Quick Thoughts: Moe Ali Nayel on Lebanon’s Garbage Crisis and Protest Movement

With Jadaliyya

[On 22 August 2015, what had in previous weeks been a small protest against the breakdown in garbage collection in Beirut turned into a major anti-corruption demonstration calling for fundamental political and economic change in Lebanon. The protesters have been met with escalating repressive violence, and the movement has thus far caught both coalitions of the severely polarized political establishment by surprise. Jadaliyya asked Moe Ali Nayel, a Beirut-based journalist, to explain the background and current dynamics of the protest movement and the reactions of various groups.]

" Nohad Machnouk (minister of interior) thinks he is Chuck Norris"
” Nohad Machnouk (minister of interior) thinks he is Chuck Norris”

Jadaliyya (J): How and why did Lebanon’s “garbage crisis” develop, and why has it not yet been resolved?

Moe Ali Nayel (MAN): On 17 July 2015, the Lebanese government’s contract with the Sukleen company, which gave it exclusive rights for garbage collection in the country, expired. As a consequence trash collection services ceased. The Sukleen contract with the Lebanese government has its origins during the 1990s, in what many consider a non-competitive bidding process. Nevertheless, this contract has since been renewed several times, each time at a higher cost. This summer the government did not renew the contract on the grounds of excessive pricing. While the government has “considered” alternatives to Sukleen, it has yet to decide on one. There is an ongoing struggle between Lebanon’s various political blocs to promote business interests affiliated to them. Political maneuvering over whose company is going to win this lucrative contract is sustaining government inaction.

The above notwithstanding, business interests and political corruption are not the only roots of the crisis. Alongside the absence of a new government contract for garbage collection is the problem of waste management and disposal. Since 1997 garbage from Lebanon’s two most populous regions, Beirut and Mount Lebanon, has been dumped in an area known as Na‘ameh—a coastal town about twenty minutes south of Beirut. Since last year, area residents have been demanding the closure of this dumpsite on account of the ecological damage and health hazards it poses. Despite official promises to find an alternative to Na‘ameh, and its original designation as a temporary site, the government has not really done anything in this respect. So this summer residents of the Na‘ameh and surrounding villages blocked the road to the dumpsite.

In the wake of the crisis, Beirut’s trash is currently being dumped near the city’s harbor right next to the country’s wheat silos, and near the airport. Since these newly created garbage mountains attract flocks of birds, the flight paths used by airplanes to approach Beirut airport have had to be changed for safety reasons. Outside Beirut, trash still sits in piles on sidewalks and streets, or is being surreptitiously dumped in some of the country’s most marginalized areas. The most recent suggestion, by Interior Minister Nuhad Mashnuq, to dump Beirut’s garbage in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon in exchange for one hundred million dollars in development funds, backfired. It galvanized Akkar’s youth to stage a protest under the slogan, “Akkar is not a dumpster.”

J: What is the “You Stink” campaign, who leads it, and what is it seeking to achieve?

MAN: The “You Stink” campaign started out as a reaction to the most recent manifestation of the trash problem, when garbage piled up on the streets of Beirut in particular and Lebanon more generally. The movement was organized by civil society activists who have a stronger presence on social media than on the street. Nevertheless, their call for a protest campaign resonated with the public at large, and people responded by taking to the streets to denounce government paralysis and corruption. Up until 22 August, the campaign focused on a meaningful solution to the trash epidemic. But on 22 August people took to the streets of downtown Beirut in much larger numbers than before. The impetus for this was videos that went viral, showing scenes of police brutality against a demonstration on 19 August. That footage mobilized a new set of protesters, some of them part of the original protesters’ social milieu but others part of a very different milieu—one that was all too familiar with state violence in Lebanon. Protestors found strength in unity and spontaneously raised demands beyond garbage collection. They began to call for the resignation of specific ministers, the entire cabinet, and even the toppling of the entire political class. The “You Stink” framework was superseded by people calling for the removal of the government, but by default this campaign remained the public mainstream representation of the protests.

On 23 August, the “You Stink” campaign effectively abandoned the Beirut protests. It did so just as demonstrations were reaching their peak in terms of numbers and demands. The broader context of this was the escalation in government violence and the ensuing confrontations between some protesters and both the riot police and army. Once the government further escalated its repression of protesters on 23 August, the “You Stink” campaign announced via its Facebook page that it was withdrawing to Martyrs Square. Instead of taking responsibility for a protest movement that had turned from a peaceful gathering into a mass of people standing up to state authority, some of the organizers announced their withdrawal and called upon the authorities to crack down on the protesters and “clean the streets of agent provocateurs, hooligans and thugs.”  Various individuals affiliated with the campaign began to claim that there we thugs sent by the Amal movement who were armed, had infiltrated the protesters’ ranks, and were planning to sabotage the nonviolent nature of the demonstration. In the face of escalating government violence and attempts by some protesters to defend themselves, the move by “You Stink” was basically abdicating its responsibility. The following day, on Monday 24 August, the “You Stink” campaign officially called off the protest scheduled for the next day, Tuesday 25 August, citing concerns of infiltration and violence by protesters. However, protesters continued to turn out in large numbers on Tuesday further proving that the “You Stink” campaign no longer represented the reality of protesters and dynamics of the demonstration. That day, protesters held signs that read, “I’m a thug” and “I’m an agent provocateur,” basically denouncing the “You Stink” campaign’s opprobrious move. It was then that the “You Stink” campaign organizers began apologizing for demonizing the protesters and called for “forgetting the past” and “moving forward.” Yet the campaign had stigmatized itself and, despite a continuous presence on the street by protesters, the campaign cannot claim the same any more. The “You Stink” campaign has lost significant support, because it exposed and indeed represents a real rift within Lebanese society.

J: What is the relationship between the “You Stink” campaign and those protesting in the streets over the past few weeks? Has that relationship changed over time?

MAN: The “You Stink” campaign’s calls for protests, which began in late July 2015, created space for those from a different social class than those who created the campaign. Since the first protest, youths from marginalized and poverty-stricken areas continued what they had previously been doing alone, without any social media campaigns. These youths do not generally function in the orbit of so-called civil society organizations but have been protesting on their own initiative since last summer’s severe water and power cuts. This summer, their protests escalated in reaction to the garbage crisis, and their proximity to the downtown area made it possible for them to join the demonstration called for by the “You Stink” campaign. While burning trash and blocking the streets leading to downtown Beirut during the first protest, these youths exclaimed, “We are with you, but this is our way of protesting.” It was then and there that they simultaneously expressed their anger toward the government’s security measures, power cuts, and water shortages.

J: How has the government responded to this campaign and to the protests? 

MAN: The Lebanese government has responded to the campaign with its usual stalling tactics. It is trying to sweep the rubbish under the rug, literally taking trash from the streets of the capital and dumping it in obscure locations around the country. As the protest movement’s demands expanded beyond resolution of the garbage crisis, and thus exceeded those of the “You Stink” campaign, the government gradually escalated its repressive tactics, and even erected a concrete wall between the protesters and the Grand Serail where the Prime Ministry is located. The protestors dubbed it “the wall of shame” and remarked on its similarity to the Baghdad Green Zone.

During protests on 22, 23, and 25 August, the government deployed personnel from the various security apparatuses, who conducted themselves with severe brutality. On the night of 25 August, protesters were chased out of the downtown area by waves of riot police followed by the military. They pulled people out of taxis and ambulances, and proceeded to beat them in the streets. They kidnapped young men from the streets of Hamra, Gemayzeh, and other areas surrounding downtown, carrying them off to different police stations across Beirut. One of those arrested was severely beaten up; his face was fractured. There were many more instances of repressive government measures, and this produced a snowball effect. Since then, dozens of lawyers have volunteered to defend the arrested protesters, and many have taken protesting at police stations.

To put it simply, the protest that sparked violence against state violence was not an act of “thuggery” by “saboteurs” who were told to do so by Amal movement leader and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. People who allege such dynamics do not recognize the daily economic abuse the majority of Lebanese have been enduring for years. It was a whole bouquet of angry Lebanese who found unity and struck back against a state that has been failing them in all aspects, and a state security apparatus that has been particularly brutal in the year since Mashnuq became interior minister. The most marginalized youth, those from Dawra, Burj Hammoud, Khandaqal-Ghami’, Sabra, Tariq Jdideh, and Shiyyah, were those who struck back with all the vengeance accumulated in their bitter souls against state authority. These are the victims of the same social order that has their brothers languishing in jails without trial for simply smoking a joint, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two young men I spoke with told me, “We are on the street, jobless, and with no place to go. We pop pills to forget the shit we live in.” The scooter they had purchased on credit was confiscated by the government because they could not afford to register it, yet they needed it to work and earn money. These disenfranchised young men see the law being used to punish them for being poor. All this while a small ruling class cruises around town in its fifty-thousand-dollar SUVs, drives in convoys with tinted windows, running over, beating up, and sometimes killing anyone who stands in its way. This latter group is given state security protection and legal immunity. One group of angry teenage boys were rounded up two weeks ago and brutally beaten up by the Internal Security Forces (ISF), only to be told the next day that it was a case of mistaken identity. They weren’t even given an apology.

Thus, on the night of 22 August, and as a response to this violence and neglect, an unusual sense of solidarity exploded and a revolutionary spirit reached a climax that manifested itself in the large numbers on the street the next day. The trajectory of the protest thus far is one of inclusion. It is bringing together different strata of Lebanese society in an unusual way to confront an exploitative economic and political system.

J: How have Lebanon’s various political forces responded to this campaign?

MAN: They have responded to this campaign in one of two ways. Some have tried to co-opt it to serve their own agendas or ride the wave of angry protests to benefit from it. Others have sought to criminalize and sectarianize the protest movement, and denounced the campaign as a premeditated conspiracy against Lebanon. Some in the latter camp have gone so far to claim that the protesters where trained by foreign intelligence agencies. This is of course a preposterous claim that reflects the fears the protest movement has created among some of the political elite. However, the protesters and youth have been vigilant thus far. It is really important to recognize that the demonstration now represents a fusing of the garbage crisis, dilapidated public services, and socioeconomic marginalization, all under the banner of a corrupt and ineffective political class. They have pushed back and ejected every politician who went to the protest hoping to take advantage of popular sentiment.

J: What is your sense of the different trajectories this campaign might take, and what do these trajectories hinge on?

MAN: Since we are affected by the region, we must realize that this movement could fail and could even open a path to military rule. However, there seems to be a consensus building among grassroots protesters that the street will be occupied until this corrupt ruling class falls. All that seems to matter on the street right now is to shatter the status quo that has long held Lebanon and its people prisoner.

If we can call this an uprising, then it is important to look at the dynamics on the ground: the street and the forces that reclaimed it. Many Lebanese at this particular moment are breaking away from the confines of their social-sectarian boxes. To understand the core of this protest movement, one ought to be where the leading sentiment of this rebellion exists. It is a mix of anger and vengeance by jobless, impoverished, socially alienated youth from different sects; LGBT individuals and activists who have been subject to violence and harassment by a patriarchal state; a variety of grassroots leftist movements; feminist activists and networks that have become increasingly active and visible in recent years; young mothers and fathers who struggle to provide an adequate life for their children.

Lebanon’s youth has followed one uprising after another in other Arab countries, recognized its possibilities, and yearned for real change. So far, this campaign appears to be the one and only opportunity that has—thus far—managed to unite us outside the political straightjacket of the March 14 versus March 8 political blocks, demanding the downfall of their politics. It is precisely this sentiment, this sort of anger, that we need to focus so as to further develop, and thus deliver a blow to the status quo.

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