Recycling hope in Lebanon

Recycling hope in Lebanon
Comment: A youth movement in Lebanon has challenged the country's inactive and sectarian political class that has been ruling the country since the civil war, writes Mat Nashed.
4 min read
04 Sep, 2015
Lebanon's ongoing protests have revived the spirit of the Arab Spring [Getty]
United under one emblem, tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens demonstrated on August 22 to demand a solution for the refuse crisis plaguing Beirut and surrounding areas.

The crisis started last month when the environment minister closed Lebanon's only landfill without finding a replacement site.

A group of activists calling their campaign, "You Stink" - in reference to a corrupt political class - had their first demonstration dispersed by police who fired rubber bullets, used water cannon and tear gas.

The following day, peaceful protests degenerated again when rioters and police clashed. According to the Lebanese Red Cross, more than 500 people were injured on August 22 and 23.

Rather than back down, the demands of demonstrators evolved to contest political corruption and sectarianism: the primary culprits that have paralysed any chance for efficient and meritocratic governance in Lebanon.

Amid calls for the fall of the government, many protesters now want an end to a political system that has always divided them.

Institutionalised sectarianism

In 1943, Lebanon established the National Pact to inaugurate its independence. This pact enshrined sectarianism into the Lebanese constitution in the hope that it would build tolerance and trust among Lebanon's major religious confessions.

The pact ensured that the president of Lebanon would always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. This system enabled sectarian allegiance to determine nearly every ministerial post.
     This distribution of power also empowered regional and imperial powers to exploit the country's social fabric

Ministers weren't appointed based on their qualifications or promises, but on their religious and family status.

This distribution of power also empowered regional and imperial powers to exploit the country's social fabric. This was indicative in the 1970s, where internal and regional tensions dragged Lebanon into the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, facilitating a complete breakdown of central governance and igniting Lebanon's 15-year civil war.

In 1989, the Taif agreement was enacted to end the conflict. However, the settlement merely reinstituted - albeit with some modifications - the very sectarian system that made it susceptible to regional domination.

Exhausted by decades of violence, Lebanon adopted a policy of "amnesia", which meant that politicians never discussed the civil war.

Those who headed militias were consequently pardoned, enabling former warlords to monopolise Lebanon's political institutions.

No more garbage

Now, 25 years after the Taif agreement, a generation removed from the civil war has banded together to challenge the status quo.

On August 29, the "You Stink" campaign, along with other political and student groups, organised the largest demonstration so far. Ten of thousands of people flooded downtown Beirut. Rasha Hallabi, an activist speaking on behalf of the movement, emerged to present a list of demands.

Speaking over a sea of demonstrators, Hallabi gave the government 72 hours to decide on hosting parliamentary elections, dismissing the environment minister and handing waste management responsibilities to local municipalities.

The movement also wanted to hold police accountable for using excessive force against protesters on August 22.

While the demands were reasonable, the cabinet didn't concede to any of them. Pushed to act, members of the "You Stink" campaign barged into the environmental minister's office to stage a sit in.
     If the government hands over authority for waste management while forcing Machnouq to step down, that'll be a major victory

Police officers quickly sealed off every entrance to the building to prevent any others from getting in.

Demonstrators did the same to ensure that nobody got out.
That day, thousands of demonstrators flocked to downtown Beirut to demand the resignation of Mohammad Machnouq, Lebanon's Environment Minister.

If the campaign can succeed in pressuring the government to hand over authority for waste management while forcing Machnouq to step down, that'll be a major victory.

Not only would that accomplishment increase You Stink's momentum, but it would also provide them with greater legitimacy to demand solutions to related issues.

For ordinary Lebanese citizens, demanding an end to electricity cuts would be the next noble cause. Due to political corruption, Beirut loses electricity for at least three hours each day. In more disadvantaged villages, it's not uncommon for the power to be cut for at least twice or three times as long.

Through placing pressure on the government to supply basic provisions, civil society can encourage a new political structure that is based on the rule of law and civil participation.

But regardless of what happens next, the "You Stink" campaign has forced an incompetent government to function. If the Cabinet fails to provide basic services, it will further jeopardise the legitimacy of the government's rule and the sectarian system that props it up.

Mat Nashed is a journalist specialising in issues of Middle East migration. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.