Lebanon's anti-trash protests: A belated Arab Spring?

Gamal Nkrumah
Monday 21 Sep 2015

Rubbish disposal, or the lack of it, prompted the "You Stink" campaign in Lebanon, which fast mushroomed into a civic movement that threatens to trash the country's confessional political system

The lofty Mount Lebanon, renowned for its scenic beauty, cedar trees and ambrosial, fragrant air, has abruptly shifted towards the Mediterranean, to the sky-scraping beachfront of the Lebanese capital Beirut, reeking with the revolting stench of rubbish dumps.

The ravishingly beautiful thoroughfares of Beirut have lately been disfigured by the growing mounds of uncollected trash. It was at the beachfront of Beirut that the Lebanese political activists lost their illusions about the nature of their antiquated confessional political system.

Hard lessons would have been learned. Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014 and is unlikely to have one anytime soon.

The civic movement of the "You Stink" campaign initially mushroomed because of the stench of the rubbish, but soon was directed at the country's ageing confessional politicians, each claiming to represent one of the country of five million's 19 religious sects. Lebanon, after all, is tiny — half the size of Wales.

Draped in the Lebanese flag, the protesters, mostly young Lebanese, chanted for the dissolution of the country's outmoded political system. "Our fathers voted for you. I am here to bring you down," they yelled. "It is not raining, we are spitting on you," they bluntly told the politicians in question.

The "You Stink" campaign is aimed at naming and shaming the corrupt politicians who play "dirty politics." The "You Stink" campaign draws support from the two rival political groupings in Lebanon, the "Two Marches" called 8 March and 14 March respectively, led by rival parties Hizbullah and the Future Movement — the first predominantly Shia Muslim and the latter mainly Sunni Muslim.

But this political division based on sectarian differences is precisely what the "You Stink" campaign intends to end.

Ending sectarianism is the next big trend in Lebanese politics. A certain resignation about the deplorable situation in Syria is keeping the Lebanese on edge. After all, Lebanon was part of Syria until French colonialists carved a country with a Christian majority in the Levant.

Christians once constituted more than half of the Lebanese population; today the Christians are just over a third of the Lebanese population. Demography counts.

Moreover, Christian leaders face drastic and dramatic domestic fallout. Their approval ratings have plummeted and this is the reason why no Christian leader can be chosen to preside over the country. Christian Lebanese leaders can ill afford this latest loss of faith.

For all this activism and anticipation, the stench of rubbish piling up in Beirut's boulevards currently dominates the Lebanese national debate. Indeed, a special dilemma is presented by the rubbish crisis. Lebanese politicians and parliamentarians have grave questions to answer.

The Lebanese political establishment is beset by troubles. Who will gather the rubbish? Syrian refugees? Lebanon has over one million Syrian refugees.

A second difficulty is how to dispose of the garbage. Is it possible for Lebanese authorities to dump the rubbish in neighbouring Syria? They could, but this would not exonerate Lebanese politicians and parliamentarians.

Proponents of conventional solutions are living in cloud cuckoo land. Complicating the politics is the clampdown of the Lebanese police and security forces. Riot police cleared protesters of the "You Stink" campaign from the Ministry of Environment in downtown Beirut and even more ominously they evicted media workers too. The brutality of the mop-up operation offered an early glimpse of a trend that is only set to grow in Lebanon.

The entire squalid affair turned out not so nicely. The main group of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut's Riad Al-Solh Square, virtually the Lebanese version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, has metamorphosed into a voice calling for comprehensive political change in Lebanon.

The country has always been something of an enigma.

To draw common lessons from such disparate events as the civil war ravaging Syria and Lebanon's bewildered political establishment has prompted demands from the Lebanese of all confessions — Christians, Muslims: Shia and Sunni, Druze and other sects for public accountability including fixing the garbage crisis, and removing the 128 parliamentarians from office.

As the protests have gained momentum, so have expressions of national solidarity.

Civil society activists, under the movements of "You Stink" and the "Lebanon Eco Movement" have spearheaded the Lebanese belated "Arab Spring". And, this latest Lebanese political crisis comes at a time when Syrian refugees in Lebanon are causing a commotion. Protesters who were on hunger strike acknowledged that they would resume eating in order to better manage the protest movement.

The villain of the Lebanese scenario is not necessarily Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam — by constitutional stipulations a Sunni Muslim. He is at his wits end. He cannot convince his most strident critics to make peace.

By letting it fail to prevent moral hazard will just trigger more runs with the protesters. Salam has not stepped away from his desk, much to the chagrin of the enraged protesters.

The language in which the Lebanese garbage drama is posed should make no difference to how the urgency of the situation is answered. 

Eventually some politicians may prove adept at offering an acceptable solution to the Lebanese garbage collection crisis, but the country is fast sliding into oblivion. The Syrian political quagmire may spill over and engulf Lebanon. Most Lebanese are clearly pro-President Bashar Al-Assad. But the third obstacle to lasting Lebanese peace is uncertainty. Trouble spreads out from neighbouring Syria. Drug-running and human trafficking gangs are fast building bases in Lebanon.

Yet, Syrian newcomers bring in drive. The Lebanese have always fancied themselves as an island, but such perceptions can no longer be taken for granted. These changes have been inadvertent, a result of broader transformations in the Middle East. Lebanese cultural and religious diversity itself is an advantage. Nevertheless, such heterogeneity must not be class-based, the way it was in the past when Christians monopolised political power and economic clout in Lebanon.

The incompetent Lebanese parliamentarians are unable to convene in full in order to vote for a new president, who according to the Lebanese constitution, must be a Maronite Christian. Outside forces will not help as they did in the Taif Agreement, ratified on 5 November 1989, by Saudi mediation. The active mediation of Saudi Arabia can no longer be guaranteed to come to Lebanon's assistance today as the Kingdom does not have too much time on its hands any more. It has to deal with a host of domestic and regional crises, not least Yemen, Iraq and Iran. The latter is a now a key player in Lebanon.

The stench of rubbish in the streets has triggered street rioting. The "You Stink" campaign started in July as a grassroots undertaking to clear the piling garbage but it has metamorphosed into a far more political movement aiming to change the Lebanese political system and overturning the tenets of the Taif Agreement.

The Lebanese nomenclature must now change again. Help from abroad is out. The civil war in Syria has irrevocably changed the Lebanese political post-Taif order. The Shia Hezbullah, perhaps Lebanon's most powerful autonomous movement buttressed by its own powerful militia, is an active participant in the Syrian civil war, fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Moreover, most Lebanese Christians are sympathetic to the regime of Al-Assad, precisely because they believe he is the champion of minorities in the Levant.

Lebanon cannot turn off the turnout, so why all this sudden dissatisfaction with the status quo? Nobody dares tell Shia Muslims in Lebanon to shut up anymore. And, even the Lebanese Christians are courting them. To add to the Lebanese drama, there are ominous signs of a showdown in the making. Beirut police chief Brigadier General Mohamed Ayyoubi ordered that media workers to evacuate the Ministry of Environment and stop filming the police brutalising the protesters.

This is an apocalyptic development. Given that the Lebanese secularists are part and parcel of national politics, it is only natural that they should be represented in the Lebanese parliament. The presence of so many vociferous secularists leading the "You Stink" campaign is likely to drive anti-confessional, leftists forces into joining forces to pass legislation that is diametrically opposed to the antiquated confessional Lebanese political system.

The Lebanese political establishment is incapable of crisis management. The means by which Lebanon, or rather the Lebanese political establishment, is trying to keep its religious communities together are dubious, to say the least. The Lebanese political establishment, which was instrumental in institutionalising the confessional system of government, is incompetent and cannot stamp out separatism.

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