Garbage collection in Beirut came to a halt in late July, with national authorities unable to overcome conflicting interests between private refuse collection companies, local authorities and populations, and avarice among the country’s political and economic elites. With the city’s only land fill site closed, thousands of tons of rubbish took little time to make their presence felt and grow. What would follow, as a protest, were a series of demonstrations beginning in that same month and that grew in size with every passing week. On the weekend of the 22/23rd of August, security forces clashed with tens of thousands of people, wounding hundreds. A week latter, the city became the stage for the largest protest gathering since the protest movement that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.
Last week, the lebanese government announced that it had found a “solution” for Beirut’s garbage disposal. But between the beginning of the crisis and its apparent resolution, a social movement was born under the name of “You Stink”. Mainstream/corporate media reports tended to reduce the movement to one of frustration and indignation with an incompetent, corrupt and confessionally defined political class. The garbage in the streets, along with the decay of other services and utilities was but a spark. What was demanded then was transparency, efficient administration and properly representative government. The protest was filtered through a pacifying “middle class” lens, and the lebanese, we discovered,k are just like “us”.
What is missing from this story is the role that the lebanese political class has played in turning the city of Beirut and the country into a neoliberal “wild west” of rampant real-estate development and speculation, money laundering, the privatisation of public services, the unrestrained exploitation of (often foreign, undocumented) labour. As a rentier state, the political class is actively involved in the selling of the countries resources, or is both seller and buyer. To cite but one example, 80% of lebanon’s national debt is held by private banks, many of which are owned by members of the political class (e.g. Saad Hariri): state debt is thus contracted and transformed into personal gain. (Le Monde 12/09/2015) The confessionalism of lebanon’s politics is but a veneer, a tool, that serves to reinforce clientalism and nepotism, reducing everyone potentially to the status of a subject of their own local “religious” mafia.
If the “You Stink” movement could be reduced to one aspiring to middle class normalcy in some of its expressions (e.g. its apparent flag waving nationalism), it also carried within it other desires, desires conscious of the fact that the corruption of lebanese politics is but the symptom of everyday capitalism. And throughout the movement, forms of assembly based decision making, collective self-defense and mutual aid and the occupation of spaces emerged. In other words, new subjectivities made themselves manifest beyond the usual sectarian identities and echoes of the occupation of streets and squares that erupted in 2011 resonated again.
It is unclear what remains of the movement today. But we share below two reflections on it, posted on the anarchist Tahrir-ICN website a far richer picture of events than what has more typically been reported …
Lebanon, August 2015: Notes on Paralysis, Protests and Hope
by Maya Mikdashi
The past ten years in Lebanon have been a study in political paralysis and escalating anger and frustration among citizens and residents of the country. To recap only the most basic of facts, since 2005 the country divided and polarized into two “camps”—March 14 and March 8, led by the Future Movement and Hezbollah, respectively. In these ten years there has been a war with Israel, armed clashes between these two camps, and a series of political assassinations. These years have also brought the military destruction of a refugee camp (Nahr Al-Bared), armed clashes between the army and Islamists in Saida and Tripoli, a war in Syria that has again polarized the population, a series of bombings by radical Islamist groups across the country, and an ongoing war against ISIS in the north of the country. Lebanon has become a front in the international war on terror, according to the US, Israel, and the Lebanese government. Politicians have failed to form governments, leading to power vacuums and a series of caretaker governments and the degradation of government services and institutions. There has been a presidential vacuum for over fourteen months, and Parliament has illegally extended its own term twice so far. In short, there is no legitimately elected political representation in the country.
The number of citizens residing in Lebanon is approximately four million. In addition to these citizens, there are over two million refugees from Syria, Palestine, Sudan and Iraq currently struggling to live under conditions of structural impoverishment and segregation. There are hundreds of thousands of migrant and domestic laborers also struggling to live in Lebanon, often under structural conditions of servitude. Over thirty percent of Lebanese citizens live at or below the poverty line, and a sliver of the population control the majority of spending power. The sharpest line dividing the population of Lebanon is not sect, as many (and certainly politicians) would argue, but class.
During these ten years one thing has remained constant: corruption, cronyism, nepotism and ineptitude at the government level. Corruption and cronyism—in addition to liberal and, later, neoliberal economic policies and patriarchal masculinism— are in fact what unites the political class. The history of this ruling ideology—and its manifestations as sectarian discourse—is as old as the Lebanese state itself. In fact, sectarian discourse has been the cloak behind which politicians hide their unified stance when it comes to their parasitic relationship to the state and its citizens. Lebanese politicians have for years proven that corruption knows no sect, no political party, and no ideology.
For the past week protestors have been clashing with riot police and armed forces in downtown Beirut. Thousands of citizens and residents were galvanized into participation when footage of police brutality at a protest on August 19, 2015 went viral. Since that day, there have been almost daily protests bringing up to fifteen thousand people to downtown Beirut in order to protest political and economic corruption and the dismal state of public services in Lebanon. Almost five hundred protestors have been injured by the brutality of the armed forces and received medical attention since the protests began. Every day people go to meet the securitized face of the state: brutal men armed with guns, barbed wire, water cannons and batons. These men (and a few women) in uniform are the representations and protectors of an even more brutal political and economic system. In spite of this, protestors in Lebanon have proven that the state does not control the streets. The political class has failed in its aim to control hearts, minds, and fists.
The lack of basic services in Lebanon, including running potable water, sewage, communications, electricity, and garbage pickup, has a long history. The the criminal negligence of the state was exacerbated by the 1975-1990 civil war and the subsequent political settlements, in addition to periodic Israeli air raids. No government has ever succeeded in providing reliable and affordable public services to the entire country. Only the rich (including the politicians) can fully circumvent the lack of public goods and resources in Lebanon. The majority of the population lives and suffers through daily electricity cuts, water shortages, exorbitant phone and internet prices. Even the rich, however, cannot avoid the toxic and mountainous trash buildups throughout the country.
The protests of today were born out of frustration and anger over the trash buildup in Beirut and Lebanon in July 2015. During this month garbage collection stopped in Beirut as citizens and residents successfully closed a landfill that had been dangerously filled to over capacity. This landfill that began functioning in 1997 as a “temporary” solution to Lebanon’s garbage. In 2014 the government had made promises to find an alternative when residents previously blocked access to the landfill, but no action was taken. The government failed to find a solution. In July 2015, after the garbage had not been picked up in Beirut for weeks, the government began trucking and dumping this trash to and in towns and municipalities around Beirut without the consent (or sometimes knowledge) of the residents of those municipalities. The country, quite literally, was turned into a mass garbage dump by the inactions and corruption of the ruling state-business elite. People are living among the waste of the system. The most vulnerable, the homeless (most of them refuges from war torn Syria) are literally living within it.
The mobilization and commitment of today’s protestors grows and builds upon previous networks of activism. These previous movements include “Isqat al-Nizam”, “Take Back Parliament”, anti-sectarian and civil marriage movements, and feminist activism against domestic violence, police negligence, and female second class citizenship. In addition, in recent years labor and teacher union strikes— in addition to electricity workers strikes – have mobilized thousands of participants in recent years.
Each protest is increasingly larger and more diverse than its predecessor, and is met with escalating violence by armed forces. Initially organized by the YouStink movement, the protest movement has grown out of their control. And that is perhaps a good thing: everyone in Lebanon is affected, even if unevenly so, by the lack of basic public services. In order for this uprising to succeed in its stated goals—the resignation of the current caretaker government— mass mobilization is required. And herein lies the glitch: Lebanon is a country ridden with class and sectarian tension, phobia, and bias. A politics of respectability urges non-violence, nationalist chanting, and is generally tied to the ngo-ization of civil society and of activism in Lebanon. Within this discourse of respectability violence, swearing, and the destruction of public property are considered illegitimate actions. Importantly, these discourses of respectability and vulgarity are classed and gendered, as Paul Amar has argued in the case of Egypt and Brazil. In Lebanon, these discourses also intersect with sectarianism, such that groups of young men with covered faces throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails at police are immediately assumed to belong to a particular class, sect, and form of masculinity. They are assumed to blindly follow the orders of sectarian leadership, in this case those of the president of parliament and leader of the Shiite Amal movement, Nabih Berri. They are the purported zombie army of sectarianism, the danger that will befall the country if the system of rule is removed.
Lebanese media pose these young men as “hooligans” or “dogs,” in diametrical opposition to the non-sectarian, educated, independent thinking, middle class and non-violent protestors. The license given to armed forces to break their bones and bodies is more generous than the license given regarding the bones of “peaceful protestors.” These are discourses on masculinity that proliferate across borders in the twinned eras of the war on terror and of neoliberal securitization. They intersect and traffic alongside discourses on sectarianism, masculinity and violence in Lebanon.
Perhaps there are infiltrators within the movement, whether the police send them or this or that political/sectarian party sends them. But if there are infiltrators, they are representing the entire system of corruption and unaccountability that unites the entire political class. No amount of “violent instigation” can explain the hundreds of injuries the police have inflicted on protestors. Blaming protestors for “instigating violence” while facing down riot cops carrying guns and batons is akin to blaming stone throwing youth in Palestine for the disproportionate responses of the Israeli army. It misplaces the responsibility of violence and gives a discursive alibi to disproportionate state violence. The corruption and negligence of the state and ruling elite, tied to the extreme class polarization and segregation throughout the country, must be understood as forms of structural violence in and of themselves. The author of the violence manifesting itself on Lebanon’s streets today is clear, and it is not the protestors.
Many on the ground protestors and commentators have refused to play into the divide and conquer attitudes of politicians. They have refused the corrosive and overwhelming power of sectarian and class discourses in Lebanon. The protestors have rightfully refused the condescending calls of support by this or that politician, the bickering of the political class over who is to blame and the pointing of fingers. The movement is growing, and there are reports that labor unions may join the protest scheduled for Saturday, August 29. The movement grows with every broken bone or bruised cheek, with every arrest, every detainee gone missing in police custody. With every joke of a “solution” (the latest being the tranformation of akkar, one of the most impoverished of Leabnon’s municipalities, into Beirut’s garbage dump) offered by politicians, the movement fiercer. What started off as a protest movement over basic public services may prove to be much more than even organizers had dared imagine.
Hope is an uncomfortable feeling for many living and breathing the Middle East since the uprisings began in 2010. Hope is a risky investment, and this is no different in Lebanon—a country that has been in a seemingly permanent state of war since its independence in 1943. But for the past week, protestors have succeeded in shattering that stubborn myth about Lebanon: that it is a liberal laissez faire broken state. That Lebanon is the only Arab state where citizens have and exercise the right to protest freely and safely, a state where protestors and police and army exchange flowers and are united in a form of nationalist patriotism. That it is a country held together—hostage and complacent and resigned—by fears of zombie sectarian armies and/or a Islamist apocalypse that will prevail if the current system of power sharing fails.
Protestors have proven that the state and political elites do not control the horizon of political imagination.
The greatest success of today’s protestors is that they have inspired millions both inside and outside of the country. They have broken the ceiling of cynicism and opened a space to imagine alternative political futures for Lebanon. If only for these reasons, there is no going back.
#YouStink Grows Up To Pose Real Challenge to Lebanese State
Over the past few weeks protesters in Lebanon have reemerged after a short slumber in great numbers, talking over downtown Beirut. “You Stink” protests, which started as result of a “garbage crisis” and government incompetence have been met with extreme repression leading to one death and hundreds of injuries. Bay Area Intifada reached out to a comrade on the ground who has been engaged in the demonstrations. Leyla is a anti-authoritarian queer from Beirut in their early 30’s. The following interview was conducted on Monday August 30th- Tuesday Sept 1st. No changes or edits have been to the text.
Q: Can you talk about what ignited the current protests taking place in Lebanon? It’s hard to believe it’s just about the garbage crisis.
A: The easy answer would be to say they were ignited after July 17 when access to the Naameh landfill was forcefully sealed off and people started drowning in garbage. This landfill, which has been in use since 1997 and absorbs most of Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s trash, was successfully shut down by environmental activists and residents living near the dump. Or, you could trace them back to January when the same scenario took place but was resolved relatively quickly after promises were made to permanently shut down the Naameh landfill in July. Or, maybe to 2004 when the plan to use Naameh expired but was renewed (the 6-year arrangement has lasted 17 years turning the agreed-upon 2 million tons of trash into 15). Alternatively, you could go further back to 1995 when the Hariri-connected Averda company was awarded a secret contract to manage garbage in the two aforementioned governorates. At the time, Rafiq Hariri (the assassinated former prime minister most well-known for displacing thousands of Beirutis) privatized waste management and allowed Sukleen and Sukomi to monopolize it and turn it into a profitable industry without any accountability or transparency. Averda charges taxpayers three to four times the regional average per ton while arrogantly ignoring the terms of its contract, namely when it comes to recycling and composting. If you choose to, you could trace them even further back to the foundation of the modern Lebanese nation-state on political sectarianism.
I think it’s important to trace the garbage situation back to its roots because it illustrates the level of ineptitude, corruption, and brazen incompetence of the successive Lebanese governments.
But as you rightly point out, garbage is not the crisis, it is a mere symptom, a very visible and smelly one of a much larger crisis. Trash only exposed the filthy face of this regime. It was the catalyst and dealing with it was the main demand, but government repression and anger toward the ruling elite led what was a mere “anti-garbage” mobilization to quickly become an anti-government movement.
Finally, bear in mind that this trash situation comes in the midst of decades-old shortages in water, electricity and all basic services and some months after learning that there is literally shit in our food.
Q: Can you briefly elaborate on your last point about “political sectarianism,” what’s the link?
A: As it stands, politicians are united by their sectarian incitement and neoliberal politics. The political elite keeps religious communities constantly scared of one another and worried about the “rights” of their respective sects, so it can split the profit it generates through corrupt and often illegal government dealings. The political class has essentially divided the country’s resources/wealth among one another and each so-called representative of a sect has tasked himself with keeping his subjects docile while exploiting his public office. The theft of our shoreline perfectly exemplifies why this governance model is defunct.
This supposed representation also fosters high levels of nepotism and clientelism, hence the incompetence. But political sectarianism is deeply entrenched in our national fabric because it allows the political elite to distract most Lebanese with considerations for their sect instead of class struggle and is a great divide and rule tactic that is beneficial to squashing any resistance to it.
Q: What about class issues? Can you address them?
A: Some quick context first: at least 35 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Over a third is composed of displaced Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqis. And 0,3 percent own 48 percent of the wealth, so there is no division greater than that over class.
The challenge for protesters now is to educate and agitate more people to join despite the patriarchal and sectarian discourse that has allowed ex-warlords, now illegitimate representatives, to amass great wealth and power at our expense.
Downtown Beirut, the site of the protests, hosts several targets of these demonstrations (Government Palace, Parliament, the Municipality of Beirut, and the Ministry of the Environment). But the area is also known as “Solidere” after the private real estate company that turned the bustling heart of the capital into a desolate shopping mall for the rich. Animosity against the capitalist regime is crystal clear there and Solidere is a convenient and ideal target to expose the inequalities the company, and others like it, created with the help of the government’s neoliberal economic policies. Protesters have renamed the “wasat tijari” (commercial center) to “wasakh tijari” (commercial dirt) and “down with Solidere” is scribbled on every other wall you see.
So it is not only the downfall of the current political system that is being called for, but also the economic system.
Q: Considering that a “secular state” is one the goals of this movement, what (if any) role have Muslims played? Has this created a divide between different religious communities?
A: A “sectarian state” is not to be confused with a religious state and demanding a secular one does not infringe on the rights of any religious community. On the contrary, it would allow all of them to have equal access to jobs, housing, etc., and a more just political representation. The divide that has persisted in Lebanon since 2005 is along political lines and is split between two coalitions known as March 8 and March 14. Both include Muslims and Christians.
As far as the role of Muslims, it is not noticeably different from that of others. Our lives here, regardless of religious affiliation, are saturated with interference’s by the church or mosque, so young folks pushing for change are not so concerned with asserting or exhibiting their religious views. We’re leaving that role for the state whose expertise is to divide us on that basis.
Q: What is the make up/demographics of those participating in the demonstrations?
A: When the protests first started, they primarily attracted the young (early 20s to late 30s) bourgeoisie. As they grew, they became a bit more representative of the country as younger (early to late teens) and poor protesters from the suburbs starting joining us. As they continue to grow and change, the sites of the demonstrations have become a place for anyone to come express their grievances. On the only nightlong sit-in held in Riad Solh, I met a family of five that had come from Tripoli to join us because the father, a taxi driver, was being denied a taxi license, which prevents him from earning a living. The other night, a woman who was 100-something-years-old came to plead for help to find her missing children. Activists battling domestic violence and the corrupt judiciary are but some of those who have joined the struggle to topple the current regime.
Q: What parties/movements are joining in and how that’s effecting mobilization?
A: So far, only independent activists and politically unaffiliated people have joined the protests. The first was organized by the group now known as “You Stink,” but in the past couple of weeks broad coalitions, from radical leftists to establishment reformists, have formed and are now mobilizing their folks as well with varying demands. Traditional political groups and public officials are not allowed to join the gatherings — even if some have been attempting to co-opt or adopt the movement. A couple of politicians have tried to join us but were promptly kicked out.
In the past few days, there has been a great development in that the organizing has become much more decentralized. So we’re seeing several parallel actions at once, tangibly hitting capital, the police, and state interests at once. We’ve already had a few small victories and I’m hopeful we’ll have many more if things continue this way.
Q: Tweets in English reveal discord between the organizers and protesters. Some organizers denounced self-defense, is that true? What’s going on?
A: The protest was launched by reformists, liberals, and what now seems clear to me, the next generation of wannabe leaders. “You Stink” organizers are not a homogeneous group and some have engaged in revolutionary violence but overall, yes, they are more prone to favor non-violent direct action. However, everything changed on August 23rd when the usual crowd was joined by working class young men who did not meet the politics of respectability or the aesthetics demanded explicitly by some organizers and other protesters. They were almost immediately denounced as “mundanaseen” (infiltrators) and accused of being the “thugs” of political party Amal. Shortly after, rumors started spreading that they are being paid $50 to $100 a day to disturb the rallies and riot. Putting aside the allegation, organizers missed an important opportunity to engage with these young demonstrators and instead withdrew their supporters from the protest and called on the police to deal with these so-called infiltrators.
This action led “You Stink” to lose a lot of credibility and it was harshly criticized in its aftermath, but it seemingly remains undeterred in its quest to allow only some voices to be heard. They will inevitably fail. At the last march, many could be seen holding signs proclaiming, “I am proud to be an infiltrator” and many chanted, “raise your hand, infiltrators, we don’t need any theorists.”
Q: How has the state reacted so far?
A: It is in full panic mode, taking confused and conflicting actions to kill the movement. Case in point, it built a wall to protect the Government Palace but took it down less than 24 hours later. Then earlier this week, it built another wall-like structure in the same place. We’re all eager to find out what will come next, artists are crossing their fingers for another big canvas.
So you’ve got your customary police state response that includes the use of violence, tear gas, live and rubber bullets, water cannons, random and targeted arrests, and the mass deployment of the army and police. State violence, however, has been widely criticized by all segments of the population so the tactics have recently changed, going from the visible and mediatized to the hidden and silent kind of repression. Some demonstrators have been receiving threats on their phones, others have been snatched after protests by cops in civilian clothes, and others have been disappeared for a few days. Many, of course, have been arrested, beaten and denied any of their rights. Detained protesters have been forced to take urine tests, in hopes of charging them with drug use. When that fails, attempts are made to find some “dirt” on them.
At the time of this interview, more than 100 people have been arrested so far while 22 others have been charged by a military court with the brand new crime of “infiltration.” One prominent activist has been charged with “sectarian incitement” for jokes posted over two years ago on his social media account.
There is a quite noticeable presence of undercover police in all gatherings. I think its goal is not to simply gather intelligence but to sow discord between protesters and create an atmosphere of mistrust. At one ail solidarity rally, an undercover intelligence officer casually admitted to me who he was after I asked him, confirming that he’ll be spending the night with us out on the street. This is a benign example of the climate of fear that the state is hoping to create. In some respects, it hasn’t been very successful thus far.
As for government officials, their positions have fluctuated from full support and attempts at co-optation to outright denunciation of “foreign conspiracies,” namely by the US and Qatar.
Q: Can you briefly talk about the resistance to this repression?
A: On the legal front, a committee of lawyers has formed to defend arrested protesters and a “know your rights” sort of campaign has been widely circulated. On the ground, demonstrators have been sharing knowledge and material to confront the physical force of the state. Online, tips are shared and many communities have been established to organize more effectively. Citizen journalists have been doing a stellar job in exposing the brutality of the police and alternative media pages are being created daily to strip state-media from the control it has over our narrative.
But just being together in the squares of the capital, reclaiming our public spaces, engaging in conversations, and caring for each other while imagining the possibilities is ample resistance as a start.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the street tactics being used to confront police and state aggressions?
A: There hasn’t been a solid line of organized defense yet that has allowed sustained confrontation with the police. It’s been a lot of hit-and-runs, which is why we haven’t managed to hold on to a space for longer than 24 hours or significantly damage any of our targets. Makeshift barricades and shields, setting fires, and pelting rocks, etc., have all be in use but again rarely in an organized fashion. Also, diversity of tactics is not widely accepted so the wannabe Gandhi’s in the crowd continue to interfere and disturb more efficient/strategic street tactics. So far, I’ve only witnessed people forming human chains to protect the police, no black bloc tactics or the like to protect fellow protesters or push back against the police/army.
At the same time, police violence has been gradually increasing and it’d be hard to deal with a sniper for example (as one protester is rumored to have been shot by one) with traditional defenses. On one particularly battle-rich night, 400 people were injured.
Q: Some are referring to these protests as a burgeoning revolution, what’s your take?
A: I think it’s much too premature to label what amounts to a series of angry demonstrations, akin to the ones witnessed in 2011 against the sectarian regime, albeit grander. Granted, they are exceptional in that they are non-sectarian and independent of all political parties. However, they are mostly led by depoliticized civil society activists, are infused with revolting nationalist sentiments, and remain elitist in their discourse. Thankfully, the leadership of these protests has been strongly contested by many leftists and the working class, who have managed to impose new realities and different discourses.
The main organizers are to be credited for possibly opening a revolutionary space that allows for acts of political imagination and collective dreaming that could significantly alter the political system in Lebanon. However, it is but a pocket of resistance to the status quo right now.
To stress that they are against the entire political class, activists have been reiterating that “when we say all of them, we mean all of them,” without any exceptions. That’s an excellent first step, the second will be to agree that, ” when we say all of us, we mean all of us.” And by that I mean we must be more inclusive of the rights, demands and participation of migrant workers, refugees, the poor and the most disenfranchised.
Organizing in a non-hierarchical manner, reassessing our decision-making, opening up meetings to all (instead of a select few representatives) are but a few changes that need to happen immediately.
Q: In a few key words only, what do these protesters want?
A: A secular state, equality and social justice.
Q: One last question. What are the similarities with protests in Iraq (anti-sectarian, basic rights, etc.)?
A: The link to Iraq and its mode of governance is very direct as it went through a “Lebanonisation” in the aftermath of the American war and occupation. The establishment of sectarian power-sharing in Iraq has caused it some of the same chaos and sectarian divisions it has here. Their protests were triggered by the electricity crisis and later evolved into a mobilization against the corrupt political class and judiciary.
I’m not aware of any direct connections or networks established between folks here and our Iraqi comrades, but we’ve been expressing solidarity with their cause, as well as with the Syrians’ and Palestinians’, in our banners, chants and statements.