A crisis of waste management in Lebanon prompts a protest movement that shows no signs of abating
BY Nour Samaha
Newsweek Middle East Web Exclusive
BEIRUT: What started out with just 10 people on the streets protesting against an old garbage problem soon escalated to crowds in the tens of thousands, demanding an overhaul of a political system that has been in place for decades.
It all started with the closure of Naameh, the main waste landfill for Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Originally opened in 1996 as a temporary site set to function for just two years, 19 years later it was still operational, holding 18 million tons more than it was mandated to. It finally closed its gates on July 17 following several protests by local residents, citing overcapacity and increasing health and environmental hazards. Six months earlier, the government had promised residents they would use that period to find an alternative, permanent landfill.
However, the government reneged on its promise and thousands of tons of waste were left uncollected on the streets, piling high and rotting in the searing heat after Naameh’s closure. The situation brought the already unstable and politically deadlocked country to a standstill. And when rival political factions failed to overcome their differences to find a sustainable solution, citizens took to the streets.
The pivotal moment came on Aug. 22 when a small collective of civil rights activists, forming the nucleus of the You Stink! movement, called for a demonstration against government inaction. The name alludes to Lebanon’s political elite essentially, ‘stinking.’ On that day, security forces opened fire on the protesters, using live ammunition and rubber bullets, as well as tear gas and water cannons; they also used physical force against them.
Over the course of the next two days, dozens of protesters were detained and hundreds injured. Outraged by the excessive use of force against civilians demanding their basic right to clean streets, the public rallied behind the activists, endorsing their demands namely: the resignation of Lebanese Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouq, an immediate solution to the garbage crisis, holding those accountable for the use of force and immediate parliamentary elections. More civil society groups cropped up with more demands, more government files to tackle, more popular protests and calls to rid the country of the corrupt regime.
“There are two reasons why the movements were able to rally support; the more immediate one is that the Lebanese could see the problem and smell it–the political system has completely abandoned society and there were no serious efforts made to deal with the trash,” said Jamil Mouawad, a political researcher on the Lebanese state.
“The second is the resentment against the political elite and the realization that the state has not existed for a while, but suddenly showed its face through forceful means,” he said. “The public saw this as ‘not only do you not take care of us, but you use force against us.’
“For the first time they saw a face of the state they had not seen before: a security state.”
At first, the government scrambled to deal with the popular backlash. In an attempt to subdue the protesters, Machnouq expedited bids for a new waste management company to clear the streets. But he promptly canceled the bids the following day amidst cries that the new contracts were overpriced, bringing the crisis back to square one. On the day of the cancelation, the government erected a concrete wall in Riad al Solh, site of the protests, cordoning off the cabinet’s building, only to dismantle it 24 hours later. As public accusations of corruption and calls for resignations grew louder, some politicians accused the activists of being backed by Western embassies and sent to destabilize the country. Others accused the protesters of being supported by Iran and Hezbollah. Many told their party supporters not to go to the streets in support of the movements.
Ironically, as the protest movements grew in popularity, rival political factions began to close ranks for the first time in an attempt to salvage their positions. While Machnouq did not relinquish his ministerial position, he did resign from the committee overseeing the garbage crisis. He was replaced by Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb, who immediately called on the activists to work together on a proposal for the garbage issue. Political factions were invited to attend a national dialogue session to address the issues paralyzing the country, but the protest movements rejected these actions, accusing the government of stalling.
And as the political elite began to get its act together, the momentum garnered by the protest movements slowly started to turn.
“The organizers of the movements tried to nourish the public opinion and make it bigger and bigger but were unable to do so,” said Mouawad. “Public opinion was behind them, but they were also expecting tangible results from the movements, and it’s at this point the movements got lost. They were unsure if they should focus specifically on the trash crisis or take a step forward to focus on political change.”
Infighting between the different movements and unilateral actions taken by some groups were also alienating factors. When a group of activists stormed the Environment Ministry and conducted a daylong sit-in, reaction from the public was mixed. When a dozen or so activists abandoned a hunger strike they started after only two weeks, they were accused of not having a long-term vision.
“You don’t conduct a hunger strike when there are so many other options available to you to protest,” said one activist within the umbrella organization. “When you then give up your strike, you’ve basically told those you’re striking against that they’ve won. It looks weak.”
Other actions, such as focusing on the need for more public space in the city and holding sit-ins outside various ministries, were only seen as distracting from the pressing issues at hand. And as calls for more demonstrations grew louder, the number of protesters began to diminish. Some were disappointed with the festive atmosphere the protests had adopted, while others were afraid more violence would emerge from the protests.
“The movements looked very scattered, so this made the public reluctant,” said Mouawad. “At the same time, you can’t blame [the movements], they’re not a political party. At the end of the day, the public wants immediate results to the issue, and this has not been the case.”
“Our biggest mistake was sitting with the other groups,” said one leading activist within the protest movements. “We would spend sometimes up to six or seven hours a day just talking about really silly things.
“The public got confused: when other files were opened at the same time, like electricity, public spaces and so on, it just made everything look disorganized,” he said.
At present, the waste management crisis continues and various civil society groups are divided on how to move forward. Some are willing to work with Chehayeb on finding a solution whereas others do not want to work with the government at all.
“Is it the duty of the popular movement to present a solution to the government?” said Wael Abdallah, a leading activist with We Want Accountability, one of the civil society groups within the umbrella movement. His group rejects any solution proposed by the government.
“The government has proven that it cannot be trusted to work in the interest of the people,” he said.
But for the general public, the lack of solution to the very issue that had sent them to the streets in the first place left many in doubt of the capabilities of the movements, resulting in a significant loss in the momentum built up.
For Walid Khoury, a Beirut resident who attended most of the protests, the lack of vision and conflicting messages emerging from the groups only served to strengthen the political elite.
“The same political leaders have been around for 30 odd years; it is impossible to remove them and these movements are not experienced enough to play the same game as these politicians,” he said.
That is not to say small victories had not been achieved.
“The movements showed that claiming back your right is not an insane demand,” said Mouawad. “The government is now being held accountable. The problem is the political system is very resilient, so the movements should decide whether they want to topple the system or push it to be more responsible towards society.”