How a garbage crisis ignited a thousands-strong movement in Lebanon

Anna Lekas Miller
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AP

BEIRUT, Lebanon—Six-year-old Mina is talking animatedly about Saturday's upcoming protests. “We want water! We want electricity!” she says, skipping down the street on the way to the demonstration.

Lebanon’s older generations agree with her. Over the past week, downtown Beirut has turned into a nightly battleground between riot police and protesters, demanding an end to the trash crisis that has suffocated the country for the past month, and more recently, the corrupt politicians that can’t provide basic services—such as reliable power, water, and sanitation—to their own people.

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Saturday was anticipated to be the biggest night of protests yet, with crowd estimates as high as 50,000 people.

While many of the protesters prepared for the worst, carrying scarves to protect themselves from teargas inhalation, and scrawling the legal aid hotline number on their arms in case of arrest, the mood was festive. Many carried banners, calling out the corruption of the state, or wore costumes and props referencing the garbage crisis and Lebanon’s woeful environmental policies.

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“Every day I come down to support the protests,” said Abu Mahmoud, 49, who drives from the northern city of Tripoli every night to serve coffee at the demonstration. Saturday night, he was stationed in the center of Martyr’s Square, flanked by two traditional, long spouted coffee pots and a tall stack of plastic cups.

“We don’t have electricity, and we don’t have water,” he continued, referring to the routine power cuts and water shortages that the country has experienced since the end of its 15-year Civil War in 1990. In addition to a decimated infrastructure following the war, a series of privatization schemes created monopolies of many public services, leaving swaths of the country—especially outside of the more privileged capital—without necessities like power and water for hours on end every day.

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“Now garbage,” Mahmoud said, smiling. “That we have.”

Lebanese anti-government protesters burn a mattress on a barbed wire barrier that blocks the road to the government building, during a demonstration in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. Thousands of people staged the largest of the demonstrations that began last week over garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut following the closure of a main landfill. The government's failure to resolve the crisis has evolved into wider protests against a political class that has dominated Lebanon since the end of the country's civil war in 1990 and a government that has failed to provide even basic services to the people. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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Last month, the government, owing to over-capacity and health concerns that has been a source of controversy in the country for years, closed the Naameh landfill, the largest in Lebanon. The landfill was opened as an emergency solution for waste management in 1996, and was intended to remain open for two years, holding a maximum of two tons of waste. Almost 20 years later, the landfill is still in operation, now holding 20 tons of waste, a capacity issue that has contributed to the destruction of the surrounding environment and higher rates of cancer and other diseases in the surrounding community.

While the landfill’s closure was initially a victory for local activists, the government timed the closure with the end of its contract with Sukleen, the waste management company responsible for picking up waste in Beirut and surrounding areas. Although the government knew that the landfill would reach capacity, and that their contract with Sukleen would end as far back as six months ago, it never made an alternative plan for managing the waste.

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As a result, Beirut became a landfill of its own.

Trash began piling in the streets, makeshift back alley dumps turned into small mountains of garbage on major boulevards. As the weeks wore on, the stench of rotting meat carcasses swirled with fumes from burning plastic, hanging thickly in Beirut’s notoriously humid summer air. Walking down the street became an exercise in avoiding the putrid smell of rotting garbage.

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Many began to take to the streets, organizing protests under the slogan #YouStink to refer to both the stench in the air, and the politicians responsible for not bothering to devise a solution.

“We’ve had corruption for a long time,” said Nadia, a 28-year-old protester that works as a translator. “But it was trash that made people take to the streets.”

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Lebanese policemen stand guard after dispersing a demonstration against the trash crisis and alleged government corruption, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. Some thousands of people staged the largest of the demonstrations that began last week over garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut, and the government's failure to resolve the crisis has evolved into wider protests against a political class that has dominated Lebanon since the end of the country's civil war in 1990. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
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And while the trash has been a uniting source of inspiration for demonstrations, it is only one of a long list of grievances. Beyond being able to provide basic government services—like reliable water, electricity, and sanitation—protesters are decrying Lebanon’s deadlocked political system, which has been unable to agree on a president for more than a year.

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“We need new electoral laws, ones that aren’t left over from the Civil War,” said Ali Msarrah, a 32-year-old-protester carrying a sign reading “Mia Khalifah [a popular Lebanese-American porn star] for President.”

“All of our government is political prostitution,” he continued. “Really, Mia Khalifah would be great for the job.”

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Once the term of former President Michel Suleiman ended, the Lebanese Parliament—which must elect a new president based on a two-thirds majority vote—met repeatedly, but could not come to a consensus. Now, elections have been delayed until 2017, a decision based on the neighboring war in Syria, which has provoked the delicate balance between factions in Parliament. While some are aligned with the March 8 Movement, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; others are aligned with the March 14 Movement, which is staunchly opposed.

The cold proxy war has gripped Lebanon, and in the absence of meaningful political leadership, has thrown the country into a power vacuum, controlled by politicians known more for their roles during the Civil War—and corruption in the years that followed—than their leadership.

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The garbage in the streets has become an accidental metaphor for the politicians; the oppressive, unavoidable stench of rotting trash in the streets, their corruption. Protesters are demanding an end to both.

“The people want an end to the regime!” protesters shout, echoing the chant popularized by the 2011 demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria.

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“Revolution, revolution!” others echo.

While Saturday night ended peacefully, many are still mobilized—and disturbed—by the extensive police brutality exhibited over the past week, which has seen more than 400 injuries. Several went to the hospital; one in critical condition. Both the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army have extensively used teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. The irony of using a water cannon to disperse a demonstration gathered to protest the corruption that has lead to, among other things, water shortages, is lost on no one.

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“It started with the garbage,” said Nidal, a 27-year-old protester. “But now it is about so much more than that.”

Anna Lekas Miller is a Beirut-based journalist, interested in race/gender, surveillance and changing narratives on the Middle East. Read her work www.annalekasmiller.com or follow her @agoodcuppa.

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