Large protests are gripping Beirut’s streets once more, demanding an end to the garbage crisis that has overwhelmed the country in the past month. Called for by grassroots activists using the Twitter hashtag #YouStink (#طلعت_ريحتكم), in reference to the country’s political elite, the protests are forming into an embryonic civic movement against the sectarian political system that has paralyzed the country for decades.

The large and diverse crowds the protests have attracted highlight the extent and spread of popular discontentment in the country. Whether the activists succeed in pushing forward any sort of reform will depend on their next move.

Sectarian and Classist Garbage

For weeks on end, garbage has slowly collected on streets and pavements across the country, overwhelming the Lebanese with its stench in the summer heat, as well as exposing them to mounting health hazards. The crisis erupted in mid-July when the Ministry of Environment closed the Naameh landfill, south of the capital Beirut, without having first identified a replacement site. This led to the suspension of garbage collection services in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

The problem is a long-term issue that had been flagged by the Ministry of Environment and Lebanese activists months earlier. But the ministry failed to launch a process through which to identify a sustainable and eco-friendly solution to this crisis, including working with the municipalities to sort garbage at the source, which would have been a more cost-effective option. These failures have sparked a nationwide discussion on the links between the mismanagement of vital services and Lebanon’s crippling political corruption.

The country’s politicians have bickered and, apparently, engaged in secret backroom negotiations over which company should be awarded the lucrative garbage collection contracts. As so often, the talks took on a sectarian flavor when multiple bids were launched based on geographic or sectarian considerations. Broadly speaking, the Lebanese perceive the companies involved in the garbage collection contracts to be affiliated with select political figures or parties. In one of the debate’s more memorable moments, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt tweeted a suggestion to establish an independent garbage dump for each religious sect in Lebanon, as a sarcastic response to the al-Akhbar daily, which had accused him of being responsible for the garbage of Muslims.

Discussions over where to bury the garbage also took on class dimensions, with inhabitants of remote and impoverished areas like Minieh in the north protesting their land’s transformation into a national garbage dump. They called instead for implementing the desperately needed development programs that they have long been promised, which—unlike the garbage—the state has never delivered.

Lebanon’s Political Paralysis

At the heart of this debacle lies Lebanon’s political system, which associates political representation with sectarian affiliation. While the Lebanese constitution guarantees equality between all citizens, an unwritten national pact forged between the country’s leaders on the eve of independence in 1943 divided the key posts in the country among the three key sects. The president was to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. A peace deal forged in 1989 in the Saudi city of Taif, during the final stages of Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war, was supposed to be the beginning of the end of sectarian quotas. But in fact, the Taif Agreement maintained the old arrangement with some adjustments, allowing for an equitable distribution of top-level civil service posts and of parliamentary seats between Christians and Muslims. These were meant to be temporary clauses until a senate of religious leaders could be appointed, as a first move toward the abolishment of Lebanon’s political sectarianism.

This part of the Taif Agreement was never implemented, and, a quarter of a century later, the quota system remains in effect. Sectarian balance is considered at all levels of government. Even government positions and economic gains from public contracts tend to be distributed on a sectarian basis. The system has facilitated unprecedented public forms of nepotism and clientelism—so much so that Lebanese politicians see no shame in calling for the appointment of their own relatives to public posts and openly demanding their share of the pie.

In recent years, the situation has been aggravated by the Syrian civil war, which divides the Lebanese political class and the country itself. Lebanon has been without a president for over a year, and the Lebanese parliament, originally elected in 2009, has twice extended its own term; a new poll date is due in 2017. The absence of a head of state has placed executive powers in the hands of the government collectively, but Lebanon’s 24 ministers have interpreted this to mean that they now each represent the head of state and, as such, have the right to veto every decision. Consequently, the country has come to be governed by what may be called a vetocracy that has paralyzed decisionmaking at every level.

This comes at a critical moment, in which Lebanon is faced by a series of interrelated and growing crises. Around 1.1 million Syrians have fled the horrors of war and are now stranded in Lebanon, leading to strained relations with many in their host communities. To make matters worse, Syrian jihadist extremists have clashed with Lebanese security forces and kidnapped several Lebanese soldiers and policemen, holding them in captivity for over a year. The social and political problems have been accompanied by a sharp deterioration in service provision, including electricity and water, among other issues. In March, a campaign launched by the Ministry of Health alerted Lebanese citizens to the dismal food safety standards across the country. Meanwhile, murders committed in road rage incidents and a string of kidnappings have shocked public opinion and contributed to a general sense of growing lawlessness in the face of an increasingly incapacitated state. With sectarian and political violence raging just across the border, the situation is indeed very dangerous.

The Smell of Hope

In this context, it was perhaps inevitable that even though the #YouStink campaign was initially focused on the garbage crisis, the protests would become about so much more.

The #YouStink organizers set up an online crowdfunding campaign to raise the $2,000 needed for protest material, but it quickly surpassed their expectations. At the time of writing, they had managed to get close to $10,000 from 166 different donors. The aim of their protest is to push the government to adopt an eco-friendly solution to the crisis, to ensure the bidding terms for the new contract are acceptable to environmental experts, and to hold those responsible accountable.

The protest on August 22 attracted a broad spectrum of Lebanese from different regions, economic backgrounds, and sects. In conversations with the protesters, the absence of a unified political objective or even discourse was evident. People came because they wanted electricity or water, or simply because they were fed up and saw in this nonpolitical protest a real chance at affecting political change.

And while some protesters chanted the now-familiar refrain of “The people want to bring down the regime” and banners claimed “It is not just the garbage, it is a degenerate regime” or “Some trash should NOT be recycled”—in reference to the country’s political leadership—the absence of a clear, unified political objective was evident. When asked what “the regime” meant to them, different protesters pointed to different political figures or simply said “All of them.”

These demonstrators seem to transcend the March 8 and March 14 movements, two broad coalitions that are respectively aligned with and against the Syrian regime and that have defined Lebanese politics since 2005. The protesters also seem to be united in their rejection of the country’s sectarianism, its political elite, and the corrupt practices it represents.

In effect, what they are calling for is the implementation of the social contract promised to them through the Taif Agreement and the establishment of a civic state that recognizes them as equal citizens before the law. For many who took to the streets, despite the outbreak of violence, this movement was not about them and not about garbage collection, but about the future of their children in Lebanon.

Risks and Opportunities

It is difficult to tell whether the #YouStink protests will pave the way for revamping Lebanon’s political system, or whether it is one more movement that will dissipate with time, waiting for the next crisis to happen.

Some developments over the past few days point in the latter direction, including the violence on the ground, the seemingly ad hoc demands that emerged out of the protests, and the inability so far of the organizers to build a unified front with other civil society groups and activists who joined the protests. The organizers also have legitimate concerns that this movement may be hijacked or derailed through violent acts by the existing political parties, as is believed to have happened last weekend. At this point, they clearly have neither the resources nor the organizational capacity to compete with the established political forces. In a regional context where multiple wars rage and international and regional power games intersect in complicated ways, there is a risk that pushing the country’s political system to the brink could result in chaos.

What is also evident is that the protests have brought forth a vocal opposition operating outside the current political system and unconstrained by the politics of March 8 and March 14. Focusing their demands on attainable goals connected to the daily grievances of people may be the best strategy the organizers can adopt to build up momentum for a viable alternative vision for governance of the country. Lebanon’s political leaders must in turn recognize that continuously undermining the country’s institutions has pushed matters to the edge and may in the future lead to the dissolution of the state.

Meanwhile, irrespective of what comes next, this formative experience may yet help produce the brand of new and fresh leadership the country desperately needs.