Nesreen Salem was in Beirut when the ‘You Stink’ protests began. Here she reflects on the causes and consequences of the movement
“They’ve been forcing the farmers to sell their lands to big real estate developers,” my taxi driver, Arif, told me as he drove me away from the breathtaking Cedars of Mount Chouf, “we don't produce enough for our own people anymore. Everything is imported and the taxes break our backs.” Indeed, expenses in Lebanon are among the highest in the Middle East. So high it is often described as European prices for Middle Eastern services. Nothing is free. Education and health are private and demand upfront fees that are beyond the average pocket.
I was only in Beirut for ten days on my last visit. At first, it was unnoticeable. I walked past a garbage dump on my daily strolls but the garbage must have still been containable within the dumpsters’ capacities. My nose was the first to be attacked by the stench, then my eyes. By the time I had left, the garbage was strewn around dumpsters and spread metres away, piling high in the extreme summer heat of Beirut. It was early days of the crisis but the stench was too offensive and forced passersby to run past the dumpsters to a clearing to breathe. I can only imagine how much worse it got between then and now and wonder how such a nationwide health hazard could not be taken seriously by any government no matter how incompetent.
The theories behind what caused the crisis vary. The New York Times claims it is because the occupants of the neighbourhood that nears the landfill cut all access to it due to the health problems it was causing them. Others claim that, due to the privatisation of the garbage collection, there was a dispute over charges and commission for which the Minister of Environment, Mohamed al Mashnuq, is seen to be incriminated in, which is why the first demand of the You Stink movement is his resignation.
Ironically, a breathe of fresh air rose from the garbage crisis in the form of an organic and spontaneous youthful movement that called itself: You Stink; a euphemism in Arabic that denotes more than a mere stench. It refers directly to the corruption that is seen to be infested in the current Lebanese government with all its sectarian political parties that has reached a complete political paralysis even when dealing with the most basic of citizens’ needs. The movement has been gathering momentum and volume over the summer as the crisis continued to be ignored by politicians. On Saturday 29th August, it reached its largest capacity yet as Lebanese in Beirut and worldwide participated in their nearest protest. London witnessed a modest assembly of no less than 300 participants who gathered in Marble Arch and chanted for an end to the current political fiasco.
The vast majority of the protestors were of the youth: the generation who had either lived through some or all of the Civil War years and narrowly escaped, or who heard first hand narratives about its horrors. Some had been living in London through self-imposed exile for decades. And it seems that this generation learnt the lesson well: Sectarianism is out.
Moe, one of the You Stink movement organisers, emphasised: “We are a group of Lebanese youth from various backgrounds, religions, political allegiances and regions. We left our politics outside and went in agreeing on one principle: no sectarianism for a better future in Lebanon.”
It was not difficult for the movement to gain momentum in Beirut. Every household suffered the grievances caused by the government's move to privatise services. Lately the privatisation of water and power supplies meant a daily power and water outage in every household in Lebanon. Being the capital city, Beirut only suffered it for 3-4 hours a day, while further away towns and cities saw up to 9 hours of no running water or electricity. I was surprised to find out there was a phone app to tell each area what times the outages would occur. Though it helped households to plan their day around the cuts, it did little to console them in the summer heat.
Tarek Alamelldin, a man who describes himself as a free thinker, took part in most of the protests in Martyr Square in Beirut. He also described the spirit of the protests as being non-sectarian and non-political. Simply a frustrated cry to end the paralysis that was caused by the garbage crisis and to call on the responsible ministers to resign and usher in the presidential elections.
However, the political party leaders have been quick to praise the peaceful nature of the protests and declare their full support. “Ziad el Rahbani once said in one of his plays,” comments Moe, “we took up weapons and built a trench to fight you, you ended up sitting in our trench!”
How will history books write about this event in 300 years time? Will they call it The Garbage Revolution? Though it would be fitting with the Lebanese’s sense of irony and sarcasm, it is unfair to call it as such. The garbage crisis is simply the ash that broke the camel's back.
They were chanting freedom. The youth of Lebanon, a country so often viewed by the rest of the Arab world as the most liberal and free society, where it is rare to hear about the of abuse of civil rights compared to its neighbours, were crying out for freeing their country from the corruption that had been rotting for so long, it reeked.
Their demands are simple: collect the garbage; the resignation of the Minister responsible for the crisis; bring to account all those responsible for shooting at the peaceful protesters; usher in presidential elections; a drastic change in parliamentary voting to allow more diversity and less sectarian influence.
It is too early to say whether this movement will succeed in achieving its targets or not ; however the protests are certainly a prime mover for inevitable and much wanted change. Lebanon’s neighbours have not set the best example for change through means of peaceful civil protests, but neither do any of its neighbours have the complicated and divided make up of the Lebanese population. Nevertheless, there is much hope in the vigour of this generation; a generation that refuses to continue to be pawns in the old oligarchy’s games or allow sectarian polarity or conflicts to decide the future of the Lebanon they wish to see.