Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Anti-Rubbish Struggle Peters Out

lebanon garbage crisis protesters clash woth riot police
Lebanese protesters demonstrating against the trash crisis clash with the riot police, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 16 September, 2015. Photo by Marwan Tahtah

The rubbish crisis has continued in Lebanon since 17 July 2015, when the al-Naameh landfill, turned dump site, was closed. After several promises from the government to address the situation, rubbish is still on the streets in December 2015 and the government seems totally incapable of fixing the problem. When trying to justify its failure, the various parts of the government, in particular, the ministers belonging to the 14 March and 8 March coalitions accuse each other of blocking solutions.

Meanwhile, civil-society movements pushed for solutions through protest. The same scenes were repeated almost every time: protests would start peacefully and turn violent after a few hours, after the police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse protestors. The cycle of promises and claims of assessing the crisis translated into no concrete plan, despite the demands of the civil-society movements and the NGOs that the government come up with a solution before the rainy season, to avoid an environmental and health disaster.

Government Response

At many points during the crisis, ministers who were directly concerned, such as those of the environment and interior ministries, were absent from the country. Their absence was criticized by the protestors to demonstrate that the political class did not respect the Lebanese people’s interests. Activists monitored the environment minister’s Facebook page and continually reported his travels around Europe; these were personal travels, and the minister posted pictures of the places he was visiting.

A video of the interior minister—in which he was dancing at a beach resort on the Greek island of Mykonos at the same time as the first protests—went viral on social media. This led to the biggest protest, on 29 August.

During demonstrations after that, the protestors often threw small water bottles at the police and tried to remove the barbed wire blocking the way to cabinet offices. The police took this as an excuse to respond violently, attacking the protestors with clubs. The government’s violent response to the civil-movement protests was criticized by human-rights organizations around the world.

Police Brutality and Political Dishonesty

The interior minister claimed that, although mistakes were committed by the internal security forces, the security forces’ response was not brutal or unjustifiable, even given the mounting numbers of injured and one death.

He held a press conference, claiming that the security forces were there to protect the protestors, public property, and other government assets, and that the police were not acting against the protestors but against troublemakers. He also claimed that more police were injured than protestors.

Another blatant example of police and security-force brutality came during a protest during which activists occupied the Ministry of Environment and sat on the ground demanding the resignation of the minister, who had recently demanded that the prime minister relieve him of responsibility for the rubbish crisis. The activists had reporters and cameras with them.

The security forces raided the ministry, expelled the reporters, and used force against those who refused to leave, confiscating or destroying the cameras. Once this was done, the security forces attacked the peaceful protestors, causing serious injuries to several, the most widely reported of whom was the activist and film director Lucien Abourjeily. The interior minister claimed that the protestors were destroying government property, but the movement released a video filmed before the police raid, showing that they were protesting peacefully, simply sitting on the ground and chanting slogans.

Protesters Demands

The protestors initially demanded a solution to the rubbish crisis, but after these demands were ignored and the government proved itself totally ineffective, the demands escalated. The initial movement, called “You Stink,” was joined by many other movements arising out of the continuing protests, the most prominent being Shabab Dod al-Nizam (Youth against the System), Dodal Fassad (Against Corruption) from Sidon, Shabab 22 Ab (Youth of 22 August), and Badna Nhassib (We Want Accountability).

The demands became very varied, from a complete replacement of the Lebanese system and change of constitution, to the resignation of the environment minister, to the election of a new president, and the enactment of a new parliamentary-elections law. The one demand common to all the movements was immediate action to stop the rubbish crisis from escalating into a national disaster.

Confusion of the Political Class

It does seem that the movement was able to confuse and panic the ruling political elite, evidenced if not by the brutality of the police response against the protestors, then certainly by the fact that both opposing factions in the government accused the civil-society movement of being funded by a “foreign” country.

Perhaps the most obvious tactic was the “character assassination” of movement representatives such as Pierre Hashash, Imad Bazzi, and Assad Thebian, through arrests, rumours, or scandals. On 16 November the military court released all those detained except two; one was Pierre Hashash, which led another activist to set himself on fire in front of the court in protest. Imad Bazzi was a target of rumours accusing him of having a “Western agenda,” while Assad Thebian was scandalized for posting offensive jokes about religions three year earlier on his personal Facebook page. These tactics succeeded in destabilizing the movement, and popular support for the protests began to diminish.

The Movement’s Achievements and Failures

Despite its shortcomings, the movement was able to achieve an unprecedented social unity that transcended sectarian and social-class affiliations. It also was able to push the ruling class, who feared losing control of the status quo, to suggest a plan. The movement’s most important achievement was that it was able to stop the ruling elites from distributing the rubbish-company deals among themselves. Yet the movement has lost momentum for many reasons.

First, the movement is up against a political class that has been around for over 40 years and is capitalizing on sectarian divisions among the people that have been created by the ruling class itself. But the blame cannot be put entirely on the political system, as the movement did not capitalize on its own achievements and continued to push its demands with no clear vision. Once the movement lost its momentum, that apathy, which has governed Lebanese sentiments concerning their political reality, spread to the movement and brought an end to calls for further demonstrations.

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