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As #YouStink gains momentum, Lebanese doubtful over change

The country has been ruled by the same political elite for years, many of them warlords during the civil war

Published: Updated:

After Beirut was rocked by two consecutive demonstrations last weekend over a prolonged lack of garbage collection, Environment Minister Mohammed Machnouk called for an urgent meeting to decide on waste-management bidding for Lebanon. Some 24 hours after Machnouk announced that “we reached a happy ending to this crisis,” fresh disagreement emerged among political parties. For many, this shows how the political system hampers Lebanon’s progress.

“Demonstrations were very spontaneous and initially related to the garbage issue, but what we look forward to is holding elections with a new electoral law,” activist Ali Hammoud said Wednesday at another demonstration. Every day since Saturday, people across religious and social backgrounds have gathered in Riad al-Solh Square at 6pm. Mike Harb, 42 cannot remember “the last time there was a civil movement without political or religious banners.”

Politics in Lebanon is based on a sectarian system. Parliamentary elections allocate to each sect a certain number of seats, in which the winning list of each electoral district takes all seats. The 128 parliament seats are divided equally among Christian and Muslim confessions, despite the 1989 Taif agreement that ended the 15-year civil war. The deal identified the progressive abolition of political sectarianism as a national priority, but political parties have never been keen to take the necessary steps.

Despite agreeing with demonstrators’ demands such as 24-hour electricity and an end to water cuts, many Lebanese doubt that change is possible. The country has been ruled by the same political elite for years, many of them warlords during the civil war.

“No political parties will change how politics is conducted in Lebanon because it could mean they lose their power,” said journalist and political analyst Michael Young, adding that “a majority of the population supports sectarian leaders and has a sectarian mentality when it comes to voting.”

The belief that change cannot happen because the political elite is too strong is ever-present. “I agree with the demands of the protests, but... we’ve been in the same situation for decades now,” said Marwan Kareeb, a 26-year-old electrical engineer. “We need to change the mentality of the people so they learn not to be followers.”

Kareeb said a demonstration organized by political parties would gather tens of thousands of people. In Dec. 2006, nearly 1 million Lebanese took part in continued anti-government protests after a call from opposition parties.

Growing sectarian tensions across the region have not affected social interaction among members of each community in Lebanon, where 18 confessions are officially recognized. There are Shiite and Sunni Muslim members in Kareeb’s family.

Paralysis

Political paralysis has caused Lebanon to be without a president for more than a year, with citizens awaiting elections for a parliament that has extended its term twice since it was last elected in 2009. “Consensus is crucial for a functioning government, as we have seven strong political leaders from different sectarian backgrounds,” said Imad Salamey, a political science teacher at the Lebanese American University.

“This system works in a very slow manner... because it requires long negotiation between these seven cartels on how to split benefits.” At a time when Lebanon is facing economic slowdown and the consequences of the Syrian war, this causes “widespread frustration” among Lebanese.

Young said the trash problem was “an artificial crisis so politicians can redistribute benefits and shares from waste collection.” Waste collection and treatment in Beirut and Mount Lebanon districts is extremely profitable, with the cost per tonne four times than what Jordan pays.

For Lucien Bourjeily, one of the founders of #YouStink, this movement can be a turning point. "What is happening is that the Lebanese are realizing that they all share the same complaints and demands, while politicians are telling us that the different Lebanese communities, like political parties, are at odds".

The #YouStink movement, which organized the protests, said the tenders at the emergency meeting “are aimed at stealing public funds, and all the ministers, firms and municipalities that took part in them are partners in this theft operation.” Tired of a political system that does not answer citizens’ demands, thousands of people have taken to the streets, building up a movement that has surpassed organizers’ expectations.