The Beirut wall that was
BEIRUT - It was an exceptional week in Beirut. The Lebanese capital was the site of civil demonstrations — its first in many years — on August 22nd protesting the government’s failure to resolve a month-long “garbage crisis”.
A giant concrete wall erected August 24th to protect the governmental palace from protesters only lasted 24 hours before it was ordered to be removed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam. It was the shortest-lived separation wall ever.
Also, less than 24 hours after Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk announced the long-awaited results of tenders to treat the country’s waste, the cabinet — apparently pressured by ongoing protests — rejected the winning bids over high costs. No surprise, the bidders were connected to a number of political leaders.
The protest was called by the “You Stink” campaign, which used social media to invite frustrated Lebanese to the Grand Serail (Government Palace). “You Stink”, launched after Lebanon’s main landfill was closed July 17th, was not only a reference to garbage rotting in the streets but also to corrupt politicians.
Fed up with a paralysed government that failed to avert the garbage crisis, protesters arrived in small groups from various regions, confessions and social class. Rich, poor, activists, artists, Sunnis, Shias, Christians and Druze were there, transcending traditional sectarian lines. They waved Lebanese flags and raised humorous banners about “stinking” conditions in the country. “Not all garbage should be recycled,” read one poster that included images of Lebanese politicians.
Some carried mops, others wore garbage bags, musicians used decorated garbage bins as drums. Several people had kitchenware, beating on pots with spatulas. Some called for the overthrow of the regime; others denounced the garbage odour of the political class.
The number of protesters reached an estimated 20,000 on August 23rd, despite a dramatic shift overnight when the peaceful protest turned violent when a small group of alleged infiltrators clashed with police. The troublemakers tried to tear down a barbed-wire fence separating the crowds from the Grand Serail and pelted security forces with stones and Molotov cocktails, prompting police to fire tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
The results were injuries to 402 demonstrators and 99 police while 32 “rioters”, caught setting fires and smashing windows of shops and cars, were arrested when Lebanese Army units rushed in to restore order.
The erection of the massive concrete wall near the Grand Serail further angered protesters, who described it as a wall of “shame and isolation”.
The wall was soon covered with art, graffiti and slogans that read “Power of the People” and “Revolution: Shroud of the State”. Its quick removal was widely applauded.