While triggered by a waste management crisis, the roots of mass protests in Lebanon run deeper. [Click the image above or scroll down to view the mini gallery.]
Since August 22, thousands of people have been rallying in Beirut to demonstrate against the Lebanese government. Peaceful protests turned violent with scuffles between demonstrators and security forces. These events came off the back of a prolonged waste management crisis in Lebanon’s capital after one of the city’s biggest landfills was shut down and mountains of refuse piled up in the summer heat. A social media campaign dubbed “You Stink,” calling for mass protests against the corrupt system, gathered traction across the country.
On August 24, following injuries to scores of demonstrators and members of the security forces, the campaign postponed further protests and announced it would hold a press conference to discuss the events of the weekend; the next demonstration was set for August 29. Despite this, protesters have continued to assemble in central Beirut during the course of the week, showing their discontent and calling for the government to step down.
On August 25, Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s national unity government, which includes parties with opposing views such as the Future Movement, Hezbollah and Christian parties, cancelled recently announced tender agreements for waste management companies and referred the decision to a ministerial committee. The Shiite Hezbollah movement and its Christian allies from the Free Patriotic Movement walked out of the cabinet session. Politicians from all sides called the bids far too high.
Salam has also ordered a concrete wall that was set up to separate protesters from his official Grand Serail residence to be removed. In a televised address on August 23, the prime minister threatened to resign, stating: “I warn that we are going towards collapse if matters continue.”
A cross-sectarian effort and long-standing grievances
The latest protests are significant not only because of their speedy transformation from disaffection over rubbish collection to calls for the government to step down, but also for their apparent lack of sectarianism. Lebanon’s politics are underpinned by a sectarian quota system, introduced during the French Mandate and reinforced by the unwritten 1943 National Pact. Accordingly, by custom the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. The 1989 Taif Agreement to end the 15-year-long civil war further entrenched sectarianism.
The latest protests are defined as non- or cross-sectarian and secular; none of the major political parties officially took part. On August 25, in its first official statement over the demonstrations, Hezbollah said that it supported “the right to peaceful protest and the right to object.”
There are long-standing grievances among Lebanese citizens about government services extending far beyond the refuse collection system: decades-worth of electricity cuts, water shortages during summer, widespread corruption and large gaps in provision. While boasting an open and relatively highly-developed services-based economy, the country ranks 136th out of 174 in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index.
On top of this, Lebanon is in a state of political paralysis without a head of state. The arrival of approximately 1.5 million refugees from Syria further complicates the situation and has put increasing strain on the government’s resources.
Who was behind the violence?
Despite calls for peaceful marches, on August 22-23 the protests turned violent, with security forces using tear gas, water cannon and, according to some accounts, live bullets, while protesters hurled rocks and some lit fires. Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that 30 members of the Internal Security Forces were injured.
Hassan Shams, a leader of the “You Stink” campaign, told Lebanese New TV that infiltrators were behind the violence, vowing that the campaign started and will continue peacefully. The LBCI television channel pointed the finger at members of the Shiite Amal Movement led by Nabih Berri, the speaker of Lebanon’s parliament—accusations backed up by Al Mustaqbal, a newspaper that belongs to Amal’s opponents, the Future Movement. Some protesters accused Amal of aiming to discredit the protests.
“Suddenly they were there … We wanted to bring tents and sleep there. But they had tents of their own,” one protester giving her name as Tina told Lebanese news outlet NOW. Jean Pierre, another “You Stink” protester, said the infiltrators seemed well-organized. However, there was no consensus about this, with other participants claiming the original protesters fought the police too and that the two groups merged at some point.
Amal subsequently denied that its members were responsible for violence during the demonstrations, calling the accusations a “blatant attempt to incite sedition.” Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk blamed no particular party, saying the protests were subverted by individuals linked to “parties with an agenda.”
There appears to be no clear evidence about who exactly was involved in the clashes.
At the time of writing, there was no indication that the protest movement would simply dissolve without any tangible reforms, but equally it is not yet clear how much change the demonstrations can bring about. While the emergency cabinet session on August 25 might indicate heightened urgency, it demonstrated once again the lack of unity in the cabinet as Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah members walked out. This also gives a sense of how difficult it is likely to be to come to an agreement.
While the protests have brought together Lebanese people from different walks of life, Lebanon’s political turmoil continues to unfold along sectarian lines and the divisions formed in the wake of Rafik Hariri’s assassination more than a decade ago. Some analysts say it could be months until the waste management crisis is resolved. In the meantime, pressure on the political class will only increase.
*[This article was originally published by The World Weekly.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Brahim Najem