Lebanon: How piles of trash led to a violent uprising against the government

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Story highlights

  • More than 400 people have been injured during clashes on the streets of Beirut
  • Protesters want to topple the government, which does not currently have a president

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN)How can a protest about trash piling up lead to an uprising that threatens the future of Lebanon?

That's exactly what's happening in the capital city, Beirut, where streets filled with putrid garbage have turned into a battlefield.
    Protesters hurled rocks and firecrackers at police. Officers launched tear gas and water cannons as fires raged in the streets. After two days of violence Saturday and Sunday, dozens of people have been hospitalized.
    Organizers decided to take a break from the protest Monday to re-evaluate their approach, but vowed to continue demonstrating later this week.
    The furor, of course, isn't just about heaps of uncollected trash. That's just the tipping point.

    So what do the protesters want?

    "People want to topple the regime!" many of the protesters chanted Sunday.
    Demonstrator Karma Hamady elaborated: "This protest is about a government that can no longer sustain the basic needs of its people."
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    And that goes far beyond trash collection.
    "We are here today against sectarianism of the Lebanese government, our parliament of thieves that stole from the people's pockets, forcing our youth to emigrate," said a protester who gave only his first name, Mohammed, to CNN. "We are here to protest against lack of jobs, poverty and hunger."
    The protest was organized by a group called "You Stink" -- a reference not just to the trash, but to the demonstrators' view of the government.
    The government hasn't managed to organize trash collection as it's grappling with a variety of other problems: deteriorating water and electricity systems, accusations of corruption and the parliament's inability to decide on a president after 15 months.

    How bad are the casualties?

    More than 400 people were injured in Sunday's violence, including 59 who were hospitalized, the Lebanese Red Cross said Monday.
    The Internal Security Forces Directorate General said 99 members of the security forces were injured, and 32 rioters were arrested.
    Lebanese Security Forces spokesman Col. Joseph Moussalem said at least one police officer was critically wounded when protesters hurled rocks and firecrackers.
    Moussalem said a civilian was also critically injured, but the circumstances were not clear.

    What is the government's reaction?

    The Lebanese army was deployed to the streets of Beirut on Sunday to try to quell the violence.
    In a televised speech, Prime Minister Tammam Salam warned that Lebanon was at risk of collapse.
    All this comes as the country remains without a president.
    The next Cabinet meeting will take place Thursday, which might spur reforms that could calm protesters down. But that's far from a certainty.

    Why doesn't Lebanon have a president?

    In Lebanon, it's the parliament that chooses the president. And the parliament can't agree on one.
    The country has a "confessional democracy," meaning political and institutional power must be distributed proportionally among religious communities.
    So the Lebanese presidency is reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament has to be a Shia Muslim.
    But different factions of parliament want different candidates to be president, so the lawmakers are deadlocked.

    What would happen if the government really does step down?

    Army deployed in Beirut to quell anti-government riots
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    If Salam resigns, parliament can choose his successor. But if the Cabinet gets dismantled, there's no clear game plan.
    So the protesters may be in a precarious situation, said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute.
    "On one hand, they are tapping into ... anger and dissatisfaction with the political elites and feeling that it's time for them to go," she said.
    "But on the other hand, you have a large majority of the Lebanese population who are asking, 'Well, if we bring down this Cabinet, which is the only remaining political institution that's working, what's going to be next? What's the road map for what comes after bringing down the Cabinet?' And that's what's forcing more and more Lebanese now to start thinking whether they've gotten too close to the brink, and it's time to step away from it."

    Why should the U.S. and other countries care?

    The U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, France and Iran don't all agree on many issues. But when it comes to Lebanon, none of them wants to see it collapse.
    Despite its political instability, rolling blackouts and attacks from Islamists, Lebanon has actually been a state of relative calm in a messy region that has seen collapsed states such as Syria and Libya.
    Israel's allies are also concerned that instability in Lebanon could increase the risk of conflict between Israel and Lebanon's major political and military force, Hezbollah.
    Lebanon is also a haven for refugees escaping bloodshed in the region. It has absorbed over 1 million Syrians fleeing that country's gruesome civil war.