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‘We have to eliminate this paranoia about sect in Lebanon’

Last Thursday, protestors in Lebanon made their way to Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut where they have been gathering since the summer. During the 1975–1990 Lebanese Civil War, the square formed the demarcation line between the largely Christian east Beirut and Muslim west Beirut. Twenty-five years after the official end of the war protestors from many communities unite here under the slogan #YouStink. They have many grievances, but share a common sentiment: the Lebanese government has time and time again failed its own people.

Organisers reckon the biggest protest so far has drawn over 250,000 but attendance last week was low. Police had blocked the roads, arrested people and then fired water cannons and tear gas into the crowds. “I think the reason they’re starting to use so much force is that they’re starting to realise that the odds are slowly stacking up against them,” says Kareem Chehayeb, a journalist and co-founder of Beirut Syndrome who has been covering the protests.

The problem began away from metropolitan Beirut in the rural Naameh area, explains Chehayeb; it’s where Lebanon’s largest landfill site is located. Rather than being run by the municipal authority, waste management in Lebanon is run by a private corporation, Sukleen, and many are dissatisfied with the service it provides. In January, the landfill was closed, the rubbish piled up and local residents took to the streets to protest against the punishing odour.

Then the rubbish reached the colleges and nightspots of Beirut. Some of the piles were incinerated and others were covered in calcium carbonate, a white powder used to keep the rats away. With the rainy season approaching many fear a public health outbreak, like cholera: “I think what happened is people started to think, ‘this is really messed up’ when the rubbish was right on their doorstep,” says Chehayeb. “That’s when they started to take action… that’s what sparked the movement. People started to realise that this is our tax money being wasted. There are better solutions.”

From that point deeper discontent with the state began to surface: the constant water shortages; the electricity cuts; the role of private corporations; investment in high budget real estate projects whilst unemployment continues to rise; and the failure of the parliament to elect a president. “They saw garbage as a bigger problem, which is the failure of the Lebanese state,” explains Chehayeb.

Some of the grievances are a lasting legacy of the Civil War. The Taif Agreement, which helped to bring about the official end of the conflict, reinforced an existing verbal agreement about Lebanon’s political structure which stipulates that the president must be a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia. The arrangement sought to rebalance sectarian power structures, but according to Chehayeb it actually “empowered the sectarian culture” or fuelled fear between sects that the others wanted them to be second class citizens.

“We have to eliminate this paranoia about sect,” he says, pointing out that whilst it continues to exist it plays into the hands of the ruling elite. “These are really good PR tactics for the ruling class to keep the population apart and maintain their power because they’re seen as the saviours of their people, they’re seen as the saviours of their faith… [but] this is Lebanon and we’re all equal under the law, we’re all Lebanese people and it’s kind of absurd. No proper civil democratic state has this kind of approach and clearly it hasn’t worked.”

This paranoia about not having enough representation of a particular sect in parliament, he insists, has been inherited from parents. “Somebody from another sect can’t really represent us properly and do something that’s in our interest, so you have to eliminate that.” That’s the mindset.

Sectarian divisions do exist, he says, but to a lesser extent than in the past. “New generations aren’t buying it as much. Even people who have sectarian politics, for the vast majority of them it’s to a much lesser degree than back in the civil war era of my parents’ generation or my grandparents’ generation.”

In addition to this, Lebanon’s voting system is complicated. Chehayeb lives in Beirut but he has to vote in the town where he was born. “For me, I think people should be voting for people within their particular area of residence because as much as I like to visit where I’m originally from — and I hope they’re all doing well — I don’t live there, I don’t know what they really need. But I know what I need in my neighbourhood in Beirut.”

Whilst protestors in downtown Beirut are looking for change, for many the Civil War casts a long shadow. Chehayeb was born one year after the war ended so has no personal memories of the conflict but his parents lived through it and experienced many terrible things. “The civil war generation is still among us and a lot of them, they want stability over anything, for it was brutal; at the end of the day things could be really bad but they really care about stability and that another war isn’t breaking out.”

In the region’s more recent history peaceful protests in Egypt and Syria have been met with unrelenting force and repression by the state. Although the protestors in Beirut are mindful of what happened there, Chehayeb says it’s not enough to stop people demanding their rights. “I think people have just had enough. I think a lot of the poor people have lost the will to live and they see this as their last remaining strategy. I think the new generation of really inspired Lebanese students or professionals perhaps haven’t experienced the war and they say it’s their responsibility to get on the streets and protest, they can’t just sit by and wait.” In reality, he adds, they want a new society, a new government, a new political system. “But they’re looking at changing things slowly. I think they’re being cautious.”

Protestors have promised not to withdraw until four concrete demands have been met, the first of which is for Environment Minister Mohammed Mashnuq to stand down. “He’s not a major player in the political game,” says Chehayeb, “but it’s about culpability.”

Next, the demonstrators want an open investigation into the violence used against protestors by the interior ministry, the security services and individuals. They are demanding the transparency of public funds and for parliament to resign and hold elections as they have extended their term illegally, twice, and cancelled elections on the grounds that due to internal division and regional instability they would put the country at risk. Even if this was all agreed to, it wouldn’t be the end of Lebanon’s problems, according to Chehayeb. “I do think if there were these parliamentary elections a lot of the same people would make it back into parliament in any case because this is a work in progress.”

The government has tried to appeal to the movement by announcing a fresh, three-day national dialogue. A measure of how seriously protestors take promises of dialogue came in September when the cars of politicians arriving for talks were pelted with eggs. To make matters worse, the interior minister has tried to deflect attention from the authorities by publicising the violence suffered by police at the hands of the protestors; on one occasion he used the image of a policeman who was injured. “It was a still from a video that went viral of an injured policeman who protestors picked up, took to an ambulance, gave water and made sure was OK,” says Chehayeb.

“I think it’s good to call for these things to encourage others to not be afraid to call for these things, they’re basic rights.” How does he think the state will respond? “I don’t think the state will be doing this any time soon.” Many members of the government today took part in the Civil War yet thanks to a 1991 amnesty law were exonerated over possible war crimes. “An investigation would be like a domino effect,” concludes Chehayab. “Everyone has blood on their hands.”

Images by Sarah Shmaitilly, Beirut Syndrome.

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InterviewsLebanonMiddle East