By Randa Slim
Lebanese have long suffered through water shortages, regular electricity blackouts, a leaking sewage system and poor health and education services. But as trash has piled up on the streets in recent weeks, it looks like the people of Lebanon have had enough.
“You Stink” is the message they are sending. And the campaign might just succeed where others have failed.
The current crisis flared when the main landfill that used to take garbage from the capital, Beirut, closed on July 17 after exceeding its capacity. Since then, the Lebanese government has been unable to find a solution to the trash problem, prompting a group of young activists hailing from different regions and religious sects to launch a #YouStink campaign on Twitter.
On Saturday, heeding the call of campaign organizers, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Beirut demanding an environmentally-sound solution to the trash crisis, the resignation of the minister of environment, whose ministry is responsible for garbage collection and disposal, and an investigation of the internal security forces for past excessive use of force against protesters.
And, unlike previous civic campaigns that appealed to small segments of the Lebanese population, the ‘You Stink ‘campaign struck a chord in a society which, despite having a culture of open political debate, had been wary of potential instability and so resisted jumping on the Arab Spring bandwagon.
The question is whether these popular protests will spur government action.
Following Saturday’s demonstrations,”You Stink”organizers gave the government a 72-hour ultimatum to meet their demands or else face an escalation of protests. And while past campaigns, led by civil society, have pushed for government overhaul have failed to gain traction, this movement feels different. When Lebanese talk about who is responsible for the crisis, they blame all politicians equally. The trash problem affects every person, every household, every street and every neighborhood. It is a non-partisan and non-sectarian issue.
Still,”You Stink” organizers face a formidable opponent in a political class that has been skillful at containing, co-opting and disrupting past protest movements while managing to preserve its hold on power. Lebanese politicians deploy different tactics depending on the source and type of threat they face. In some cases, they attempt to de-legitimize challengers by claiming they are acting based on a foreign agenda. At other times, pressure is applied to opponents to weaken movements from within. When all else fails, they accuse the opponents of a sectarian agenda, and of advancing the interests of one sect to the detriment of the others.
Such tactics have been effective with a Lebanese public that has grown cynical after being disappointed time and time again by similar civic campaigns that challenged government and promised reforms, but ended up imploding when faced with a political class that is united in the defense of its interests.
This has occurred against the backdrop of a Lebanese society that remains deeply divided. True, when facing emergencies like wildfires, earthquakes and disease epidemics, individuals and groups have often set aside divisions and sought avenues for joint action. However, once the emergency has subsided, old fractures along religious, sectarian and class lines have again become apparent. Some fear that the trash crisis could represent such a unifying, but passing emergency.
So far,”You Stink” has succeeded where previous protest movements have failed, by developing a narrative of politics that is non-sectarian, non-partisan, and focused on demands for accountability and an end to corruption. It has brought under its umbrella a network of different political and civic groups, thus ensuring broad public support.
However, these groups have different agendas and calls for bringing down the regime, or the resignation of the entire cabinet, are not demands that are shared by all groups taking to the streets of Beirut. Indeed, while a majority of Lebanese want a permanent solution to the trash crisis, they are not willing to bring down the last remaining executive authority still functioning in the country. Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year, the Parliament is paralyzed by divisions between the two main political coalitions in Lebanon and only the council of ministers is still operating. Many Lebanese believe that if this council were to resign, the country would be plunged into instability.
In an effort to avoid such political turmoil,”You Stink” organizers have so far played it smart — they have shunned any affiliation with a specific political leader or party, and protesters are supposed only to carry the Lebanese flag. In addition, organizers have limited their demands to those that are shared by the majority of Lebanese.
Moving forward, the”You Stink” organizers face three short-term challenges: preserving the peaceful character of the movement, keeping Lebanese invested in their campaign (because it is not going to be a short one), and actually delivering on some of their demands, not least because there are significant barriers to creating an environmentally-sound solution to the trash crisis. A workable solution will take time to implement, and the movement needs to think hard about how to achieve some short-term success to sustain momentum.
Ultimately, since the 1940s, a political system has existed based on quotas among 18 officially-recognized religious groups and sects, an arrangement that has left the Lebanese people hostage to their fears of each other. Meanwhile, political-cum-sectarian leaders have maintained their hold on power by presenting themselves as the guardians of their particular group’s political and economic interests. As a result, too many Lebanese are invested in the preservation of the political system, despite massive incompetence and corruption.
Collective citizen action aimed at the overhaul of this political system has often failed when it collided against such interests. But while it is still too early to tell whether”You Stink” will mark a breakthrough, the campaign may have finally found a way to tap into something stronger than the Lebanese people’s fears.