Can Beirut's month-old protest movement sustain its momentum?

Can Beirut's month-old protest movement sustain its momentum?
Activists are confident Lebanon's fledgling protest movement, which coalesced around demands concerning basic services, government corruption, and the suspension of democratic life, can overcome challenges and sustain itself.
4 min read
24 September, 2015
Lebanon's ruling politicians have so far ignored the protesters' demands with a straight face [AFP]

A month after the start of the protests in Beirut, triggered by an ongoing waste management crisis but that since evolved into an anti-corruption platform, activists agree there have been "no mean achievements" scored so far.

The first and most important, they say, was forcing the government to cancel the dubious waste management contracts, which gave private contractors astronomical sums to collect waste without including any of the environmental activists' demands for a more sustainable approach.

Though the Environment Minister did not resign, a key demand of the protesters who accuse him of causing the current crisis, he was subsequently taken off the committee tasked with finding a solution to the waste issue.

The activists in the You Stink umbrella group also take credit for forcing a change in the Lebanese official discourse, at least in relation to waste management, and environmental protection and sustainability.

However, activists agree that this still needs to be translated into actions, including amending the latest interim plan proposed by the government, and passing a long-term sustainable waste management plan to follow.

Protests forced a change in Lebanese official discourse, in relation to environmental issues

Politically, the protest movement has brought back some hope to Beirut's streets, where political apathy had reigned supreme. Several protest groups have since emerged including, in addition to You Stink, We Want Accountability and Let's Go To The Street.

The protest movement has also brought the actions of the Interior Ministry and the security services under the spotlight, especially in the wake of its heavy-handed treatment of protestors.

The police state that existed under Syria's tutelage regime in Lebanon before 2005 has been outed as still alive and kicking in many ways.

Above all, the protesters have proven that even when the political class disrupts the mechanisms of accountability in constitutional institutions, popular accountability is still possible.

A fork in the road

The activists in You Stink understand that if they do not develop an action plan for the "long haul," none of their achievements will have a long-term impact. They say they have started brainstorming to come up with ideas for the next phase of their movement.

The activists believe reaching out to university students will be crucial. They have established dedicated social-media channels for the purpose, and are also in talks with youth groups from various parts of Lebanon.

One of the challenges facing the protest movement is the sometimes-divergent goals of groups like You Stink and We Want Accountability, which has imposed itself as a key player in the movement.

The police state in Lebanon before is alive and kicking

For one thing, We Want Accountability's links to political parties such as the Lebanese Communist Party has drawn some flak, especially since many of these political parties are allied to a major component of the Lebanese divide, the Hizballah-led March 8 faction.

The communist link has also provided ammunition to opponents of the protest movement.

The interior minister, for instance, has said it was communists alone who want him to resign, while Nicolas Chammas, head of a powerful business lobby, claimed the protest movement is trying to instigate class warfare.

Who should lead?

It is true that the majority of activists in the protest movement have leftist inclinations. However, the demands of the protesters regarding addressing political paralysis, corruption and the lack of the bare minimum of services are almost universal and not necessarily demands of the left.

You Stink, which is less politicised than other groups, must remain in the lead

The slogan of "All of them means all of them," meaning that all politicians in power are to blame, has embarrassed the political class. For this reason, independent activists say that You Stink, which is less politicised than groups like We Want Accountability, must remain in the lead, to deny the authorities the chance to divide the protest movement.

There are many opinions regarding how the protest movement should move forward. Nevertheless, independent activists agree that the focus should be less on political gambits and more on sustained direct action by people from diverse backgrounds not affiliated to any particular political parties and their calculations.

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This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition