Lebanon's Uprising Could Shake The Country's Sectarian Foundations – Kareem Chehayeb/HuffPo
On June 20, 2013, hundreds of Lebanese activists gathered in downtown Beirut to protest against the parliament extending its term and canceling elections. The parliament believed that a potential security crisis in Lebanon due to the rising extremist Salafist movement and in part to the Syrian civil war meant that elections would be risky. After a few protesters tried to break through the police barricade, the police ruthlessly attacked any and all protesters in their sight with batons: men, women, children, the elderly — everyone. A few activists tried to camp outside, but were immediately arrested. And that was that. The momentum died off just a couple of days after. This was Lebanon in a nutshell. The vast majority had a problem with the existing power structures, the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, but few were driven to be active. Fast-forward to August 29, 2015. Over 250,000 people packed Martyrs’ Square and Riad El Solh Square in downtown Beirut. What happened?
A Sectarian Exposition
Lebanon’s political system is complicated, something that the sectarian political elite take full advantage of. Lebanon’s President must be a Maronite Christian, its Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and its Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. This is what ended the civil war in 1990 with the Taif Agreement, a re-balancing of sectarian power structures.
It also doesn’t help that the country’s 15-year-long civil war paved the way for more homogeneous neighborhoods based on sect. To many Lebanese people, sect comes before national identity. Exploiting sectarian differences is important to keep people distracted from the state corruption, whether it’s a lack of the most basic of public services, or embezzling taxpayer money.
All these political parties were active during the civil war, and use the instability and problematic aspects of Lebanon’s idiosyncratic governmental structures to maintain support through sectarian rhetoric. Most politicians’ speeches in Lebanon involve an insinuation that they protect a certain sect, or protect the country from another sect, ironically in the interest of a united Lebanon.
The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back
Despite parliament extending its term again and still unable to elect a president, as well as the potential security crises, it was the garbage crisis that changed everything.
Beirut’s waste collection service is a private corporation, Sukleen. Since 1996, Sukleen has dumped Beirut’s waste into a landfill in Naameh. It was closed earlier this summer. As a result, garbage piles in and around dumpsters were massive, blocking some narrow streets, and were covered in calcium carbonate, a white-colored powder. A short-term solution was incinerating the trash, much to the dismay of the city’s residents. The potential public health crisis frightened many, and this lead to the question that woke the country up. What kind of a government can’t handle its own garbage? Why are we letting our tax money go to a massive corporation earning millions upon millions in profit if it isn’t handling waste in a safe, efficient, and environmentally-friendly way?
In late July, dozens of activists took their garbage bags and placed them near the Grand Serail, the Council of Ministers’ Headquarters. Weeks later, a few hundred people protested. Hundreds turned into thousands. On Saturday August 22, around 10,000 people showed up, and faced brutal response from riot police: tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, even live ammunition. This was much worse than what I saw back in June 2013. However, after visiting downtown Beirut the following morning, I was surprised by what I saw. Some left early in the morning, but others had camped out. But what surprised me most were the security measures. The police heavily outnumbered the activists, and some barricades that prevented them from entering the square near parliament were replaced with electric fences. Later that day, 20,000 people protested. Six days later, over 250,000 people attended. This wasn’t just about garbage; it was about everything. For many years, people complained about the country. But aimlessly and without hope for any meaningful change. I believe they’ve come to the realization that democracy isn’t a spectator sport.
This Is Different…It Really Is.
The movement has rejected any attempts to hijack it by the political establishment, even going as far as to kick out the current Minister of Education when he tried to join one of the protests. They also rejected and condemned any attempted appeals from a ruling class that has been trying to hide its rank incompetence. Language is important too. The most active organizers of the movement have refused to be called “leaders” to demonstrate the inclusivity of the movement. It’s also promising that the movement has constantly been criticized by supporters. After all, the You Stink movement isn’t a political party, and its supporters and members haven’t treated it as such. People have been protesting in downtown Beirut almost every day, whether or not You Stink’s organizers have arranged a rally. It’s also promising to know that not only are You Stink’s organizers activists from different NGOs and movements, but also workers unions, student movements, and people outside of Beirut have been active.
Finally, the government’s brutal response is a sign of weakness. They took down a concrete wall they set up near the Grand Serail after 24 hours, because activists started painting and tagging it. Protesters weren’t intimidated by tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammo, or electric fences. And most recently, after the government ignored a 72-hour ultimatum to meet the demands given to them on August 29, the activists escalated using non-violent civil disobedience. On Tuesday, September 2, 50 of them staged a sit-in outside the minister of environment’s office calling for his resignation. The authorities cut off the electricity, prevented the activists from having any access to ventilation, water (apart from a few instances over the eight-hour long sit-in), and even access to the bathroom. Thousands of protesters gathered around the building in support, and tried to block all exits to keep the minister stuck inside. The police kicked all journalists and reporters out of the building forcefully, and beat up the activists, with over half of them rushing to the hospital. The rest eventually gave up due to the beatings and harsh conditions. But right now, as I type this, there are more protests happening in downtown Beirut. Police brutality has only increased the number of people coming out to the streets.
This is an uphill battle. We aren’t dealing with a single-party dictatorship but a quasi-democratic mafia-like state with a feudal political culture. That said, the cultural revolution taking place is far more powerful and significant than any weapon or blank pay check.
“…then you win.”