Lebanon sees non-sectarian protest for change
BEIRUT - They arrived in large numbers from across Lebanon, in a rare spontaneous display of non-sectarian anger, expressing deep-rooted frustration over government impotence, political deadlock, corruption and crumbling infrastructure.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the Beirut seat of government on August 22nd having been overwhelmed by the country’s deteriorating living and economic conditions.
“The Lebanese people who have been enduring unemployment, poverty, foreign interference in their internal affairs are just fed up. They are literally suffocating. Even the air they are breathing is polluted,” sociologist Mona Fayad told The Arab Weekly.
“The garbage crisis, which came in the middle of summer, at a time when tourism should have been flourishing, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The peaceful demonstration, staged to protest the month-long garbage crisis in which rubbish piled up in the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon villages, turned sour when a group of people, believed to be politically motivated, tried to break through barbed wire separating the crowds from the Grand Serail, which houses the prime minister’s office and cabinet seat.
Slogans shifted from denouncing corruption of political leaders and failure to secure basic services to calls for the resignation of the cabinet, the sole functioning constitutional institution in the country.
Fayad warned against falling into the “political trap”.
“The civil movement should draw a clear demarcation line separating their social rightful demands from any political agenda or axis, in order to avoid being exploited by the rival political parties,” she said. “They should cling to their neutral stance, while holding the government accountable strictly for measures it takes on issues that affect everyday life like water, electricity, etc.”
“You Stink” campaign organisers, who called for the protests, blamed the violence on “troublemakers”, but acknowledged that they needed to coordinate better to prevent manipulation of their actions. “The undisciplined elements who ignited the riots were seeking to undermine our peaceful demonstration in order to justify the state’s violence against us. I believe they acted in complicity with the state,” said Lucien Bou Rjeili, from “You Stink” campaign.
“The fact is that we are not in a democratic country anymore but in an oligarchy. We are ruled by people who do not accept any criticism or tolerate freedom of expression,” Bou Rjeili said.
Some 402 protesters were injured in violence in which riot police used tear gas, smoke bombs and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. As many as 99 policemen were wounded.
“We were surprised by the extent of the state’s barbarism. Attacking a peaceful demonstration with tear gas and rubber bullets is unacceptable. We knew that they (politicians) have no ethics and no morals but not to that extent. They have crossed all red lines, all limits,” Bou Rjeili said.
The “You Stink” campaign, referring to the garbage crisis as well as official corruption, is determined to keep up its fight and planned additional demonstrations.
“We need to get more organised. But of course we will continue (protests) for the sake of the people whose blood was spilled and who were beaten up just for expressing themselves,” Bou Rjeili argued.
Analysts are sceptical about the ability of “You Stink” to force change.
“They will not be allowed to succeed. Anything that transcends over sectarianism or could unite people on a national cause is doomed,” said political analyst, Amin Kammourieh. “Only sectarian movements which are cleared by the politicians could be organised without any problem.”
Kammourieh argued that any achievement by the civil society will pose a serious danger to the ruling elite and Lebanon’s sectarian system. “If it is allowed to succeed on one issue, the public would be encouraged to push for other issues,” he said. “Today it is the garbage, tomorrow it would be electricity, the day after it would be a call for a non-sectarian electoral law.”
He warned that sectarian rhetoric, violence and any other means will be used to scuttle the campaign. “If the demonstration is held outside the (Grand) Serail, they would claim it is against the Sunnis, if it is outside parliament it would be blasted as targeting the Shias, etc., Kammourieh said. “The sectarian regime is too strong to be challenged or undermined by the civil movement.”
Under Lebanon’s sectarian system, the state’s top three positions are allocated to the main sects. The president of the republic is a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker a Shia.
Fayad was as sceptical as Kammourieh about the success of the movement in initiating change. She said the majority of demonstrators have no political agenda and simply wanted to protest against decaying conditions in Lebanon. However, they soon discovered that it was a bigger challenge than they could handle.
“It is obvious that they are politically immature and lack a strategy of action,” she said, “and that makes them an easy target for political manipulators.”