Beirut is sinking. The #Youstink protest movement at a political impasse.

The Municipality in Beirut stopped collecting garbage in this year mid-July. This episode is just the tip of the iceberg. 

20 / 10 / 2015

The Municipal Administration in Beirut is closely linked to the March 14th parliamentary bloc whose influence extends to the entire country, and the capitol city comprises roughly half of the state population. From the middle of July 2015, direct action on the part of local citizens due to widespread health issues and pollution in their community has forced the central government to stop all waste disposal activity in the landfill located in the town of Naa’meh, to the south of the city, causing trash to pile up city-wide at an approximate rate of three thousands tons per day. 

This has prompted a group of young protesters to gather themselves under the hashtag #Youstink, to call out to the people suffering from this environmental crisis to take to the streets. After the small core group of #Youstink protestors were brutally put down by security forces on the 19th of August, thousands of Beirutis and citizens from all over the country took to the streets on the following weekend, as the numerous protests reaching a critical mass on the 22nd and 23rd of August after a month of political inaction and seeming contentment from the establishment as the dismal status quo slid into a state of environmental emergency. On the 22nd of August, thousands of protestors assembled during the afternoon and marched in an attempt to protest at the cordoned-off Grand Serail (the headquarters of the Prime Minister) in downtown Beirut. The peaceful protest was met by a riot squad, police special forces, and the parliamentary guard; greeting the protestors seeking passage with water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and in a few rare instances, live ammunition as well.

In November 5th 2014, Lebanese MPs decreed to extend their mandate for more four years under the pretext of preserving “national security and state stability”, after allegedly having been unable to agree on a new electoral law. The presidential elections (the office of the president of Lebanon is elected by parliament, not directly by its citizens) should have occurred last spring, but no candidate was able to gather enough votes to assume office. In the last time a vote was attempted, a political stalemate has deferred the race for the office indefinitely. Current Prime Minister Tammam Salaam has convened more than twelve sessions in a year, without any result, seemingly caught in the middle of the nearly ten-year old standoff between the pro-West/Saudi March 14th and the Pro-Iran/Russia March 8th blocs.

In these past few months, #Youstink and other groups have built a flexible coalition and have continued to gain popular support, evolving into a protest movement against widespread corruption and mismanagement of nearly all the basic services in the Beirut municipal region and beyond, where the state’s presence has become increasingly absent. 

Lebanon has an impressive wealth in natural resources for its diminutive size, primarily in water and untapped natural gas and petrol reserves that regional players such as Israel, Turkey and Syria (and other international players) would vie to control. Yet at the same time, the country has been subjected to drastic electricity and water rationing for more than a decade due to the failure of the state to budget and manage such simple services in the face of rampant embezzlement, and the inhabitants are obliged to resort to private and expensive power generators and water tanks to provide for their daily use. Beirut, which has historically been better off than most of the country in these respects, has begun to sink under its own refuse under the mercy of Sukleen, the waste collection company that is responsible for garbage collection and disposal in the capital and neighboring Mount Lebanon area. Sukleen charges 160 USD per ton of trash for its services (rankings as one of the most expensive in the world) and its catastrophic mismanagement of the Naa’meh landfill (and the resulting crisis) has been at the heart of the matter for the popular movement.  

The #Youstink movement, and groups that spontaneously followed suit, such as “Badna Nhasib” (“We Want Accountability”), “Hellu ‘Anna” (“Leave us Alone”), and other more localized groups such as “Akkar Minna Mazbaleh” (“Akkar is No Garbage Dump”), with the support of the UCC (Union Coordination Committee) and prominent NGOs such as The Legal Agenda, have risen to the challenge by mostly peaceful means. The sense of humor and ingenuity of the Lebanese people has been at the front and center both online through heavy social media activity (the #YouStink community page on Facebook page has 177,000 likes and counting) and through quick direct action on the ground that has taken on many forms. For example, collecting and delivering garbage to MPs’ homes and having an ironic but lively bazaar and street festival in the place of a protest when the head of the Beirut Commerce Syndicate called the protestors “communists” and people who want to turn the sparkly and gentrified downtown space into a souk for “Abou Rakhousa” (“Mr. Cheap Stuff”). 

To better understand the structure of the protest, the recent developments and the implications of this movement I posed some questions to J.N. a young Beirut inhabitant and musician, personally involved and active in anti/government protests.

What is the composition of the protests that have emerged in the last months?

I think they have been unprecedentedly diverse for Lebanon.

Do you think that that these protests showed people from very different background? 

Recently al-Jazeera really theatrically talked about: "Martyrs' square, the line that divided west and east Beirut during the civil war, has recently unified Beirut." Do you agree?

Yes, you have the classic sectarian and regional divisions being transcended, but more importantly, class divisions are being overcome as well. One of the most important results of this movement today is that we seem to be moving towards a new sense of citizenship and people from opposing political lines have found themselves shoulder to shoulder in the fight against corruption.

What are the main governmental interests on which the parliamentary blocs are playing and betting now? I mean, there is some political reason not to caring or try to resolve the situation, or are we in front of simple political post civil war static?

The people whom are in government today are mostly in the professional business of corruption and are just trying to maximize their personal profits whilst staying in a position of power as long as they can. It is a very lucrative line of “work”. They basically want to privatize and divvy up the entire public sector, the trash collection “industry” is just the current crisis/windfall. I think the telecom and electricity companies are up next. At the moment, they feel as though time is on their side and are waiting for the protest movement to “lose steam” and motivation, as well as threaten us that “the rain is coming” and that we had better accept their proposals for waste disposal (such as reopening Naa’meh), or else the trash they have been piling up on the sides of roads, under bridges, and in the Beirut River, will cause a health crisis and the result will be all due to “our stubbornness”. They feel they can bet on waiting and believe time is on their side, whereas I am not sure that really is the case if they want to stay in power in the future.

How do you experience daily corruption in Beirut's streets?

It is very prevalent in how there is very little law enforcement, respect for traffic laws for instance, nearly everyone thinks they are “above the law” and don’t abide by it. We can point to an especially egregious example where a man was stabbed in the middle of the street in midday, and a police officer just stood idly by, probably afraid of the perpetrator’s political connections…

How and where precisely was the idea of #Youstink conceived? And what does it mean now that it reaches hundred thousands of people?

I am not part of the #Youstink group so I have no clear idea of their origins and can’t speak for their platform. I think the idea behind their movement simply came to be by drawing a metaphorical parallel between the corruption of the political class and the inability of said class to effectively deal with the recent environmental (trash) crisis. That is, they “stink” like the trash they have failed to collect and process, I guess.

When have you understood that #Youstink protests were becoming something big in Beirut? Which one has been a focal moment?

The tipping point was certainly the moment the police and state apparatus decided to use violence against the protestors, and the protests kept growing in size and immediacy from there. 

Recently #Youstink in a press conference declared that there are some proposals to solve the situation, are there any concrete projects?     

Yes, there have been many concrete projects proposed by several experts affiliated with the various environmental movements that have sprung up in the wake of #Youstink and via #Youstink itself, I believe. Notably, there has been a call for a state of emergency with a plan delineated many times by Dr. Charbel Nahas on behalf of the “22th of August Coalition”. The state has met these many initiatives with a deaf ear; they dismiss any effort to encourage the people to recycle, and just want to start new landfills in rural and agricultural areas. 

We all saw that that the Police and security forces role has been really incisive often brutal, with scenes of beating, student arrested and been subjected to drug test, even some scenes of police infiltrate through protesters. What have you witnessed to? Is the first time you observe similar "espionage" behavior? 

All I can say is that the people of Lebanon often complain that the “state” is absent in Lebanon, whereas we discovered through these actions you mentioned that the state is very much alive and well in the service of the powerful. 

Talking about the "garbage problem", what do you expect in the future?

I think it is going to be a very long, hard battle for the people to bend the state back into its service. The political elite has been working very hard for a very long time to dismantle the state and make it serve their private interests. I hope that if the people are successful in forcing the government to solve this crisis (among a plethora of other crises, the most prominent of which is holding long overdue parliamentary elections), it may be the dawn of a new era of holding those in power accountable in Lebanon. 

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