In July 2015 the Rubbish Crisis in Beirut and Mount Lebanon that has resulted from the incompetence of Lebanon’s government became street protests demanding a solution. Under the slogan “You Stink,” which began as a reference to the rubbish crisis during which Lebanon’s streets became rubbish dumps and quickly became a metaphor for the corruption of the country’s political elites, the number of protesters grew ever larger. By 22 August, the situation had snowballed. The number of protesters swelled quickly, and minor riots broke out in opposition to the excessive use of force by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and the army, as they cracked down with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition on protesters in downtown Beirut. The use of force served only to increase the resolve of the protesters. By 29 August, more than 100,000 Lebanese from across the social and religious spectrum took to the streets voicing their opposition to the government’s incompetence and corruption. What began as small protests has quickly become an uprising, with many voices calling for a revolution.
This is not the first time that Lebanese civil movements, NGOs, and trade unions have organised protests. In the past, protests gave voice to various demands—for the abolition of the sectarian system in 2010, the legalization of civil marriage,women’s rights, the rights of underprivileged foreign domestic workers, and against domestic violence. Most of those protests were well organized and had specific demands. In some cases, they were backed by political parties or figures, and in others, they were attended by a majority that belonged to the same religious background. Some of the protests succeeded in changing existing laws or implementing new ones, such as those against domestic violence; one campaign achieved a minor victory with the passing of an almost-satisfactory law against domestic violence. In general, however, participation in such protests was limited and expectations were low; the protests did not go so far as to change the status quo but only to reform some of its elements.
The drop that flooded the cup
Lebanese citizens have always complained, privately and publicly, about the deterioration of their well-being. Lebanon has a barely functional infrastructure, regular cuts in electrical power and water shortages, slow and overpriced Internet access, poor roads and highways despite high transport taxes, negligible public transportation, and virtually non-existent free education and health care. But they never protested much, partly because they were absorbed by the struggle to survive and partly because preserving the status quo was seen as the least pernicious of possible scenarios. In a country in which political clientelism prevails, most Lebanese feared that, were the system to change, they would lose the meagre privileges that came with turning a blind eye to politicians’ transgressions.
For rubbish collection, Lebanese politicians created a private company, Sukleen, which made large profits off the business. The unspoken agreement was that, as long as the rubbish was taken off the streets and dealt with in some way, the Lebanese would turn a blind eye to the political deals being made at their expense—they pay one of the highest costs per tonne for rubbish collection in the world. But there was disagreement on the future of Sukleen among the political elite. The politicians’ decadence became so great that, as long as they were unable to get a “piece of the pie,” they cared little about the rubbish that was piling up on the streets and posing a direct threat to the people’s health. That was the drop that finally flooded the cup.
At this point few activists launched an online campaign called You Stink, with a social-media hashtag in Arabic. The activists organized their first protest on 28 July 2015, with demands focused on the rubbish issue and the solutions that they wanted implemented immediately. The government at first ignored the protests, making only a feeble attempt at a solution, as the minister of environment announced that the government had found temporary solutions (without providing any details) and that the Lebanese would see the rubbish removed from the streets. The activists monitored the rubbish piles and filmed lorries picking up the rubbish and dumping it in abandoned places in residential areas, such as an old bus parking facility in Sin El Fil, or in the Beirut River.
The circulation of this footage led more people to join the many subsequent protests. Although the number of protesters was still limited, the police used water cannons on a dozen protesters on 19 August and detained some of them. Once again, footage from mobile phones as well as news organizations went viral on social media. All this led, on 22 August, to the largest grassroots protest organized in Lebanon. Totally out of the control of the political elites and parties, it was attended by an estimated 20,000 Lebanese citizens from all social classes and various religious and political backgrounds who gathered in downtown Beirut to demand not just a resolution to the rubbish crisis but also the fall of the government. On 29 August, the number of protesters swelled to about 100,000.
From “Cedar Revolution” to “Rubbish Revolution”
The streets of Beirut on 29 August were reminiscent of the Cedar Revolution that began in 2005 against the Syrian army’s occupation of Lebanon. The two protests, although similar in some respects, differ in three ways:
- The Cedar Revolution took place way before the Arab Spring and was considered the first Arab uprising, while the Rubbish Revolution came long after the Arab Spring and even borrowed some of its slogans.
- The Cedar Revolution was, at certain points, organized and led by various parties and party leaders in Lebanon and was not simply a grassroots movement.
- The immediate aim of the Cedar Revolution was met, as the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon, but the long-term aims of a modern civilized and efficient political system to replace the old police state failed because the government at the time was replaced by more of the same political elites.
Today, it seems that the Lebanese are trying to avoid the same mistakes made by the original uprising: the current protest movement is calling for a change in the status quo.
As long as the movement maintains its independence from religious influences and from partisanship, it will probably only grow stronger and unnerve the political elite, who already sense the danger to their positions. The outcome is still uncertain.
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Yahya ibn Abi Kathir (769-848)