MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
People in Lebanon are used to muddling through. The government doesn't seem able to keep the power or water on or even control traffic. And then this summer, the trash collection abruptly stopped. NPR's Alice Fordham reports that the stink makes for the kind of crisis that forces Lebanese to look at the way their country works or doesn't.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Usually Beirut is one of the pleasanter places in the Middle East, a bright cosmopolitan city squeezed between the Mediterranean Sea and a green ridge of mountains. But for about two weeks, its streets have been filling up with mounds of festering garbage.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Trash is climbing up the mountain. It's getting higher and higher.
FORDHAM: There's a pile outside this lady's house. She blames Lebanon's politicians.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So I hope they will do something about this trash business because people are suffocating, and I hope they suffocate, too, like we are suffocating.
FORDHAM: She doesn't want her name used because she's criticizing powerful people, but plenty of people are publicly vocal.
Angry protesters gathered outside the government building last weekend. Some even called for the fall of the regime. What's happened is Beirut's landfill overflowed for years, and now it's been closed. But with no plan to build a new one, trash collection just stopped in the capital and the villages around it, like Roumieh village, where I meet the mayor, Lewis Abi Habib. He says when garbage began to pile up, local officials were told to do what they could.
LEWIS ABI HABIB: So I said, great, you know, maybe this will give us a chance to do something ourselves, you know? You know, in terms of - in times of crisis, this is very good time to find solutions, you know?
FORDHAM: He's encouraged garbage sorting and is even talking about composting and recycling. But for all his efforts to fill the gaps in the state, Abi Habib says the garbage is just a symptom of problems making the Lebanese angry.
ABI HABIB: Well, of course there's a build-up of pressure on many issues, you know? They feel like nothing is happening.
FORDHAM: Since the end of a civil war 25 years ago, leaders have become expert in workarounds and postponing things to prevent conflict. For more than a year, they haven't been able to choose a president, delaying new legislation.
As of yesterday, some garbage collection started in Beirut, but residents of rural areas say it's just being dumped a bit out of the way. Analyst Sahar Atrache with the International Crisis Group says finding a way to patch up a problem is typical.
SAHAR ATRACHE: Just to control, a bit, the situation, but it's not sustainable. It's not really a real solution for the problem.
FORDHAM: Some say the delaying tactics have at least kept the country out of the terrible violence roiling the rest of the region and point out that a million Syrian refugees in this tiny country are straining it. But Atrache thinks this isn't resilience. Divisions and anger are growing as the countries neglected by politicians.
ATRACHE: The good thing about garbage, too, that it is affecting them too. So you know, like, I'm hoping that the political class is really suffering like all other Lebanese.
FORDHAM: She hopes maybe the outrage over trash could galvanize politicians into governing the country just a bit more effectively. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut.
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