Thousands of tonnes of uncollected rubbish in Beirut have become a symbol for the country’s deeper political malady.

Nour Samaha | 26 Aug 2015

What ostensibly began as public frustration over the Lebanese government’s failure to tackle the country’s rubbish crisis has since swelled into massive street protests, with residents from across the political spectrum calling for a change in government.

Al Jazeera examines what is really behind the public outcry and how the situation might evolve from this point.

RELATED: Public anger grows as Beirut’s trash crisis persists

How did it all start?

After the closure of the Naameh landfill on July 17, thousands of tonnes of rubbish began to pile up on the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Naameh, which opened in 1996, was originally intended as a temporary landfill for Beirut and Mount Lebanon, with a plan to hold two million tonnes of rubbish and cease operations after two years. But it remained open for nearly two decades and now holds close to 20 million tonnes of rubbish.
Frustration grows on the streets of Beirut

Residents and activists succeeded in shutting down the landfill in January 2014, protesting against the associated environmental and health hazards. The government extended its operations for a year, saying it would seek alternatives. This past January, protesters shut down the landfill again, and the government asked for another six months to find another landfill.

But by July 17, the government had again failed to deliver, and the approximately 3,000 tonnes of rubbish that would have been collected on a daily basis were left to rot in the summer heat on the streets.

What is this really about?

Residents say the rubbish issue is just the latest in a long line of government failures in a country that has been without a president since May 2014. Parliament has been unable to meet in order to elect a president, as parliamentary factions have boycotted the sessions until a consensus candidate can be agreed on. Lebanon’s parliament has extended its own mandate twice after cancelling elections, and the cabinet has been unable to agree on a path forward.

Residents say the rubbish issue represents everything that is dysfunctional about Lebanon’s political system as the country grapples with severe shortages of power and water. The rubbish pile-up was simply the tipping point, said Maha Yahya, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“What we’ve seen over the past year is a gradual deterioration of services across the country,” Yahya told Al Jazeera. “The quality of life has gone backwards and is declining slowly. At the same time, there is a government that is running the country with its politicians too busy doing their own backdoor deals, so there is a strong sense that none of the politicians are putting the public first.”

The quality of life has gone backwards and is declining slowly. At the same time, there is a government that is running the country with its politicians too busy doing their own backdoor deals, so there is a strong sense that none of the politicians are putting the public first.

Maha Yahya, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center

As a result, a grassroots protest movement called “You Stink” has been gaining momentum, calling for the resignation of a number of top officials, including the environment minister.

Why has the situation escalated so quickly?

Over the weekend, the situation escalated dramatically after Lebanese security forces used tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and live rounds to disperse thousands of protesters in downtown Beirut. Hundreds of people were injured.

The incident intensified the public outcry, with many now calling for the downfall of the government. The “You Stink” movement has issued a list of demands, including early elections, an investigation into the use of force by security forces, and the release of anyone arrested during the protests.

For its part, the Lebanese government has been unable to agree on an appropriate course of action due to the current state of political deadlock. Politicians and ministers have been quick to lay the blame at each other’s feet, while Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk has called on citizens to help solve the issue.

Many residents say the situation has hit rock bottom, and they are willing to forgo party affiliations and community divisions to go to the streets to protest against the government.

“It feels like this is something real, and everyone is joining in,” Mahmoud, a Beirut resident who did not provide a last name, told Al Jazeera. “We are sick and tired of being lied to and stepped on by these politicians.”

What happens next?

Another mass protest is planned for August 29, and the “You Stink” activists are hoping that the crowds will continue to swell.

The government, meanwhile, has done little to quell the public outrage, and instead, erected a concrete wall to separate the Grand Serail (Government Palace) from the protesters – a move that has only enraged people further. In the space of 24 hours, the wall became a mural of graffitied slogans calling for the government’s downfall. By the next day, Lebanon’s prime minister had ordered the wall’s removal.

Despite growing public pressure, Lebanon’s politicians have still not directly addressed the protesters’ demands. They have reopened bids for waste management in Beirut, but activists say this will not lead to a solution anytime soon. In the meantime, the political bickering continues.