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Lebanese activists raise a stink about trash crisis, government paralysis

Lebanese civil movements continue to call for democratic reform, but government officials protest that real change will be decided, as always, outside Lebanon.

The streets in Beirut are starting to look like open air sewers, with rivers of garbage after heavy rains hit the capital since Oct. 25. New demonstrations took place on Oct. 29 by the civil society movement “You Stink” demanding that the government find a solution to the garbage crisis.

The group is also pressing the current government to address the underlying problem of the institutional vacuum created by nearly two years without a president.

While the views and priorities by government representatives and civil society differ considerably, they appear to converge superficially on some topics. The You Stink movement was born out of the practical need to resolve the garbage crisis that began in July.

However, the movement’s mission has put forward other demands for accountability and transparency and called for the election of a president and for a new electoral law.

Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi explained to Al-Monitor, “I support the peaceful civic society movement You Stink and its requests.” However, he continued, “Lebanon is a small country surrounded by greater powers. We wish for a decision [regarding the institutional stalemate] to be fully Lebanese, but that is not the reality.” Rifi stated that he holds Iran responsible for exerting undue influence on the political situation in Lebanon.

He doubts any solution to the presidential impasse will be reached until the situation in the region becomes clearer. “The system is weakened by the institutional stalemate and unable to function normally and effectively. Essentially, the national dialogue sessions of the different political and confessional groups, which have been taking place, are unfortunately not what is truly going to bring solutions. The dialogue that counts and that will deliver results is the one being shaped outside Lebanon,” Rifi noted.

You Stink does not regard the current parliament as holding a legitimate mandate. Assaad Thebian, one of the organizers, commented to Al-Monitor in an interview, “The parliament has extended its term; it was not elected by the people. It does not represent our democratic will — we need new elections.”

As explained by Ziad Abu Samad, executive director of the Arab NGO Network for Development, after the parliament extended its own term for the second time in November 2014, the Constitutional Council issued a decision condemning the extension of the term but effectively does nothing to block it. Its conclusion was that in order to avoid a power vacuum, the parliament must continue to operate.

Therefore, Abu Samad added, “The institution can be viewed as holding legal power, although void of political legitimacy.”

On this point, Rifi was quick to comment that he is a politician and not an expert in the field, but that in his opinion, the parliament does not hold a legitimate mandate and hence is illegal.

Rifi agrees with the goals of the protests, particularly with regard to the demands for greater transparency in the system. Various groups, among them the “Badna Nhasib” (We Want Accountability) movement, have taken to the streets demanding reform and change.

The Internal Security Forces became an institution to be reckoned with after 2005 with the departure of the Syrian forces and thanks to revamping by Rifi, who shaped it into an important and effective security apparatus as the head of the ISF from 2005 to 2013.

Rifi commented on the accusations of unnecessary violence, saying he believes that the ongoing legal investigation needs to establish if the responsibility can be assigned individually or if the orders came from higher up. For the minister, the ISF are there to protect the citizens as well as public and private property and in his opinion, the ISF’s image has not been tarnished by recent events. 

Interestingly, he regards the situation as a crisis and does not acknowledge as significant the cross-confessional aspect of the protests. Nonetheless, he believes the civil protests will not subside easily and acknowledges their role as catalysts of change, exerting pressure on the government to find practical solutions to the crisis.

Thebian reiterated the illegitimacy of the parliament and the need to elect a president, saying, “Parliamentary elections are an entry point to returning to a democratic process in Lebanon.” However, he does not see the role of civil society as solely concerned with the immediate garbage issue. He explains that working and changing the system internally by cutting down on corruption and confessionalism will bring about real reform.

Thebian believes that the lack of accountability is an issue that has dragged on since the end of the civil war in 1990. The Lebanese people are frustrated and a new spirit of change is in the air. He sees divisions diminishing between the March 14 and March 8 blocs.

Following the killing of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, huge anti-Syrian rallies — known as the Cedar Revolution — eventually led to the full withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon. In this setting, the political elite were split in two main blocs: the March 14 alliance, with its anti-Syrian stance, and March 8, which considered Syria instrumental in ending the civil war in 1990.

Thebian underlines that in 2005, the civic movement was hijacked by the political elites. This time around, there is a stronger sense of unity among citizens. He added, “We might not see the results now of the seed we planted, but we will see its results in the future.”

A self-critique on the part of Thebian is directed internally at the fragmentation of the various movements after You Stink. The recent peaceful march that took place on Oct. 29 with candles and white clothing was intended to send the message to the country and the government that the You Stink movement wants to help build the country and resolve the garbage issue. He highlights the importance of the different groups working together effectively.

You Stink issued a written statement on Oct. 29 to other civil society groups that have sprung up as a result of the You Stink protests, highlighting the need to focus on one issue at the time. Transparency is a key aspect of You Stink’s appeal and structure. Its financial resources were raised via a crowd-funding platform that limits donations to $1,000 per individual. To avoid undue outside influence, the donations can only come from Lebanese citizens.

Thebian asserted that talks are only taking place with the government, as the illegitimate parliament is not meeting. With regard to the allegations of violent repression, he pointed out that tear gas was systemically used in a way to ensure that people would be trapped by it, refuting the argument that it was used as a deterrent. He also claims that the responsibility for such decisions goes all the way up to the interior minister himself, far beyond the remit of the six soldiers and two low-ranking officers who have currently been held accountable.

Thebian is focused on the need for a new electoral law that represents all segments of Lebanese society. He highlighted that the Lebanese diaspora cannot vote; the military and ISF and those between ages 18 and 21, a significant segment of the population, are unable to vote. He also pointed to a lack of pre-printed ballots. Each party prints its own ballot papers, making the vote not anonymous and traceable.

“What is happening now is something that the government is not able to understand,” Thebian explained. This is the main difference from the events of 2005, when political factions were able to divide and conquer the street movements for change.

Perhaps the strongest divergence between the institutional view represented here by Rifi and civic society voiced by Thebian goes back to the significance and impact of the regional situation. As a civil movement, You Stink does not concern itself with considerations of regional equilibrium and outside players, but focuses on the democratic needs of the Lebanese people. For Rifi, the realities of politics in Lebanon are not decided in the country but rely on outside balances between more powerful regional players.