BEIRUT (Reuters) - The powerful Shi‘ite party Hezbollah and its Christian allies walked out of an emergency Lebanese cabinet meeting on Tuesday in protest at a proposed solution to a garbage disposal crisis that has ignited violent protests in Beirut.
The national unity government led by Prime Minister Tammam Salam also canceled a tender to select new refuse collection firms, underscoring the difficulties it faces overcoming the crisis that has brought popular calls for it to step down.
Public anger that has come to a head over the trash crisis turned violent at the weekend, with scores of protesters and security forces injured. Salam has threatened to resign, expressing frustration at the failings of his cabinet, which groups Lebanon’s rival parties.
Failure to agree a solution to the crisis has laid bare wider political stagnation in Lebanon, where sectarian and power rivalries have been exacerbated by Syria’s four-year-old conflict.
Ministers including members of Hezbollah and Christian politician Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement walked out of Tuesday’s emergency meeting, the information minister said.
Hezbollah in a statement slammed the “mounting and worsening corruption” it said the garbage crisis reflected.
A government statement released after the walkout said tenders announced on Monday to award contracts for waste disposal to private companies had “included high costs”, and had therefore been rejected.
Media reports and activists had accused the cabinet of awarding the contracts to a number of companies based on regional and political affiliation, reflecting alleged corruption and politicization of the issue.
The government said that as a temporary measure rubbish, which has festered on the streets of Beirut, would be tipped in Akkar province in north Lebanon, in return for a $100 million “sum” that would go toward development projects in that region.
The information minister said it was the proposed sum that triggered the walkout. Akkar, one of the poorest regions in Lebanon, is mostly Sunni but also has many Christian areas.
Beirut-based activists from the “You Stink” campaign held two large rallies over the weekend and a smaller march on Monday, with calls for a solution to the rubbish crisis quickly turning into calls for the cabinet to resign.
Protest organizers have called on Lebanese at home and abroad to join them in a large rally on Saturday.
Lebanon’s army commander General Jean Kahwaji said late on Monday the armed forces would protect any peaceful demonstrations but would not tolerate “security violators or infiltrators” who sought to sow “sedition and chaos.”
Organizers of protests, which began peacefully, have blamed the violence on troublemakers whom they say are connected to rival sectarian parties. The U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon on Monday urged “maximum restraint” by all sides.
Calm has prevailed since the weekend clashes, however, and later Tuesday, workers were removing concrete blast walls erected the day before outside the cabinet headquarters which protesters had covered with colorful anti-government graffiti.
The protest campaign, which has mobilized independently of the big sectarian parties that dominate Lebanese politics, blames political feuding and corruption for the failure to resolve the crisis that has left piles of uncollected garbage stinking in the scorching sun in recent weeks.
The cabinet and parliament are deadlocked, and politicians have been unable to agree on a new president for more than a year while Syria’s war next door has aggravated sectarian tensions and driven more than one million refugees into the country.
The Salam cabinet, formed last year with the blessing of regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, has avoided a complete vacuum in the executive arm. It brings together Sunni Muslim former prime minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future movement, Shi‘ite Hezbollah and Christians.
But it has struggled to take even basic decisions and tension in cabinet has escalated over appointments in the security agencies and army.
The trash crisis began last month when the main refuse tip for Beirut was closed, with no ready alternative. While collection has resumed in some areas, no lasting solution has been found.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Samia Nakhoul/Tom Perry and Dominic Evans