Beehive: Something Stinks: The Garbage Protest in Lebanon

MDC Researcher Dr. Michael Barak examines the role of Lebanese social media in driving the recent 'garbage protests.'
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"You stink" - Caption from the Lebanon garbage protests

"You stink" - Caption from the Lebanon garbage protests

The growing discontent among young Lebanese with the government’s incompetence in handling urgent issues facing the country, especially the corruption prevailing among the leadership and the political paralysis that has plagued the country for more than two years, reached a new peak in July 2015. [1]  This time, the crisis focused on the mountains of garbage piled up in southern Beirut. The garbage remained on the streets for a quite a time, as a result of both the major waste disposal site in the area being closed, and of the inability of the Lebanese parliament to resolve the issue. Against the background of the serious health hazard, young Lebanese users initiated protests on `social networking sites (SNS). These soon overflowed onto the street and brought about violent clashes with Lebanese security forces, during which one demonstrator was killed and dozens were injured.

The online protest, which was accompanied by the hashtag “You stink” (“tal’at rehtkhom”),[2] expressed the mass disgust of Lebanese youth at the heads of state, and drew an analogy to issues in many other areas of Lebanese society (pictured). Thus, in addition to complaints about criminal neglect of residents,[3] and demands to solve the sanitation crisis,[4] one user noted, “Garbage doesn’t differentiate between Muslim and Christian, between Sunni and Shiite, between Maronite and Druze.” The protest reflects the distaste for the administration shared by all communities.[5] Other users expressed their wish for the downfall of “the government of garbage... that doesn’t provide water or electricity.”[6] It should be noted that the online discourse was also critical of Lebanese citizens and their political responsibility for the fiasco, as reflected in this tweet: “The Lebanese people today reap the garbage they sowed in the polls.”[7]

Within a short time, the online protest expanded from cyberspace into comprehensive, social-environmental activity. A group of activists organized under the name “You Stink” declared that its members were working on an online fundraiser that aims to raise the equivalent of $22,000 for a campaign to promote awareness of the importance of protecting the environment, the need for a proper solution to the problem of accumulated garbage, and the obligation to prosecute Lebanese politicians for the illegal waste of public funds.[8]

The garbage crisis has affected the political relations within the country. Some users argued that the driving force behind the campaign is none other than Hezbollah and Iran. For them, even though Hezbollah participates in the current government, it seeks overthrow it, and eventually take control of the country. One user tweeted “After Baghdad, San’aa, Damascus and Tripoli, comes another Arab capital (i.e., Beirut) that will fall into the hands of Shiites.”[9] Another cynically wrote, “In response to the garbage crisis and in solidarity with the You Stink campaign, Hezbollah will change its name to ‘Hazab-zabal’ (The Garbage Party).”[10] It should be noted, that activists in the campaign were quick to deny these claims, and make it clear that they are working for the benefit of the entire Lebanese people.

After an extensive information campaign, You Stink activists on SNS organized a mass protest rally in Beirut on August 22. The demonstration degenerated into violent confrontations between demonstrators and police, ending with the death of one demonstrator and dozens wounded. Many activists documented the violence on mobile devices, and distributed the evidence on SNS, along with harsh criticism of the intensity of the force that the security forces used against them.[11] Even in government circles the violence evoked disgust. Jubran Basil, the Lebanese Minister of Foreign and Immigration Affairs and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, tweeted: “What country throws garbage on its people and shoots them when they protest? Haven’t we had enough political garbage in this country? Who will be held responsible for the excessive violence?”[12]

The garbage crisis continues to gain momentum. Since the end of August, activists in You Stink have been leading rallies, demonstrations and hunger strikes, demanding the dismissal of the Minister of Environment, Mohammed Machnouk. The chord that the struggle has struck shows that despite the security threat to Lebanon from ISIS and the effects of the civil war in Syria, Lebanese citizens are also involved in civil protests. SNS have accompanied the campaigns, and played an important role in bringing them to the public’s attention.

 



Notes

[1] A direct expression of this crisis in the inability of Lebanon to elect a new president. For more on this situation see, Michael Barak, “SNS as a Platform for Political Protest Lebanon Prepares for the Approaching Parliamentary Elections” Beehive: Volume 2, Issue 9 (October 2014).

[2] #طلعت_ريحتكن; #YouStink The group also launched a special “YouStink” website for the campaign at http://www.youstink.org

[3] See, for example, the exchange “Our health isn’t garbage”: #صحتنا_مش_زبالة

[4] See, for example, the video one user uploaded to Twitter, documenting the mounds of garbage piled up near his home: https://twitter.com/philabouzeid/status/624956195418157056, July 27, 2015.