil war from 1975 to 1990, power-sharing became even more important. It keeps the peace, but at a cost.

    When politicians disagree, government grinds to a halt. This summer, Lebanon's main garbage dump reached capacity, and it was shut down before the country's leaders could agree on a new one. In the midst of a heat wave, piles of stinking garbage are everywhere. An online movement used the hashtag #YouStink to call for protests.

    After violent clashes with protesters outside the main government building, a large concrete wall was erected. Some poked fun at the move. This sign in Arabic reads: "Thank you for this wall. It helps us express our opinions." The wall was quickly removed.

    The government did get the message, and have tried to deal with the crisis. A temporary solution to keep trash off the streets of the capital is to truck it out into the countryside to various areas and illegally dump it. And now it's increasingly common for truck loads of stinking rubbish to be dumped in areas of great natural beauty.

    Lebanon's landscape is one of the most stunning in the Middle East. But illegal dumping is turning a political crisis into an environmental one. Shocking images like this are also drawing people to the protests.

    Nadine Mazloum lives in a rural area near an illegal garbage dump.

  • NADINE MAZLOUM, Local Resident:

    It's basically because the government has a monopoly over the garbage. It's a multimillion, if not billion-dollar industry. It creates so much money for the government, and that's why it doesn't want to let go — it doesn't want to let go of the privatization of the garbage.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Like many in Lebanon, she blames corruption, saying the companies that are bidding to get the contracts to manage waste are connected to the politicians.

  • NADINE MAZLOUM:

    Of course, of course. I mean, until now, it's — we have had garbage on the streets for over a month. And they — it's like they can't find a solution. It's not that they can't find a solution. They don't want to find a solution. They just want to be able to divide that pie, that garbage pie, among themselves. It's really obvious.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Fabulous wealth is on display in Lebanon, and the income divide is getting much wider. The civil war in neighboring Syria has caused over one million refugees to flee to Lebanon, a country of less than five million.

    People here are worried their government is too weak to run the country.

  • MAN:

    All the people, they are fed up with the insecurity, with instability, with garbage, with corruption, with the lack of electricity, with polluted water, with the absence, the paralysis of the government, the closure of the parliament, which means a nonfunctioning country, as if we are becoming a failed state.

  • JANE FERGUSON:

    Protest organizers have given the government until tomorrow night to find a solution to the crisis and fire the environment minister. Otherwise, they say they will hold protests across the country.

    But demands are also being made for wider changes, like calls for fresh parliamentary elections. It will be a significant moment in Lebanon's history if a grassroots movement that includes people from all religions and sects can create real political change here.

    Jane Ferguson, PBS NewsHour, Beirut, Lebanon.

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