Tens of thousands of protesters have joined the “You Stink” campaign to push the Lebanese government to take action to solve a towering waste management problem. The grievances are deep, though, and go way beyond the bin-filled streets of Beirut.
Since the closing down of Lebanon’s landfill site in Naameh last month, the issue of rubbish piling up everywhere in the country has been a catalyst for the airing of domestic grievances about government corruption and inactivity. Nearly 20,000 peaceful demonstrators showed up outside the prime minister’s office and parliament on Sunday. Most people in Lebanon, whose resources are already stretched to breaking point due to the influx of over 1.4 million Syrian refugees1 , have relied heavily on self-help, local communities and local and international NGOs to address the issues of power cuts, water and other essential supplies. Waste management however, is an issue that only the government can be authorised to resolve. People have thus pushed for political solutions, all of which have been unsuccessful. The residents of Naameh and surrounding villages warned today that if the landfill is reopened, they will burn any truck trying to enter.
Hezbollah has described the crisis as reflecting “endemic and accumulated corruption of the past two decades” as policies served “personal and political interests at the expense of citizens.” The party joined the campaigners and said that holding peaceful protests is the citizens’ legitimate right to express their opinion. It walked out four hours into negotiations with the government, along with its Christian allies, as the political spectacle was not coming to any conclusion. Ministers continue to reject the bidders chosen to cope with the city’s waste collection, allegedly due to expenses.
The public discontent exploded over the weekend and, according to Dr Rami Khouri, the Director of the Issam Fares Research Institute in Beirut, shattered the sectarian political rule that has defined the country since its establishment in the 1930s. As protests began, they quickly took a general turn against government incompetence, demanding its resignation. On Saturday, the police used tear-gas and rubber bullets against protesters before the latter utilised a cement wall, covering it in anti-government graffiti. Helplessness, anger and frustration have been channelled into peaceful protests, although the wall was later removed by order of the government.
Lebanese citizens are struggling under the government’s lack of activity on, amongst other things, 12-14 hour electricity cuts, the declining fresh water supply, rising prices, the horrendous state of the infrastructure and the urgent need for the creation of new jobs. According to Dr Khouri, this has been exacerbated by the fact that no political will and solution has addressed the multiple economic and environmental effects of the large influx of Syrian refugees since 2011.
Political deadlock has seen Lebanon without an elected president for more than a year. Its parliament has extended its term due to disagreements over the new election law proposal. Furthermore, the Lebanese cabinet has struggled to reach consensus on any issues, and with a constitutional structure based on confessional parties, and differences between them, key political factions have made no attempt to reconcile formally for several years.
The Til’at Reehitkum (“You Stink”) campaign has stripped the issues back to their very core; the government and its basic political structure, which is based on divisions that people collectively rise up against, across confessional and sectarian lines. “It seems impossible for political life to continue as usual in Lebanon,” Khouri noted, “as we now see that some citizens, supported by a silent majority, have brandished the most dangerous weapon known to corrupt and inefficient governments: popular activism.”
Mirroring the uprisings across the region since 2011, the (somewhat belated) Lebanese protest demands the resignation of the regime, using various creative and peaceful methods against what is seen as an elitist government. An incredible degree of courage is found amongst people on the streets of Beirut; in demanding the resignation of their corrupt and uncaring government people have even named names in front of hundreds of security officers and cameras.
The campaign has demonstrated the people’s awareness of Lebanon’s political failure for four generations. We await with interest what the result will be. In the meantime, the people are still cutting across the normally rigid divides in Lebanese society to address common issues.
1Number of refugees registered by UNHCR, January 2015
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