BEIRUT: Lebanese officials are putting the health of the public in danger by racing toward waste incineration without a firm regulatory framework or strategy in place, according to caretaker Minister of State for Administrative Development Inaya Ezzeddine.
Likening officials’ support for incineration to a health care system centered solely on intensive care, Ezzeddine said, “You start with primary health care and prevention, then secondary and tertiary care, and then an intensive unit.”
“Give me that full-fledged system from A to Z, and I’ll say, ‘OK.’
“But none of that exists,” she told The Daily Star in a recent interview at her office in Downtown Beirut, recalling her fierce opposition to a law endorsed in September introducing a framework for solid waste management in Lebanon.
Ezzeddine, also an MP representing Tyre, voted against the law, going against her own bloc, the Amal Movement.
“Nobody agrees to a framework law without a strategy, because the framework should stress the priorities in your strategy,” she said. “The law has a hundred abnormalities.”
“I said to officials, ‘Fear God, you don’t see where you’re going.’”
She said that incineration done the wrong way poses a “danger to our health not for five or 10 years it can pollute every form of life for hundreds and thousands of years.”
Ezzeddine cautions that the law allows every municipality to operate an incinerator, a feature that caretaker Environment Minister Tarek Khatib confirmed in a recent interview with The Daily Star, calling it the “right” of municipalities.
“Let me tell you something,” Ezzeddine said, “politicians should keep their mouths shut about some things and leave it to the experts.
“Put in place the structure of governance, but don’t think that because you understand two words about a subject you can now speak about it authoritatively.”
She said no plans have been put in place in Lebanon to deal with the highly toxic “fly ash” that is a result of incineration. “In Europe, it’s sent to six places, it costs thousands of euros per ton to dispose of, they store it in 2,000-meter-deep salt mines, or put it in sarcophagi, like the pharaohs, surrounded by 3 meters of cement. Where is this [possible] in Lebanon?”
ENTERING THE ‘MOVEMENT OF HOPE’
Ezzeddine said her upbringing as a “daughter of the south” during a time of Israeli aggression on Lebanese territory had pushed her toward political activism and the Amal Movement. Seeing the vast gap in development between her village in the south and her place of birth, Beirut, made her wonder: “Do I belong to this nation or not? And this nation, does it want us or not?”
“I think all of us in our youth have a bit of revolution inside of us, and although our parents, the war generation, used to get scared if we talked politics, I would do it,” she said.
Ezzeddine got to know the family of Amal Movement founder Imam Musa Sadr early on in her life, and said she was drawn to his rhetoric, focused on securing rights for those he characterized as “the deprived.”
In 2009, Speaker Nabih Berri, the head of the party, asked her to join its politburo. Then, in 2016, with the new government set to be formed, Berri informed her she would be a minister if the government was composed of 30 members.
Ezzeddine became the only woman in that Cabinet, making her the “de facto role model for women,” she said, rather than the minister of state for women’s affairs, a position that was given to a man.
“When they put a man as the woman’s minister, I said it’s a good thing – it’s good for a man to be on board. Maybe he can convince the other men,” Ezzeddine said.
“I’m against the idea that women should be tied only to women’s and children’s issues. If we want to become part of the political [decision-making process] and have a say on issues of industry, war, finances and economy, we should get into those spheres of public life.”
Her office, the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Development, often abbreviated as OMSAR, has few, if any, prerogatives – and no budget or permanent staff. It is staffed and funded by the United Nations Development Program, something she said comes with advantages and disadvantages.
She said staff members are hired quickly and based on merit, with little regard for the sectarian quotas that often handicap hiring at other Lebanese state institutions.
But at the same time, she said many employees felt they answered to the UNDP and not to her.
They are also outside the jurisdiction of the state’s major oversight agencies, the Central Inspection Bureau and the Court of Audit.
A CLINICAL APPROACH
Ezzeddine studied laboratory-related sciences in Lebanon, the U.K. and the U.S., and established her own private lab, which she said she still visits whenever she can.
Ezzeddine said that her experience in the medical profession had led to success at OMSAR because she set out plans to treat the “root causes of the problem.”
“Maybe you treat some symptoms to comfort the patient, and we can do some topical treatments, but the main solution is a plan based on a vision – a strategic plan,” she said.
TWO ‘LANDMARK’ STRATEGIES
Ezzeddine said that she was particularly proud of two strategies developed during her tenure that, if endorsed by the next Cabinet, would be “landmarks.” One is a strategy to prevent corruption and the other is the Digital Transformation Strategy, which aims to bring Lebanon into the information age.
Ezzeddine said the corruption prevention strategy had been forged out of exhaustive interviews with heads of public institutions to identify areas at risk of corruption.
“Now it needs political support.”
The Digital Transformation Strategy, she said, could help tackle the lack of trust Lebanese people have in the state. “Like many Lebanese, I don’t have trust in the state, and I don’t know if I’ve gained any [throughout my tenure],” she admitted. “The world is heading toward a digital revolution while Lebanon remains in the pre-internet era,” she said. So the strategy was developed to “transform Lebanon, with a focus on facilitating transparent services for citizens whenever they want and wherever they are.”
As an example, she spoke of a ministry with several departments under it that requires citizens to provide several copies of the same documents because its administration has no online platform to share the documents. Blown up to the scale of the entire government, she said, “Can you imagine how many resources are wasted?”
Her strategy would also set standards for online privacy while helping to foster a culture of privacy among Lebanese citizens, who she said needed to be “sensitized on issues of security and privacy.”
Both strategies were completed ahead of Cabinet entering caretaker status in May, she said, but they weren’t placed on the agenda in time. “I hope the next government endorses them quickly,” she said.
CAN AN AMAL MEMBER BE A REFORMER?
In Lebanon, the Amal Movement has a bad reputation for alleged widespread involvement in corruption. But Ezzeddine denies there is any hypocrisy in being affiliated with the party while at the same time advocating for reform.
“How do you fix things? Sometimes you can’t fix things except from the inside,” she said.
“Amal knows I’m like this, and they brought me in as a minister.”
Lebanon’s political sectarian system is “deeply corrupt,” she acknowledges, and so she supports the idea of a civil state. “But with what we currently have, I say let’s try to get the best people from each sect.”