For nearly three months, over the course of a typically hot and humid summer, Beirut's residents have taken to the streets. At first, the demonstrations seemed to represent a logical manifestation of the widespread frustration at the closure of the Naameh landfill, and the subsequent pile up of uncollected garbage across the country. However, as public pressure on the government to take action has grown, in parallel with an alarming increase in heavy handed tactics adopted by police in the capital, government deadlock over the waste collection issue has become a catalyst for broader public resistance to government inaction and corruption. The #YouStink campaign, which was propelled onto social media platforms in August, showcasing the stark reality of government neglect and malpractice in Lebanon for all to see, has captured the creativity and spirit of this new resistance. While at first it may appear to have been crafted purely as a call for action directed at Lebanon's Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, and his cabinet over the garbage crisis, the virtual #YouStink accusation in the streets of Beirut has evolved, and now carries far wider connotations, communicates far more ambitious intent, and indicates far deeper grievances. Despite an initial focus on garbage collection, demands for government intervention over long term water and electricity shortages across the country have become louder and more widespread as the protests have grown in numbers and force.
Widespread electricity shortages and daily blackouts have proven a constant frustration for vast swathes of the country since Lebanon's civil war came to an end in 1990. Reportedly, highly lucrative black market energy providers and criminal mafia, effectively operate a competitive trade in the provision of electricity through the use of illicit transformers and generators throughout the country, undermining the Ministry of Energy's electricity provision mandate. While the Lebanese elite and upper middle class are generally able to pay for the services of unscrupulous energy dealers, the country's working class have struggled for more than 20 years to pay for this basic public service. Meanwhile, lower than average rainfall in the past 18 months has made life harder than usual for those involved in the agricultural sector, while tensions have arisen between local communities in rural areas of the country and refugees from Syria, owing to the increased demands for and pressure on what are considered scarce water resources. However, as in the case of the frustrations over electricity access and waste collection, the government yet again has been accused of mismanagement concerning the country's water resources. Wider political and economic factors are also a cause for great concern for large sections of Lebanese society. The depth and breadth of political corruption has only become a talking point in recent years, and as the cost of living has gradually increased, salaries have generally failed to keep up with inflation; anger and resentment among the ever decreasing middle class in Lebanon has continued to grow. The warning by Prime Minister Salam in August that the government could struggle to pay public sector wages that month, owing to protracted indecisiveness in the country's parliament and Sunni–Shiite divisions exacerbated by the war in Syria, has served to further frustrate protesters.
While artists, activists, and environmentalists from the #YouStink campaign are tweeting messages and images of solidarity, as well as of police brutality, they are also rubbing shoulders on the streets with Lebanese compatriots that often fall under none of these headings. Since August 23rd, tensions have emerged between the largely nonviolent #YouStink campaigners from the country's educated and upper middle class that first initiated demonstrations, and those that have been accused by many involved in the #YouStink campaign as 'infiltrators'. Aside from divisions over the use of nonviolent rather than more aggressive tactics, such as the use of Molotov cocktails when participating in demonstrations, a key point of contention has been the clash in demands voiced by demonstrators. While the #YouStink campaign leaders have stuck closely to their original demand for immediate, safe, and effective garbage collection and disposal, other groups and coalitions have made broader, politicised demands that include calling for the resignation or overthrow of the entire government. The #YouStink campaigners broadly argue that a strategy of non-political, nonviolent direct action must be pursued, in order to avoid this emerging popular movement for reform becoming polarised and divided along sectarian lines. However, it’s clear that it’s this very concern that Lebanon's recent history of sectarianism could damage this budding movement that makes it essential that, irrespective of any one group's perspective, all those involved in recent and ongoing demonstrations must strive for unity and agreement on concessions through participation in meaningful dialogue. This seems essential in order to avoid grassroots divisions undermining the chances of political reform, accountability for police brutality, and effective anti-corruption measures.
The combination of a savvy social media campaign, in the form of #YouStink, coupled with sustained, strategic, and unified nonviolent street protests and other forms of direct, nonviolent action, carry the potential to hold the Lebanese government firmly to account. Accountability not only on the question of public services and corruption, but also on the need for non-confessional parliamentary elections that will lead to a presidential successor following Michel Suleiman's exit in May 2014. Moreover, as the government struggles to respond with vision and unity to the Syrian war, and to the plight of the one million Syrians seeking refuge inside Lebanon, a fully functioning and accountable central government in Beirut will be absolutely fundamental in order to address not only the domestic challenges in Lebanon, but also the regional challenges and responsibilities that the country faces.
The engagement of such a broad range of campaigners, communities, and coalitions from across Lebanese society in demonstrations in recent months represents something close to a transformation of mindset for a people who, in recent years, have battled in silent frustration with endemic corruption, government failure to provide basic public services, political procrastination, and the pressure that has come from living alongside the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II. What comes next is yet to be determined. However, it is clear that for many, #YouStink represents the first significant opportunity for the launch of a popular movement for change in Lebanon since the Cedar Revolution in 2005. To lose momentum now will risk not only losing Lebanon to another decade of political in-fighting, it will risk the collapse of the Lebanese state as we know it.
Casey Davison O'Brien is Research Manager at Beyond Violence. Based in the UK, he is a Masters graduate in Peace and Reconciliation Studies, and works on advocacy and funding issues for Cord, an international peacebuilding organisation. His research interests are focussed on nonviolent resistance, coexistence, faith, extremism, and the status of refugees in Israel/Palestine and the Near East.
Written by Casey Davison O'Brien and published on 16-October-2015