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The teenage activists bringing the climate crisis to Middle East

In a country where neighboring wars and local political problems affect daily life, these Lebanese activists are hoping to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change.

“Climate change isn’t a big concern in the Middle East,” explains Joelle Zgheib, a 17-year-old student from Byblos, a city on the coast of Lebanon. “Instead, here we talk about cliches like war, religion and corruption.” 

“But we’re all nothing without the earth,” she continues, “and I want to save it.”

Zgheib is the founder of Extinction Rebellion Lebanon, the country’s branch of the Extinction Rebellion initiative — an environmental group pushing governments around the world to act on the climate crisis.

The group has three demands: Governments must tell the truth about the situation that we are in; they must act to reduce gas emissions; and they must consult citizens on the steps we take. The initiative began in the UK, where it hit the headlines in April for shutting down parts of central London for five days by sitting, sleeping — and sometimes dancing and singing — on major streets and bridges.

Branches of the initiative have popped up around the world. Activists have poured fake blood on the floors of Paris, protested in lorry stations in Ghana, photobombed tourists in Tokyo with environmental signs and poured sour milk on the parliament steps in Wellington, New Zealand.

Extinction Rebellion Lebanon is the first branch in any Arabic-speaking country, and Zgheib and her fellow activists are aware of the complexity of bringing a European protest movement to the region.

“Lebanon is one of these countries where there are so many issues going on,” explains Rami, a fellow founder of Extinction Rebellion Lebanon, who asked for his surname to be withheld. “The economy is receding, there are issues with electricity — issues which can seem more immediate to people than the planet.”

“A way around this is to integrate the climate with these issues, so people see how it’s the background to all other problems,” Rami continues. “For example, the geopolitical situation here will be impacted because diminishing resources will intensify tensions.”

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion managed to get the government to declare a “climate emergency,” but Rami is less convinced that the Lebanese government would do the same. “It depends on how the public reacts to us,” he says, “but the government tends to act too late on things.”

An example of this came last year, Rami explains, when a tissue company, the Mimosa Sanitary Paper Company, was alleged to have polluted Lebanon’s Berdawni River, reportedly turning the water black. The government arrested the factory owners but, according to Rami, only after the damage was done. The factory was allowed to reopen this year, with investigations continuing. “The government is too reactive here, they’ve passed some laws, but aren’t enforcing them,” Rami says.

Being part of a global initiative has its advantages for the group. At their first meeting, the training material used for new activists is provided by the central group, and activists in London sometimes give online talks to the international groups, giving advice on organization and protest planning.

It also, however, has its disadvantages. For one, the materials come in English and the group has had to find translators to make the information available in Arabic. More critically, the situation around protest in Lebanon and the wider region differs from Europe.

“Europe is a lot more open-minded, so they can do things like long roadblocks and naked protests,” says Rami, referencing the Extinction Rebellion protest in London where 11 protesters undressed in the public gallery of parliament. “Lebanon is more close-minded; we can’t do those things.”

At the first Extinction Rebellion meeting, one activist highlights the distinction between protesting in Lebanon and protesting in Europe. “Lying in the street in the UK is totally different to doing that here,” he said. “And if you lose work because of something like that then here you don’t get any money, but they have social security elsewhere.”

There’s also the problem of protest fatigue. “Lebanon has many, many protests and people get tired, grow numb to them,” Rami says. “We need to do something new.” Rami believes "die-ins" are the answer — where a group of people lie on the floor in a public place pretending to be dead, drawing attention to the potentially grave consequences of the climate crisis.

Another struggle for the group comes from Lebanon’s tensions with its neighbors. There’s a group in Israel, but because of political tension, they won’t be able to link up — though Rami is hopeful about collaborations with a newly formed Jordanian group.

They also need to take account of the diversity within Lebanon itself. “We are a multi-sectarian country,” explains Sarah el-Hechi, another member of the group. “People get stereotyped by their religion and their politics; we need to make sure we’re portraying the message to everyone differently in a way that reaches them.”

The group relies heavily on Instagram, a method that allows their message to spread to different communities. Hechi, for example, found the group because it was suggested to her on Instagram, and she herself posts regularly about environmental issues, recently trying to alert others to the level of microplastic in the water in Lebanon.

The group is positive about the impact they can have. After completing their training, with resources provided by the group in London, they are planning protests for September, to coincide with Extinction Rebellion’s global rebellion week. For their first action, they plan to protest by the side of the road in Beirut, during a traffic jam, so they don’t cause traffic disruptions themselves and lose support. “We aren’t going to be disruptive; we’re going to be smart,” Zgheib says.

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