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Lebanon’s ‘You Stink’ protests: Uprooting the political garbage

The “You Stink” campaign will likely transform into a political movement, transcending the traditional sectarian lines

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

The absurdity of the scene in downtown Beirut yesterday is in portraying the protests to be just about the trash collection crisis, while in reality they are about everything else that led to the largest waste mismanagement scandal in Lebanon’s history.

Thousands are protesting and vowing to “topple the regime” not just because the garbage collection has run amok, but due to Lebanon’s political stagnation crippling the country in the last four years. Beirut is constantly in a crisis-mode, and right now Lebanon has had no President for over a year, its parliament has casually renewed its own term twice, and its government of “rivals” is excelling in shortsightedness, and promoting narrow interests at the expense of the public good. The country also has over a million Syrian refugee, and Hezbollah is fighting with more than 5000 members in Syria.

Conspiracy over strategy

Self-infatuation and hubris are allover Lebanese politics. Parliamentarians and policymakers are frequently busy analyzing and commenting on larger global events while turning a blind eye to the day to day problems . Everyone is a nuclear expert when it comes to the Iran deal negotiations, or a counterterrorism one if it’s the rise of ISIS or the fate of the Syrian war, while rubbish consumes the capital, and traffic chaos is allover the country. Even Donald Trump is more likely to come up in a conversation than discussing a plan or a vision to explore Lebanon’s potential gas resources, traffic congestion or tackle the question of armed militias. Hezbollah’s weaponry is now forgotten while the presence of ISIS and Nusra in border towns is being accepted as a fait accompli.

The “You Stink” campaign will likely transform into a political movement, transcending the traditional sectarian lines

Joyce Karam

The political elite’s motto is every regional event revolves somehow around Lebanon, and nothing can happen in Lebanon without regional events. A perfect narrative to guarantee that nothing gets done, while propagating conspiracy theories on the U.S. starting ISIS, or how will Russian-Saudi talks help the army.

Some Lebanese Christian parties are preoccupied in discussing federalism, but they’re not able to agree on their highest portfolio position and name a President. Strategy and longterm vision have had no place in Lebanese politics since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafic Harriri in 2005, irrespective of opposing views to his plan. Today, most local parties and leaders operate on a short term calculus, and pursue narrow partisan interests that occasionally clash with the country’s wellbeing as in the case of the waste management crisis. The government’s repeated failure to agree on a new landfill has exacerbated the problem to this point, while the absence of longterm planning in waste management will ultimately promise a recurrence.

For Hezbollah, its intervention in Syria was driven by the party’s narrow interest in saving the Assad regime and maintaining supply routes from Iran, regardless of the security repercussions it has had on Lebanon.


Protests outcome?

While the protests bear lot of the hallmarks of the Arab spring and Lebanon’s own cedar revolution in 2005, the “You Stink” campaign will likely transform into a political movement, transcending the traditional sectarian lines, without starting a revolution.

The political toxicity in Lebanon is deeply entrenched within the elite as well as the main institutions who will unite in resisting a major overhaul. This elite consensus to save the system, prevented the Cedar revolution in 2005 from reinstating new leaders, and from going beyond the goals of toppling the government and ending the Syrian military presence. Today’s political and religious elite in Lebanon is fully invested in the sectarian architecture of the current system, and will block any serious attempt at a revamp.

What the protests can achieve, however, is hold the military and police who used excessive force accountable, and if they continue with the same pace possibly overthrow the government. In such scenario, and if Lebanon becomes with no President, no government and an ineffective parliament, pressure could build up for a larger dialogue to reach a more comprehensive framework.


For now, the trans-sectarian, forward leaning and passionate Lebanese youth that took to downtown Beirut to tell the elite “you stink”, gives hope that the spark of change has not died in Lebanon, and the narrative is not completely hijacked by ISIS and the authoritarians.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.