A series of mass demonstrations—which began in July as a small environmentalist campaign, protesting the Lebanese government’s handling of a waste management dispute—has brought tens of thousands to the streets and engulfed downtown Beirut since the You Stink movement officially formed on August 19. The protests quickly became about much more than waste management. Often-creative chants and placards criticized and lampooned everything from the lack of basic infrastructure to the corruption and nepotism of the largely dynastic political class, to the religion-based power-sharing laws that pervade all three branches of the state.
In the face of this unprecedented grassroots uprising, the government has made clear it will not concede to all the demonstrators’ demands, but it has made two notable responses. First, on September 9 the cabinet approved a plan for a supposedly sustainable solution to the specific issue of waste management. The plan, which involves temporarily reopening existing landfills until new ones can be built elsewhere in the country, has already run into several obstacles. Second, the government has embarked on a national dialogue initiative, bringing the leaders of sixteen parliamentary blocs together with the prime minister to the discussion table at the invitation of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. Topping the agenda is the sixteen-month-long presidential vacuum, followed by the paralysis of cabinet and parliament, both currently boycotted by various parties.
The organizers of the main protest movement, known as “You Stink,” have rejected the proposed waste plan—repeating the objections of residents of areas where landfills exist or are earmarked for construction. They demand that any waste plan includes four technical amendments, for example, mandating sorting waste at the source. They have similarly spurned the national dialogue initiative, denouncing its participants as “feudal patriarchs” and “self-appointed mafia leaders,” and have demonstrated outside all three sessions held to date. Among their objections to the dialogue is its attempt to reach consensus on electing a president. Specifically, they view the very parliament that would elect him or her as illegitimate because it extended its own term until 2017 in a move of dubious constitutionality. Accordingly, You Stink argues parliamentary elections must be held prior to presidential ones.
Nonetheless, the government appears to be calculating that the waste plan, together with the potential election of a president, will take most of the wind out of You Stink’s sails. Members of key parliamentary blocs participating in the dialogue have claimed that ending the presidential void—which would also entail a cabinet reshuffle and other appointments—would satisfy a silent majority of You Stink demonstrators. Both the leading March 14 and March 8 coalitions are under equal attack from the protest movement, explaining their uncharacteristic eagerness for the negotiating table, which they both agreed to join at such short notice. The coalitions’ highly influential regional backers are reportedly underpinning this ostensible spirit of cooperation between March 14 and March 8; chiefly Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively. None of these patrons wants the inconvenient prospect of unrest in Lebanon when much more consequential geostrategic battles are underway in Syria and elsewhere.
The government’s bet could succeed. To date, despite two dozen protests in the past month (including a fourteen-day hunger strike) calling on the ministers of environment and the interior to resign, neither minister has resigned. While demonstrations have continued, they have failed to grow since their peak turnout on August 29. In part, this can be attributed to the natural limitations of any independent, grassroots movement. Fragmented by nature, and with no apparent external financing, the movement is up against the entirety of the ruling class, which enjoys deep pockets and powerful international alliances—and also, as a last resort, military and paramilitary firepower. Violence against protesters has grown more pronounced in the past week, when partisans of Speaker Berri—himself a former militia leader now closely allied with Hezbollah—showed up at two separate demonstrations and assaulted protesters accused of verbally insulting their leader.
This specter of potential further violence has already caused participation at street protests to decline somewhat. Protest fatigue and deepening factionalization between You Stink and numerous spin-off groups and fellow protesters, including supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party, have further discouraged others. However, the greatest stumbling block for You Stink may be nature. September 21 saw the first significant rain of the season—a harbinger, according to environmental experts, of a potentially grave health crisis should downpours wash the countless piles of uncollected waste in Beirut and Mount Lebanon into the groundwater. Faced with the prospect of a dangerously contaminated water supply, public opinion is almost certain to prefer the cabinet’s imperfect waste management solution to none at all.
And yet there is reason to believe the protest movement at large is not finished yet, especially as the national dialogue has so far been a resounding failure. The first session reportedly deteriorated into shouting matches, while the following two were no more fruitful. Neither March 14 nor March 8 is budging from their pre-dialogue stances regarding the presidency: the former calls for a neutral figure affiliated with neither camp, and the latter demands the election of their divisive ally, Michel Aoun. Continued ineffectual, partisan bickering along these familiar lines may work to You Stink’s advantage.
Moreover, while attendance is down, the frequency and diversity of protests are proliferating. New activist groups are formed on an almost daily basis, demonstrating for causes as varied as reclaiming privately-appropriated public land, halting the payment of MPs’ salaries, and restoring the historic working-class character of a downtown Beirut that has catered predominantly to wealthy clientele since the post-war reconstruction of the 1990s.
What exactly this sociopolitical crisis can achieve in the near future is uncertain. Some version of the cabinet’s waste plan is likely to be implemented, and there is talk among some activists of moving thereafter to other issues, such as the chronically deficient power and water infrastructure. Presidential and parliamentary elections could also potentially occur sooner than they otherwise would have (and You Stink could, in theory, put forward its own candidates for the latter).
But in the longer term, the most significant achievements may be less tangible. The majority of demonstrators are young people, for whom the struggles of the 2005 Independence Intifada (to say nothing of the religious sectarianism of the 1975-90 civil war) are less relevant than the more contemporary upheavals in the region. These students’ and young professionals’ concerns today focus more on tackling corruption, securing employment at fair wages, fighting gender inequality (women have been on the frontlines of the protests from the beginning), and building a prospering society that would retain university graduates, not drive them to greener pastures abroad. The new generation is sending a message to the political class that the old way of doing business is no longer satisfactory. To what extent today’s aging party leaders—many of them former civil war militants—act upon this message may ultimately prove to be the determining factor in future Lebanese politics.
Alex Rowell is a Beirut-based journalist reporting for NOW Lebanon, among other outlets.