You Stink: Rubbish and Revolt in Beirut

Michael Haddad examines the connections between a form of environmental mismanagement – waste disposal – and an anti-government struggle launched this year in Lebanon.

You Stink rally in Lebanon. Image: طلعت ريحتكم

On the July 17, 2015, private contractors were finally able to close Naameh landfill site.

Naameh, a small town by the Mediterranean, had been used as the main dumping ground for the rubbish of Beirut and Mount Lebanon (constituting half of Lebanon’s 4 million-strong population) since 1997. The government had reneged on its promises to close this site, originally intended as a mere temporary solution. When it was finally closed – helped by the citizens of Naameh’s vow to obstruct any garbage trucks entering that day – rubbish started piling up on the streets of Beirut. The ‘You Stink’ movement was formed as a reaction to this crisis – the crisis of seeing and smelling the pestilential stench of weeks of rotting garbage sitting out in the hot Beirut sun.

rubbish under the bridge

The rotting rubbish. Image: طلعت ريحتكم

The context within which this movement arose is one of a sharply divided political system, split along sectarian lines. Pro- and anti-Syrian viewpoints rupture political allegiances, and posts in government are divided between Sunni, Shia, and Maronite Christian. Before You Stink erupted, the parliament had voted – unconstitutionally – to extend its term in May 2013, and again in November 2014.

Protests organised from late July to early August attracted a few hundred protestors from various backgrounds. Student activists made up a large body of the initial protest demographic, and whilst the organisers of You Stink opted for demonstrations and rallies, students from AUB (American University Beirut) Secular Club organised more disruptive actions; they cut off roads in Downtown Beirut and obstruct convoys of politicians heading to parliament. These tactics garnered widespread media attention, and when combined with information dissemination on social media, played a huge role in attracting crowds of people to protests. The immediacy of seeing rubbish rotting in the streets made for a powerful and attractive image, able to galvanise a large group aiming for social change.

Two days of mass protest took place on August 22 and 23, attracting tens of thousands to Riad al-Sohl square. They were met with extreme police repression. Families with children and elderly people participated in the protest, but all were indiscriminately targeted with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

The Lebanese establishment moved quickly to discredit the movement and spread paranoia and fear. The movement attracted many young working class men who were described by the military and the government as ‘infiltrators’, despite the fact that these men were expressing genuine rage at a system which had largely marginalised them. Lebanese interior minister Nouhad El Machnouk described the protestors as drug-addicts, non-lebanese moundasseen (infiltrators). Claims of ISIS intrusion, the language of terrorism, and musings on foreign, ulterior motives were all invoked in the counter-attack.

People from different political affiliations, religions and areas were able to stand together against government corruption and the inevitable backlash launched by its beneficiaries.

On August 29, You Stink protestors issued the Lebanese government a 72-hour ultimatum before resuming more disruptive actions, promising a ‘surprise’ the following Tuesday. The numbers at the protest were reaching 250,000. By this stage, the putrid rubbish had become the material source of outrage. The entire political system was under fire. Officials increased security and ordered a violent police force to undertake mass arrests.

It took until September 9 for the Lebanese government to agree to emergency waste disposal measures. Dr Rima Tarabay insightfully summarises the situation: “The plan proposed by the government regarding waste is both vague and inadequate by activists’ standard. The government proposes to give back to municipalities their waste management role, but that role was never removed. The question here is the money attributed to those municipalities. They don’t have the workforce and equipment required to manage their city or village’s waste.’’

Since these announcements, the movement has slowed down. Joey Ayoub, a political blogger from Lebanon, described the situation: “Right now we’re waiting to rebuild the momentum. There is a general feeling among most Lebanese that we can’t do anything to change our situation. Corruption is so overwhelming that you virtually can’t survive without it. For now, many of us are waiting to see how things will go. We just can’t predict at the moment, but hopefully people will stop convincing themselves that ‘things could be worse’, which is a common way of seeing things in Lebanon. We need to convince people that demanding their rights is in everyone’s best interests.’’

Summer’s events in Beirut have produced tangible benefits. Sectarian divisions have weakened, partly replaced by unity. Intense pressure has been put on a government who have responded with transparent tactics of classism (albeit a viewpoint adopted by some liberal You Stink organisers) and extreme police repression. You Stink has failed to utilise the streets to their full potential, but bloggers and writers in Lebanon and around the world are challenging the Lebanese establishment’s narrative of classism and feared instability. There is potential in Lebanon for a strong anti-corruption movement, which could unify an incredibly diverse population, all of whom aim for a dismantling of the conditions of oppression – and the militias and government which enforce it.

Michael Haddad is a 4th year English Literature student. He is a member of Warwick for Free Education.

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