Thousands of Lebanese rallied on Saturday afternoon in central Beirut to denounce the government's mismanagement of the city's waste disposal.
Organized by the #YouStink movement and joined by several different groups of society, the protest showed the deep dissatisfaction of the city's inhabitants towards the authorities.
Attendees extended their complaints to the ineffectiveness of public institutions and the corruption of their representatives in what was the largest demonstration in recent years where political parties were not involved.
Subsequent clashes between police and protesters went on for two hours. The altercations begun after a group of people tried to gain access to the roads leading to the parliament and the military and police blocked them. Dozens of police and demonstrators have been injured and one of the organizers stated that five protesters were arrested.
The protesters summoned at six in the afternoon at a downtown crossing few meters from both the parliament and the seat of government.
The festive atmosphere was visible in the costumes and banners of the attendees, most of them young but seconded by families. Some were dressed in garbage bags, while others were accompanied by brooms, soap bottles, or masks.
But the speeches of participants showed their anger. “Our waste should be recycled; our leaders, to be thrown in the trash” read one of the banners.
The #YouStink movement was conceived by a group of young Lebanese after the collection of trash in Beirut was halted. Disseminated through social networks, the movement denounced the poor waste management and the lack of recycling.
“We ask the resignation of the minister of agriculture, both an immediate and a long term solution on what to do with the garbage, and that those responsible for the problems are held accountable” explains Assaad Thebian, one of the organizers of the movement.
Nothing about anything
The movement has been able to capitalize on the discontent of part of the society with a ruling class which protesters accused of corruption. The #YouStink campaign has also managed to mobilize many Lebanese outside the inner circle of activists. Elie is a 30-year-old doctor who was attending a demonstration for the first time in a decade. “We are here because it is not organized by any political party, and we wish to denounce that parliament does nothing on this issue. Actually, they do nothing about anything!”
The protesters accused political parties of paralyzing public institutions and only worrying of the economic and political interests of its representatives. “We are tired, in Lebanon we live like animals,” complained Tarek, a 22-year-old artist, minutes before the start of the demonstration. “We want to solve the garbage collection, and then we will take care of all the other things: electricity, water, pollution, the costs...” added Stephanie, a 21-year-old fine arts student who had painted the Lebanese flag on her cheek.
Violent clashes between demonstrators and police
The demonstration resulted in the most violent clashes in protests the country has suffered in years. The local newspaper The Daily Star said that there were more than one hundred wounded among demonstrators and the police.
With the access roads to the parliament and the presidential palace closed by metal fences, barbed wire and hundreds of police officers, demonstrators walked toward the Martyrs square. From there, protesters tried to gain access to an adjacent street which leads to the parliament. As soldiers were guarding the entrance, some attendees threw sticks and water bottles and the soldiers responded by shooting rubber bullets.
The protest continued down the main street with the cry of “Down with the Government!”, “Revolution!” or “Thieves!” until the clashes with the police divided the demonstration. Protesters threw stones at security forces and tried to make barricades with fences and containers. The police fired dozens of tear gas charges, and hit severely some protesters. Water cannons were also used to disperse the crowd. Ambulances where coming and going constantly while doctors had to treat dozens of injured.
Some police officers fired live ammunition in air with their Kalashnikovs. “It’s the first time I see something like this in Beirut,” exclaimed surprised a local photographer at the scene.
With the dark sky overlooking Beirut, tracer bullets were visible flying over Martyr’s square. The police also fired guns and protesters were showing dozens of cartridges collected on the street. Interior Minister Nouad Machnouk said that those who have fired ammunition “will be held accountable.”
Tammam Salam, the prime minister, said this Sunday that “the incident will not pass without holding those responsible at all levels accountable.”
The trash crisis broke out on July 17 with the closure of the Naameh landfill, where all the capital’s waste was dumped, without any alternative provided by the interim government. Sukleen, the company responsible for the collection, halted all of their trucks until the parliament agreed to find a solution. The crisis also coincided with the negotiation to award the new succulent contract to manage the waste in the region of Beirut, which hosts more than half of the country’s population.
Over the next ten days, thousands of plastic bags piled up on the streets during a heat wave, with temperatures rising above 35 degrees. To avoid a health crisis, a white powder mixed with rat poison was thrown on the trash. Fed up, many of Beirut’s residents started burning rubbish, causing toxic fumes.
But the temporary solution implemented by the government and the collection company Sukleen was not welcomed by anyone: the trucks now dump the tons of debris on the slopes of the mountains near the capital.
With the purpose to find a definitive solution to the problem, the government is once again meeting next Tuesday after several failed attempts. For many, the meetings do not matter. “The lack of agreement is another example of the corruption and inability” that plagues the government and public institutions, says political analyst Sami Nader. “If the state is unable to secure basic services like garbage collection, it means there is no state.”
“Lebanon has a political system that ensures stability but paralysis,” wrote English correspondent Nicholas Blanford a few weeks ago regarding the sectarian political system established in Lebanon. Nader believes that “if politicians are unable to reach an agreement in the upcoming days, this crisis can be the trigger for something bigger.”
Around eleven at night, the situation had calmed down in central Beirut and hundreds of protesters sang at the crossing point where the demonstration had begun. Others were talking with the police about the previous incidents. Soon after, a group of people came in and planted their tents on the middle of the street to sleep there until a solution to the waste problem was reached.
Nearby, employees of Sukleen, the company that is still in charge of waste collection, collected with tweezers the hundreds of stones scattered on the ground.SHOW MORE