Bottling up Urban Space: Unpacking Contesting Sovereign Power and Environmental Insecurity in the Greater Beirut Area (GBA)

4th Mar 2020 by Ana Maria Kumarasamy

Bottling up Urban Space: Unpacking Contesting Sovereign Power and Environmental Insecurity in the Greater Beirut Area (GBA)

Since the civil war, the inhabitants in the Greater Beirut Area (GBA) has routinely been exposed to waste management issues and efforts to regulate them. In the summer of 2015, protesters took to the street after rubbish started accumulating in the streets of Beirut. The protests started after residents in Naameh in the Mount Lebanon Governate blocked access to the landfill, which collected almost 90 per cent of the garbage in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, excluding Jbeil (SWEEP-NET, 2014). The “You Stink” movement represented not just a waste management problem, but also wider issues related to the zu’ama – the political leadership (Arsan, 2018; Najeem, 2012). The Naameh landfill had been a temporarily solution for waste management in the region since 1997 but continued to be used and expanded beyond its capacity until its closure in 2015. Subsequently, in attempt to solve the crisis the regime relocated the landfills to Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud, now situated directly by the coast and adjacent to Beirut, in the eastern and southern suburbs, respectively. Consequently, this article seeks to unpack the impact the zu’ama has on urban space and the environment. 

By considering formal and informal power structures (Mabon, 2019), I argue that the failure to tackle the underlying dysfunctions in governance has led to the manifestation of political exclusion and environmental deterioration. This article starts by considering the theoretical implications of spaces of exception (Agamben, 2005) and its relation to the environment in urban space. Thereupon, critically examining the role of the zu’ama and political structures in Lebanon that has led to the establishment of a malfunctional waste management system by considering Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud Landfills. [KA1] 


Conceptualising Spaces of Exception in Urban Spaces and Implications for the Environment 


At the centre of this analysis lies ideas around sovereignty and spaces of control, but these structures in Lebanon are often seen as weak domestically. According to Sarah Fregonese; however, this understanding of sovereignty in Lebanon “misleading and even obstructive of peace in Lebanon” (2013). Furthermore, that engagement with the idea of ‘hybrid sovereignty’ is more productive in understanding the interactions between state and non-state actors (ibid), and the formal and informal (Mabon, 2019). This approach to sovereignty leads to an understanding of sovereignty as a complex space forged by a myriad of actors working within the state, which in this case is the zu’ama – the political leadership in Lebanon.          

In the GBA, which holds more than 50 per cent of Lebanon’s population (Human Rights Watch, 2017), sovereignty has several implications for inhabitants in urban space and the environment. As such, this section seeks to explore how the regulation of the environment have prompted exceptional spaces of control, thus entering the realms of biopolitics, which for Giorgio Agamben signalises the inclusion of human life into the political realm (1998). Drawing on this, Agamben utilises the idea of the state of exception is the most extreme judicial order and the suspension of its rule. The state of exception is shortly defined as the ability of the sovereign to include the exception into the judicial order and make it appear as ‘true’ state law’ (Agamben, 2015). Consequently, the state of exception can be understood as a masked state of emergency – hidden in plain sight. In the GBA, this mechanism is translated into spaces of exceptions which is found on two levels that will be discussed further in the following sections. 

Firstly, through on a regime level, defined by the zu’ama, through the implementation of the Taef Agreement which restored power sharing after the civil war ended in 1990. Briefly, with the inclusion of the Taef Agreement into law, it now appears as the only ‘true state law’ – a state of exception – embedded in the legal framework, the law that above everything else decides on the life of the inhabitants in Lebanon. Including, as John Nagle argues, a state of exception that was deployed by former warlords through Law 84 (passed in 1991), thus enabling a system of state amnesia where 8000 militia fighters were integrated into the state apparatus (2019: 10). Secondly, at a local level through the manifestation of emergency measures set in place by the zu’ama as a means of dealing with waste management in GBA. The spaces of exception on this level includes regulation of the environment that in turn has ramification for inclusion and exclusion in urban spaces. As Mick Smith (2011) argues in his deployment of Agamben:  

Isn’t there now a real, and devastatingly ironic, possibility that the idea of an ecological crisis, so long and so vehemently denied by every state, will find itself recuperated, by the very powers implicated in bringing that crisis about, as the latest and the most comprehensive justification for a political state of emergency.”(xvi [Italics in original])  

In short, environmental factors becomes the newest justification for spaces of exception. Furthermore, Smith argues what is at stake is “nothing less than the ecological future of the natural world and the ethnopolitical future of humanity (ibid). In the case of GBA’s landfills, as this article looks at, the exception at regime level of the zu’ama is one based on the Taef Agreement; and the local levels within the landfills is an exception based on ‘environmental emergency’.


Sovereignty, the Zu’ama and Public Goods 


Through the utilisation of ‘hybrid sovereignty’, this intervention bases its understanding of sovereignty in Lebanon is a large and comprehensive system that evolves around the zu’ama - the political leadership. The zu’ama in Lebanon consists of many individual za’im – leaders. Distinctively, the individual za’im can possess, individually or collectively, capabilities of creating and embedding exceptional systems that enables regulation in the everyday life of groups of people. As Andrew Arsan’s argues “the za’im’s political power is built, in large part, out of his ability to act – for good or bad – in the everyday lives of his followers, to intercede on their behalf, to procure work and provide food or medication, as well to punish, to take away and exclude” (Arsan, 2018: 154). As such, the zu’ama represent contesting sovereign power that competes in order to ‘survive’ as a part of the state, but that also colludes in order to prevent the state from becoming too powerful (Najeem, 2012).  As such, it is the zu’ama that decides on the exception in Lebanon – the sovereign that belongs both inside and outside the law. 

The exception within the judicial order emerges from Taef Agreement through the constitution; thus, reflecting ‘true state law’, or the law that above any other law decides the quality life of the constituents. The result, as commented by Salamely and Payne, is that the different “blocks tend to focus less on addressing national needs and reform than on safeguarding their perspective share of the public pie with regard to one another” (Salamey and Payne, 2008: 467. The power of the troika, which includes the president (Maronite), the prime minister(Sunni) and the speaker of assembly (Shi’ite), enables actors to bypass the parliament and negotiations in order to avoid deadlock, thus making it possible for the zu’ama to evade legal checks on power (Ragab, 2011: 28). As such, the zu’ama operates both inside and outside the law – as the entity that can decide on the exceptions. 

The inclusion of the zu’ama within law is parallel to their capabilities to work outside the law. This is illustrated through the failure to implement new laws that are well written but that does not translate into action. In 2018, laws were introduced simultaneously with the implementation of the CEDRE Progamme, which is backed by foreign investors, aimed at improving sectors such as transportation, water, wastewater, electricity and solid waste management (Atallah, et al, 2019). Due to the influence of foreign benefactors, legal frameworks were established in different sectors that directly related to the sectors, including water, food and solid waste management, but also laws designed at tackling corruption (Legal Agenda). This includes the new solid waste management law that was ratified by parliament on the 24th of September 2018 but has since not been integrated into practice (Human Rights Watch, 2018). One of the reasons for this is that these laws go against the nomos – the law of the zu’ama - as they are often the main benefactor of some of these sectors. 

The nomos of the zu’ama has implications for state resources and the division of public goods. After Taif, Lebanon changed from a laissez-faire economy that was dominated by the private sector into a zu’ama led ‘neoliberal’ economy that is based on patron-client networks. (Baumann, 2019; Leenders, 2004). As such, the Taif agreement created a system in which the troika is working cross-purpose and vetoing each other while seeking to maximise their economic potential. The outcome of this system has two main outcomes. Firstly, the use of government contracts as a means of maintaining political power. This is played out through wasta – mediation, “if I help you then you are obliged to help me later” (Deets, 2018). which has an important role as an ‘informal contract’ in achieving economic and entrepreneurial goals, as well as political, as a way of facilitating “sweetheart deals among befriended or connected businessmen and politicians” (Leenders, 2004: 177). Exemplified when the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) Micael Aoun negotiated the position of the Ministry of Energy and Water for his son-in-law Gebran Bassil in 2009 (Eid-Sabbagh, 2015: 65). Another common example, being when Hariri gave, Sukleen, owned by one of his Saudi business partners the contract to collect and dispose GBA garbage in 1994 (Deets, 2018). These are some examples that demonstrate the mechanisms of wasta and the importance of networks. 

Secondly, the political structures also distribute public goods into excludable and non-excludable goods, either benefiting one particular network (religion, sect, class) or all inhabitants, respectively. Excludable goods are used to maintain patron-client relationships, between the za’im and their network, including goods like security, health and education, thus entrenching social inequalities between groups (Cammett, 2015). Consequently, non-excludable goods, such as electricity, water, infrastructure and waste management, are important in relation to wasta, but its effectiveness has a low priority (Deets, 2018: 143). Furthermore, accountability for non-excludable goods is diminished as the zu’ama can easily shift responsibility among themselves. As Stephen Deets points out; “wasta does not collect city garbage, reduce traffic, or create urban green spaces” (ibid). As will be discussed in the next section, these mechanisms have ramifications on waste management in GBA. 


Waste management in the GBA 


Waste management in Lebanon includes a history of crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990. It has never had a national plan covering the whole country, and as such, the central government have largely focused on waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon Governate, which is home to more than 50 per cent of the population and 50 percent of its waste (Human Rights Watch, 2018). As this section will explore, waste management in Beirut display the implications of the zu’ama and non-excludable goods, and subsequently deep-rooted inequalities in the region. 

Waste management has historically not been based on an environmental or a heath basis, but decisions are rather made last minute and in order to prevent emergencies. One example of this is the countless emergency plans, first set in place in 1997 for solid waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon (excluding Jbeil), that lasted until 2016. This plan according to UNDP contracted the “Sukkar Engineering Group (today Averda Group) to collect, treat, and landfill solid waste from an area serving about 2 million people. The plan was partially implemented despite controversies linked to (1) system costs, and (2) the effectiveness of sorting and composting plants” (UNDP, 2010: 170-172). Two decades after its implementation of the initial emergency plan waste had increased from from 2000 tons/day in 1999 to 2850 tones/day in 2013, with over 2500 tones/day going to Naameh landfill (SWEEP-NET). Thus, stretching the very limits of the landfill which continued to be expanded until its closure on July 17th 2015 when local residents were aided by activists and reporters. (Geha, 2019). As such, the inability to manage waste in Lebanon is the direct result of last-minute decisions made by the zu’ama in order to avert a crisis – ultimately creating spaces of exceptions. 

In the summer of 2015, the closure of Naameh landfill came at a time were the parliamentary elections had been illegally postponed twice and the presidential post was yet to be filled. While the smell and the threat of disease was looming, it became clear that the regime had little accountability towards their inhabitants (Deets, 2018). Furthermore, what made the crisis exceptional was the fact that all parts of GBA was affected by piles of garbage, including the middle- and upper-classes (Atwood, 2019).  However, that does not mean that the crisis and following mobilisation was not also an exclusionary process. The exposure of the hazards posed by the garbage was unequal; “garbage has been removed from certain upper-class areas and dumped in lower-class areas” (Naeff, 2018). Consequently, the waste crisis fleshed out deep rooted problems of exclusion in Beirut.  

However, while the protests in Beirut showed solidarity towards the Naameh residents, it has fallen short of protecting the Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud landfills from reopening, even though they had both previously been closed due to environmental crisis and local activism (Atwood, 2019). In the case of Bourj Hammoud, activism surrounded ‘garbage mountain’ go back to the 1980s and reopening it was seen as an assault on local activism and their rights (Atwood, 2019). For some activists, the political support behind Naameh and the ‘you stink’ movement was more about cleaning up the political structures as reflected in the next election and the inclusion of Beirut Madinati in the following election seeking to challenge the confessional politics (Geha, 2019). Therefore, the same political structures that defined the lives of Naameh residents are now reproduced and effect the residents adjacent to Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud landfills. As such, sovereign power – the zu’ama – infringe upon the agency of the inhabitants in these areas.     

Moreover, as non-excludable goods the contracts for the landfills was negotiated through wasta in 2016. The contract for the Costa Brava landfill was allocated to the brother of Saad Hariri’s Head of Personal Security for 288 million dollars (Yee and Saad, 2019). However, the landfill has been closed several times due to local activism and airport security as the birds attracted to the garbage may pose a hazard to the plane (BBC, 2017). In addition, the company has been accused of adding water to the trash in order to get larger pay-outs, and yet the company got an additional 161 million dollars to upgrade and expand the operation (Yee and Saad, 2019). Similarly, the contract for Bourj Hammoud was given to businessman Dany Khoury who has close ties to President Michel Aoun for 142 million dollars (ibid). However, the company has been accused of dumping waste directly into the sea stemming from the lack of a functional brakewater – the mechanism that stopes the waste from going directly into the sea. As a result, it was reported that storm surges had sucked rubbish out into the sea from Bourj Hammoud (Haddad, 2009). As a result, there was demonstrations by fishermen and eco-organisations in 2017, the outcome being that fishermen were promised compensation (ibid). Another problem with Bourj Hammoud landfill is toxic waste. In 1987 Italian toxic waste was dumped in several places in Lebanon, including this site, however, the amount is unknown. Yet, without testing the site the company levelled the 5-storey garbage mountain, possibly pushing toxic waste into the ocean posing a threat to oceanic life (Atwood, 2019; Haddad, 2009). These contracts, the companies holding little accountability, are the production of the current political structure that is implemented by the zu’ama. Moreover, they pose considerable pollution and a treat to the health of the inhabitants. 

Furthermore, in Blake Atwood’s analysis, it is argued that the Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud landfills were “already socially polluted” as a result of decades of war and neglect from Beirut’s zu’ama that had created these spaces as inferior (Atwood, 2019). As such, these urban spaces have become places of exception and exclusion. For example, Bourj Hammoud landfill started as a result of informal duping at the beginning of the beginning of the civil war. The area has a large Armenian community, stemming from the Armenian genocide in the 20th century, but also a smaller Shi’ite community, and the area hosted internally displaced persons during the Civil War. Despite recent activism aiming to close the landfill, Human Rights Watch reported that the site was set to reach its limit in the summer of 2019, but the landfill has continued to be expanded (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Furthermore, the regime has provided no alternative for waste management and considering the most recent protests against the regime alternative plans related to waste management remain unsolved. 



Through the exploration of waste management in GBA, this article has unpacked structures around ‘hybrid sovereignty’ – the zu’ama – and their manifestation of use of public goods as a way of maintaining power. These structures are explained through spaces of exception; one shows how the zu’ama established themselves at sovereign through the Taef Agreement, and the other exemplifies how landfills and the adjacent areas are ruled by exceptions. This article has shown that public goods are used in two ways by the zu’ama. Firstly, through the use of wasta and allocating contracts as a means of maintaining networks. Secondly, through the distinction between excludable and non-excludable goods, as a way of maintaining patron-client relationships.   

Furthermore, the political structures in the GBA and in turn Lebanon, has created spaces of environmental insecurity and political exclusion of the inhabitants adjacent to the landfills. At present, the landfills in GBA continue to be expanded, creating spaces of exclusion, despite local activism, thus continuing to pose a hazard to people’s life, the oceanic life and fishermen’s livelihoods. Concluding, that the political structures surrounding waste management in the GBA are transgressing on the agency of the local inhabitants and contributing to the manifestation of inequalities and environmental insecurity.




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Photo credits: Anne Kirstine Rønn, taken in Beirut, October 2019.