The stink comes from the top

September 3, 2015

Yusef Khalil provides the background to the huge anti-government protests in Lebanon.

"THE PEOPLE want the fall of the regime." This popular refrain of the Arab uprisings that swept across the Middle East and North Africa starting in 2011 once again echoed through the streets of Lebanon's capital of Beirut, as tens of thousands of people--some estimates say up to 100,000--converged to protest the ruling establishment on August 29.

This latest upsurge in anger was triggered by a garbage collection and disposal crisis that is years in the making. In 1998, the government designated Beirut's garbage to go to a dump south of the city. What was supposed to be a temporary measure has continued for years, overflowing the capacity of the dump many times over and suffocating nearby residents with the stench.

Despite many street protests and subsequent promises by successive governments, politicians failed to even plan for a solution for the aging dump.

This summer, the contract with the private company tasked with garbage collection expired. While the ruling political parties were fighting over who would get the lucrative contract, people from nearby villages, having lost all trust in the government to resolve the trash problem, shut down the road leading to the dump.

Police use water cannons against mass demonstrations in Beirut
Police use water cannons against mass demonstrations in Beirut

With no other solution in place, garbage started piling up in massive quantities in the streets of Beirut, choking the capital city's residents. In response, environmental and other activists launched the "You Stink" movement to point the finger at the gridlocked government and corrupt politicians. Thousands of people were attracted to this call because it laid the blame on all the corrupt political parties and opened a space for people to express their generalized disgust.

On August 22, riot police and soldiers used their batons, water cannons, tear gas and even live ammunition against thousands of protesters who had gathered in downtown Beirut.

In an effort to undermine the movement, the government insisted its security forces were only responding to "infiltrators" and "provocateurs" who were throwing stones, plastic bottles and otherwise looking for a fight.

Unfortunately, some of the organizers of "You Stink" accepted this, and the alleged "infiltrators," apparently easily identifiable by the way they "looked," were accused of acting at the behest of political parties--when in fact their only "crime" was that they came from the poorer neighborhoods and suburbs of Beirut and were understandably very angry and confrontational.

This attempt to divide the movement between "peaceful" civil society and "violent infiltrators" backfired, however. A number of the protesters adopted the "infiltrator" label and turned it into a badge of honor, shouting it in slogans--"We are ALL infiltrators"--wearing it on their T-shirts and painting it on walls.

AS THE state's crackdown has intensified, so has the resolve of the protesters, who have swelled in numbers. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people turned out for the August 29 protest.

The "You Stink" slogan and protests became a lightning rod for masses of people's discontent with lack of government services like electricity, water, jobs and economic opportunities. Very quickly, they turned into a challenge to all political parties in government.

The question being debated within the movement right now is what it means to be "independent." On the one hand, some liberal activists argue about the need to "depoliticize" the movement and limit demands to very specific reforms, such as curbing corruption, solving the trash crisis and electing a new parliament.

On the other hand, more and more people are seeing the need to reclaim politics as the only way to make sense of the system they're up against and better organize against it.

"In the first few protests, there were some political undertones, but nothing explicit," Mahmoud said in an interview during an August 29 protest in front of the Lebanese consulate in Manhattan. Mahmoud, who recently arrived in New York, was a participant in the early protests in Lebanon. He continued:

It was mostly about garbage, but then you had more and more political language being used. What allowed this was the commonality of the garbage problem, which is shared by everybody in Lebanon. These were concerns which affected everyone, regardless of sect or where they lived. You had to take it to the political level in order to address it.

The movement has created the space for people to question their conventional "leaders," who had a monopoly on their lives. The sectarian divisions enforced by the elites to fortify their positions started collapsing as people from across the sectarian spectrum marched together, chanted together and defended themselves together against the regime's crackdown.

Despite its apparent malfunction, the state has exposed its readiness to unite against the masses of people calling out the corruption and collusion of parties across the political divide. Apparently, these politicians can work together to protect the system and divide the spoils between themselves, but they can't provide basic services like garbage collection.

As a popular chant puts it: "14 and 8, they turned the country into a corner store." This is a reference to the major division in Lebanese politics, between the Western-allied March 14 movement and the March 8 movement, which is allied with the Iranian and Syrian governments.

THERE ARE big cracks within the ruling establishment. As activists in the Socialist Forum, who have been part of the movement from the beginning, said in a statement released on August 29:

What distinguishes this rush into the streets and squares by masses of youths today is their occurrence at the height of the rotten bourgeois authority's intractable contradictions, and its inability to reproduce its own institutions (like the presidency, parliament, army leadership, etc.).

Lebanon has been without a president since 2014 because the political parties in parliament--and their foreign backers--have not reached a consensus. According to Lebanon's constitution, parliament, not the people, elects the president. But the four-year term of the current parliament expired in 2013.

Since they couldn't agree on an electoral law to guide new elections, the now-unelected parliamentarians voted twice to extend their own mandate, which now won't end until 2017.

Their obsession with power and seeming inability to run the country has led many to refer to them as the "political class." But all the while, these politicians and their cronies are benefitting from the system with lucrative deals and exclusive contracts.

The "political class" label obscures the fact that these politicians are part of, and represent, the capitalist class. They have all made billions off the "dysfunctional" state through privatization and neoliberal economic policies, which have impoverished working people, stolen their beaches and public spaces, denied them basic services like health care, electricity and water, and thrown the country into one crisis after another.

Thus, another popular chant refers to the number of seats in parliament: "128, they are all thieves!"

The massive demonstrations of August have once again shown the power of ordinary people to overcome the obstacles and divisions placed between them by the ruling class. The challenges, however, are many.

Over the last four years, we have witnessed the length to which the regional ruling classes would go to crush the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. But we have also seen how these progressive movements for change inspire each other.

At a time when sectarian reactionary forces are on the rise regionally, the uprising in Lebanon, which for decades stood as a model of codified sectarianism, now points a way forward and is a breath of fresh air that deserves our support.

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