Lebanon’s young protesters want to end the old way of doing things

Protesters stand on a wall that was erected in downtown Beirut to separate police and protesters. The wall was taken down less then 24 hours after going up following an outcry. 
Richard Hall

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The protests that have erupted in Lebanon over the past few weeks have drawn a diverse crowd. It’s not unusual to see entire families marching together. At a recent demonstration, an old man was seen admonishing a young boy for throwing a water bottle at police.

What began as a campaign to pressure the government to solve an ongoing trash crisis in the Lebanese capital of Beirut has grown into something much more, attracting a swathe of the population who are fed up with government corruption and incompetence.

But while the problems that have brought so many out on to the streets affect people from all walks of life, it is the younger generation that is leading this movement.

“Our generation is the first post-civil war generation. I was born on the year it ended,” says Joey Ayoub, a supporter of the YouStink campaign since it was formed in mid-July.

“We have inherited the mess that the older generation created. At the same time, most of us don’t identify with the parties that fought the the civil war, unlike our parents.”

The You Stink movement was founded by a group of 20 and 30 somethings who were angry at government inaction over a garbage crisis in the capital.

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One of the country’s biggest landfills, which had been over capacity for a year already, was shut down by locals fed up of living next to a mountain of putrid trash. With nowhere else to put the capital’s waste, it began piling up in the streets.

More than 60 percent of the people who have joined the campaign’s Facebook page are under 30, according to Ayoub.

“Most people come from Beirut, but we have people who come from the Chouf, Saida and many other areas of Lebanon. We have middle class and working class people. It’s mostly young people in their early 20s to 30s.”

What these young protesters want is to bring an end to the old way of doing things in Lebanon. They represent perhaps the biggest challenge to Lebanon’s political elite in more than a decade, and on Saturday will take part in what many are describing as the largest non-sectarian protest in recent history. 

Young and old attend a protest in downtown Beirut against an ongoing garbage crisis.

The old ways

For those those behind the campaign, garbage was just the latest and most visible sign of the government’s incompetence — even worse, its corruption.

Many suspected the reason for the government’s failure to solve the crisis was a dispute over how to divide the spoils of the new waste management contracts among the country’s leaders (in Lebanon, it is taken for granted that the world of politics and business is intertwined). 

A small group of friends and acquaintances started the You Stink Facebook group calling for a protest. The next week a few hundred gathered to throw trash bags at parliament. In a short time, the movement had grown to represent a challenge to the government itself, and the sectarian system upon which it is based. For too long, they say, Lebanon's leaders have focused on enriching themselves and cultivating the loyalty of their own sects, rather than acting in the interests of the population. 

At the end of the country’s 15 year civil war, the protagonists of that conflict — warlords and all — agreed upon a delicate power-sharing arrangement that has lasted to this day. 

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The Taif Agreement, signed in 1990, was supposed to pave the way for an end to sectarianism in the political system (since 1943, Lebanon top political posts have been divided between the three main sects — the president must be Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim), but the opposite has happened.

As Maha Yahya, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, writes: “Sectarian balance is considered at all levels of government. Even government positions and economic gains from public contracts tend to be distributed on a sectarian basis. The system has facilitated unprecedented public forms of nepotism and clientelism — so much so that Lebanese politicians see no shame in calling for the appointment of their own relatives to public posts and openly demanding their share of the pie.” 

Crowds gather in Beirut's Riad al-Solh square during an anti-government protest that was sparked by a garbage crisis in the capital.

Business as usual

The same things that are being said about the garbage crisis are said about any number of other public services: electricity shortages are rife because of a lack of planning, and because many of the country’s leaders own stakes in generator companies, according to protesters.

These problems would be bad enough, but Lebanon faces a long list of crises that are not being addressed. More than one million refugees from neighboring Syria have fled to Lebanon since the conflict began four years ago, putting strain on already meager public services. Militants from Syria threaten the country’s eastern border. Water prices are high. The parliament has extended its term twice, and Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year because the politicians cannot agree upon a candidate.

For a long time, Lebanon has learned to live with the dysfunction that accompanies this archaic political system. The garbage was just one crisis too many.

“Before we were kind of proud of muddling through,” said Albert, a neuroscientist, at a recent protest. “Lebanon can work without electricity. Lebanon functions without the state. We don’t have a president but we still have nightlife, we can still have fun. I think the joke is on us now. It’s not funny anymore.”

Protesters retreat to Martyrs Square in central Beirut during clashes with security forces on Sunday evening.

A new way

The You Stink movement represents a nascent challenge to this political system. The organizers behind it are trying to keep their demands as broad as possible, but the group is looking for serious political reform and an end to the sectarian political system in Lebanon. Unusually for a country where protests are usually are organized by political parties or sects, this one has managed to transcend sectarian lines. But it faces challenges of its own in trying to upend the old order.

“This is a system that has been entrenched since independence and has in fact gotten much much worse,” says Yahya.

“This isn’t like the Arab Spring in Egypt and Tunisia, where there is one figure who they are calling on to resign. Here you have five Hosni Mubaraks or five Ben Alis. It’s a very powerful clan.”

The last time such large-scale protests were seen in Lebanon was in 2005, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, when one million people came out on to the streets to protest the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. The result of the protests — which was led by a group of parties that makes up one of two major coalitions that dominates Lebanese politics today — was the withdrawal of the Syrian army from the country. But shortly after there was a quick return to the status quo.

One of the reasons that young people are leading the way this time around is that many of those involved in the protests of 2005 have lost hope.

“There is a sense of fatigue.” says Yahya. “Everyone from that generation is now scrambling is now saying how they can support this generation so they learn from our mistakes. It has given the older generation hope.”

A recent survey by Transparency International found that 71 percent of Lebanese think that corruption in the public sector is a serious problem, but only half of them believe that ordinary people can make a difference.

Tackling this sense of helplessness has been one of the successes of the You Stink campaign.

“The Lebanese people have become so conditioned to their situation — it’s not that they don’t want to change, it is that they don’t know how,” says Ayoub.

“Before this year, every time a movement popped up, it always had a small number of people and would just die out after a day or two or a week. People just didn’t see the point if nothing changed.”

Ayoub says the campaign has “changed the situation on the ground,” and directly challenged the system itself. “This is something Lebanese people have never seen this before.”

“Whatever happens, even if the movement dies out in a week, it is breaking new ground that has never been broken before.”