One year after Lebanon's #YouStink movement: popular uprising imminent?

One year after Lebanon's #YouStink movement: popular uprising imminent?
Comment: The momentum that brought thousands onto the streets of Beirut may have slowed, but it dealt a blow to the sectarian system that rules Lebanon, writes Kareem Chehayeb.
6 min read
30 Aug, 2016
The sectarian discourse behind the status quo is gradually being delegitimised [Getty]

Lebanon's recent popular uprising, dubbed "You Stink", was at its peak around this time a year ago.

Thousands of people protested almost daily, and for the first time in recent memory, politics was the conversational focus of young people in Lebanon - a generation which had appeared to have taken an oath of silence to politics, much to the delight of Lebanon's establishment.

Lebanon's ruling political alliances, the pro-GCC/West March 14 and pro-Iran/Russia/Syria March 8 movements, were struggling to quash the grassroots campaign using brute force, overt about their interest - or lack thereof - in any progress or development in a country that, since its inception, has been on the verge of being a failed state.

Sounds awe-inspiring, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, things weren't all that straightforward, and it isn't only a result of the rather lousy media coverage - both from local and international platforms. It also has to do with what was happening on the ground, which was never properly examined. One year ago, 250,000 people packed into downtown Beirut. Today, despite the high levels of security in the area, the massive concrete and barbed wire barricades, and spray-painted revolutionary slogans, it has again become a ghost town. What happened?

The great tactical schism

Talking about how a country in the Middle East that simply can't take care of its own refuse sounds intriguing and fascinating, but simply ignores the whole point of the uprising. There were massive piles of garbage in and around Beirut, but garbage was also metaphorical. We use "garbage" or "trash" to describe many things here in Lebanon: the garbage government, the garbage state, the garbage police...

It was not simply about finding a solution to the garbage crisis. It was about creating something new.

For the first time, even the most apolitical people were interested in being politically active. They cared about where their tax money was going, and believed the state had a role to play in at least providing the most basic services; people were no longer settling for what resembles an American Libertarian's paradise.

You Stink believed in focusing on the garbage crisis first. We Want Accountability believed in using the momentum of the movement to address other corruption and transparency-related issues

So in a country where the government can't guarantee running water, electricity or decent public education, this became about rebuilding the state.

As a result, this led to a huge tactical split, particularly between the two largest organisational factions: You Stink and We Want Accountability.

You Stink believed in focusing on the garbage crisis first. We Want Accountability believed in using the momentum of the movement to address other corruption and transparency-related issues within the Lebanese government.

When it came to pointing fingers, You Stink believed that the entire political establishment was to blame, but We Want Accountability were sympathetic to a few parties and individuals in the March 8 alliance.

Having a diversity of tactics within a popular movement can be a good thing, but not when the different parties involved show little to no solidarity with each other - and when some of that diversity includes compromising some principles. Talk about a wasted opportunity.

Unaddressed classism and other problematic symptoms


Even before the tactical differences became ideological problems, the first issue that was never properly addressed by organisers was that of the infamous "infiltrators".

Did infiltrators exist? Absolutely. This is a mafia state ruled by feudal lords after all. There were people the government sent over to give the riot police probable cause to attack protesters.

And there is evidence of this; some pacifists would ask them about why they are doing what they were doing, and some of those individuals would respond, saying they were kicking off on behalf of a certain political leader.

However, the You Stink organisers classified anyone fighting back against the police as "infiltrators". The classism was evident. The police are less reluctant to attack poor people. As a result, it's no surprise that these felt that the organisers betrayed them.

By the time the You Stink leaders learned their lesson, it was too late. It took weeks for You Stink organisers to make a formal apology, and it took months for them to tell the media that they couldn't expect people not to fight back while the police were attacking them with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Vertical Organising: Heads in the clouds

Another issue was the vertical nature of the movements.

You Stink and We Want Accountability both resemble the political culture that currently exists in Lebanon. The leaders were virtually worshipped the same way leaders of Lebanon's ruling political parties are revered by their follwers.

The organisational process remains top-down: a few people plan things out, and then they ask others to help out. Those who criticise and complain would often be told: "What alternative do you have? These people are trying. You’re complaining and doing nothing."

We all know the system is broken, but we shouldn't expect to be forced into any alternative - just because it's an alternative.

Here's the best example: On August 29, 2015, the organisers pledged to a roaring crowd that they would escalate using nonviolent civil disobedience until their demands were met. They sought the resignation of the minister of environment, an investigation into the minister of interior and police for violence against protesters and mass arrests, transparency of tax money and public spending, and immediate parliamentary elections.

Come October, much to the dismay of the people who were calling for a general strike, You Stink decided to start a "white ribbon" campaign.

A political cultural revolution was taking place, and the organisers shot themselves in the foot.

Feudal mafia here to stay

Whatever momentum that existed 365 days ago is done and dusted for the time being, and the Beirut municipal elections that took place - regardless of what the international media said - has not caused any inkling of a potential revival of what could be an independent uprising in Lebanon.

For the first time, the Lebanese establishment was shaken - and the sectarian rhetoric used to divide people hasn't been working as well as it once did

But the May elections and independent slate Beirut Madinati is another story. What about the garbage crisis? Beirut still stinks, and the government has a plan that involves opening a new landfill and reopening an old one in Burj Hammoud, a very poor and overcrowded neighborhood that You Stink did not reach out to.

And where's You Stink? At the moment, their activity is limited to Facebook, while the Lebanese far-right Christian party, the Kataeb or Phalange, have won support from many of Burj Hammoud's residents, fighting against the opening of the landfill and calling for what is arguably the most progressive waste management platform in the entire country. It truly makes for a sad situation.

With all that said, the biggest takeaway from the protests is that, for the first time, the Lebanese establishment was shaken - and that the sectarian rhetoric used to divide people hasn't been working as well as it once did.

Another significant point is that there is an interest in active citizenship in Lebanon. People want a functioning state, they want to know where their tax money is going, and expect to receive services in return. In September 2015, I said that Lebanon’s uprising could shake the country's sectarian foundations - and I still think a well-organised movement that is more horizontal and inclusive can.

I won't be holding my breath, though, unless I happen to be tip-toeing around yet another overflowing garbage dumpster on the streets of Beirut.

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese writer and musician based in Beirut. He is the co-founder of Beirut Syndrome, a grassroots media platform.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.