There’s Something Rotten in Lebanon
And it’s not just the fetid mountains of trash in the streets.
BEIRUT — By any standard, the Lebanese government is worth protesting against.
Its leaders regularly subvert democracy: Parliament has unconstitutionally extended its term twice, even as parliamentarians benefit from a generous array of perks they voted for themselves. The country has been without a president for 15 months, as parliament has failed to elect a new one, and it has not passed an official budget since 2005. Basic services are crumbling: The country suffers from hours of power cuts each day, and there is an increasingly severe water shortage.
Roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees are in the country, with many living in deplorable conditions, and the government’s only response has been to stop the U.N. registration of new refugees and to try to block Syrians’ entry into the country. Oh, and let’s not forget the persistent clashes between Hezbollah and the Islamic State, as well as other assorted Sunni jihadi groups, along the border with Syria — an existential crisis on Lebanon’s doorstep that the state is powerless to affect.
But it took a crisis over garbage to focus public anger in Lebanon. After the closure of a major landfill in July*, tens of thousands of tons of trash piled up in the streets of Beirut. As the garbage piles grew, municipalities increasingly turned to illegal dumping and burning trash to alleviate the problem. In the neighborhood of Hamra, the trash piles got so large at one point that they partially blocked a major intersection; sanitation workers covered the trash in a thin white dust meant to repel insects, but which did little to mask the smell in the summer heat.
“The government is hurting everyone who is living in Lebanon,” said Assaad Thebian, a spokesman for a protest group calling itself “You Stink,” which has organized regular demonstrations against the situation. “People are smelling the trash. The trash is blocking the highways and the roads. It shows the government’s lack of ability to create proper solutions for public crises.”
On Sunday, Aug. 23, You Stink organized a demonstration in downtown Beirut in which thousands of people took to the streets to protest the situation. Many demonstrators appropriated chants from the 2011 Arab Spring protests, calling for revolution. The event, however, ended in chaos: Some demonstrators clashed with the security forces, while others hurled Molotov cocktails; the police responded with water cannons and rubber bullets in street fights that left more than 400 people injured.
The struggles of this nascent protest movement highlight the central paradox of politics here. Lebanon has one of the weakest governments in the entire Middle East, yet it has managed to subvert popular demands for reform more effectively than virtually all of the surrounding Arab states. As countries like Egypt, Syria, and Libya — states with functional institutions and feared security forces — have all been profoundly changed by protests and war over the past four years, Beirut has somehow remained immune from popular unrest.
It’s not as if the Lebanese government is ruthlessly efficient at defending the status quo. Its response to the protest movement has been typically floundering. On Monday, authorities built a wall to protect the Grand Serail, where the prime minister’s office is housed — only to tear it down on Tuesday after protesters decorated it with art lampooning the government. On Monday, Environment Minister Mohammed Machnouk declared a “happy ending” to the crisis, while announcing the names of the companies that had won new waste-management contracts; the government canceled the winning bids on Tuesday.
The real challenge to the protest movement comes not from the government, but in organizing a common front that stretches across Lebanon’s religious and class divides. It’s already a struggle: Organizers blamed the clashes on “infiltrators” intent on disrupting the peaceful nature of the demonstration. You Stink’s Facebook page posted a video of hundreds of young men entering the protest en masse and referred to them as “hooligans” who purposefully incited violence against the security forces.
“They really wanted to damage the demonstration,” Thebian said of the protesters who clashed with police. “They want to move the demonstration into a sectarian conflict, which we totally refuse.”
Thebian’s comment echoes fears that some demonstrators hope to use the protests as leverage in the country’s traditional political game, rather than to build a truly secular movement. Some activists and political parties have seized on the fact that the “infiltrators” who clashed with the police appeared to be Shiite — noting their religious tattoos and necklaces — as proof that they were sent by the Amal Movement, a party allied with Hezbollah, to hijack the protest. Amal has denied any involvement in the clashes. The Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, published a post on its website highlighting Shiite chants at the protest and accusing the youth of sectarian motives.
The controversy provides a case study in how Lebanon’s political system short-circuits reform efforts. The country’s state institutions may not command much respect, but its diverse political parties are legitimate in the eyes of their supporters and are ruthlessly efficient at playing on their members’ fears.
Lebanon’s politicians are not above sending angry youth to undermine a peaceful protest — most of them survived the country’s brutal civil war and have doggedly resisted threats to their power for the quarter-century since. At the same time, the fact that a protester had a tattoo with a specifically Shiite message doesn’t mean that the protesters were directed by Shiite politicians, any more than the demonstrators wearing cross necklaces were under orders by Christian political leaders. A previous demonstration on Saturday also descended into violence without any accusations that “infiltrators” had instigated the clashes.
But regardless of the political leaders’ machinations, the far more potent force is Lebanese citizens’ own fear of losing ground in the sectarian battles. The You Stink movement published a frustrated-sounding Facebook post on Tuesday detailing how it had been accused of serving as a pawn for everyone from the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, to Hezbollah, to foreign powers. The accusations highlight the fact that politics in Beirut is seen as a zero-sum game: If parties belonging to one sect are gaining, the others must be losing.
You Stink is hoping to avoid such sectarian logic. It called off a scheduled demonstration on Monday to regroup, and it announced that the protests would resume on Aug. 29. With several days to prepare, organizers believe they can keep the protests peaceful and on message.
“We’re going to have better organization; we’re going to have better communication and very clear demands, so we protect ourselves,” promised Thebian.
It’s not going to be an easy task. The garbage has been piling up in the streets of Beirut for a few months, but the rotten rules of Lebanon’s political game have been in place for decades.
Correction: This article originally mistakenly said that Lebanon’s main landfill was closed in June. It was actually closed in July.