Sunday, August 30, 2015

You Stink!

“This is not a protest for political parties. It is for all the Lebanese people... we are against the parties that are exploiting citizens,” international theatre director Lucien Bourjeily, one of the figureheads of the movement, told AFP. According to Reuters, many of the demonstrators were chanting “Make it a revolution!,” while others adapted the Arab spring slogan: “People want the downfall of the regime!”

Rubbish has been piling up on the streets of Beirut since Lebanon's largest landfill shut down last month with no ready alternative. This led to the creation of the You Stink movement, which blames political paralysis and corruption for the failure to resolve the crisis. It was a stroke of genius that Lebanon's young protesters named their movement "You Stink". In just two words, they captured both the essence of their country's immediate crisis over uncollected garbage and its longer-term structural problems. The "You Stink" garbage campaign has been mobilizing independently of the big sectarian parties that dominate Lebanese politics.

Parliament doesn't meet, can't muster the votes needed to elect a new president (and so the post has been vacant for almost two years), hasn't passed a budget in a decade, and has twice extended its mandate because it can't agree on how to run the next election. In the absence of effective state institutions, power and privilege reside in the country's clans and sects and the feudal chiefs who run them. In a perverse way, this weak state and the agreed upon distribution of power and patronage served, for a time, as a source of Lebanon's resilience. It provided members of each sect a degree of access and patronage, and absorbed their discontent. This system became ossified, but remained "the only game in town". The neighbouring Syrian civil war has inflamed passions, directly involved some Lebanese (most notably Hizbollah), and brought one and one-half million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, placing severe stress on the country's resources and decaying political system.

One of the movement’s activists, Michel Elefteriades, a Lebanese artist, explained "This is not similar to what happened in Egypt or elsewhere where people were manipulated, or without greater political awareness. There is an awakening of democratic awareness, and it has been a very long time since Lebanon has not come out of these political parties and religious sects to ask that all political leaders be punished or sidelined.” He added: "It's a sort of popular revolution, a mix of many movements – some anarchic in the good philosophical sense such as the refusal of the centralised power – it's really a grassroots movement so I don't think it’s going to stop. The movement will grow." Elefteriades claims their goal is the same: "To bring the collapse of a system that has been in place for decades." The government's failure to solve crises linked to electricity and water shortages stems from what Elefteriades describes as "a rotten political class" and "our use of confessionalism" – a system of government that proportionally allocates political power among a country's communities (whether religious or ethnic) according to their percentage of the population. "On top of everything now we have that waste, and it has become unacceptable, especially because we are not a country at war. We are a country with an economy that is holding together rather well, with very rich people and luxury shops on every corner. But, despite that, it's worse than in poor countries or those at war.”

“There is a leadership that is ready to take over and there will not be a vacuum," Elefteriades explained. "There are many people, with great capacities, but that are still suffocated by this political elite and this new class will never be able to lead this country because those in place don't want to give them space. So, as soon as that old political class will have left, there will be the emergence of a new political class, from one day to the next." The activist described how a new government could be made up of personalities from the public sector, who have been in the political life for 20 or 25 years but "have been marginalised by those in power, who have money and who have the system on their side". A second possibility could be to set up a military interim government. "I say a military government because, in Lebanon, even if I consider myself to be a bit of an anarchist, I trust the military. We have officers who have values and ideals – so they should be more trusted than the politicians," Elefteriades said.

SOYMB recalls a similar optimism when the youth peacefully took to the streets of Syria a few years ago to demand democracy, only to see it succumb to the State’s repression which led to the militarization of the protests and the subsequent involvement of outside parties with their own political agendas. We can only hope that history does not repeat itself. 

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