From rubbish comes hope
It looked like a battlefield. Thousands of protesters who flocked into Beirut Central District for an anti-government demonstration in late August turned to find the capital on the brink of chaos.
The aftermath of violent clashes between rioters who hijacked a mass non-violent movement and security forces begged one question: What’s next for Beirut?
The demonstrations that demanded sustainable solutions to Lebanon’s garbage crisis, crippling electricity shortages, dwindling water supplies and rampant corruption drew comparisons to neighbouring Iraq, which saw widespread anger and weeks of protests over the poor quality of services and corruption.
By midday on August 25th, it became clear that Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam would try to follow the lead of his Iraqi counterpart, Haider al-Abadi, who introduced a reform programme aimed at curbing corruption.
Decisions issued by Salam revealed that the roar of the streets registered with the country’s last functioning executive body in light of the 15-month presidential vacuum.
Salam ordered the dismantling of a massive concrete wall near the Grand Serail in Beirut 24 hours after it was erected by security forces. The cabinet rejected the winning bids to manage Lebanon’s waste after citizens criticised the hefty costs and accused politicians of managing the call for tenders for personal financial gain.
The cabinet also passed two decisions during an emergency session, despite political disputes that prompted five ministers from the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition to withdraw from the meeting.
By ordering the removal of the wall, which was likened by activists to that in the occupied Palestinian territories, Salam was making a statement that no barrier will stand between the people and himself.
By rejecting the winning bidders for the management of the country’s waste, the cabinet heeded protesters’ demands for accountability, transparency and sustainable solutions to the garbage crisis.
Salam has also shown that the political paralysis resulting from disputes between Lebanon’s rival coalitions can no longer stand in the way of pressing day-to-day issues.
By granting $100 million to the underprivileged northern city of Akkar, the cabinet overcame paralysis and abandoned consensus-based decision-making to make way for the people’s demands.
Services are still poor and the foul odour of garbage still pervades the city, but hope is also in the air. Activists lauded the cabinet’s refusal of winning bidders and praised Salam for dismantling what they described as the wall of shame.
With these “victories” in hand, it is important the movement tighten its structure and narrow its demands, by focusing on reforms that target public service sectors responsible for providing water, electricity and clean streets.
If this new civil opposition becomes mired with calls for popular uprising and an uprooting of the confessional sectarian system of government, it could find itself crumbling under the expansiveness of its own demands.
To understand this, one must only look at the protests. Crowds rallied around calls for public sector reform but demonstrators were not united by hasty calls to overthrow the cabinet out of fear of plunging the country into chaos.
Protesters are aware that Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, which has trapped the country in a cycle of corruption and nepotism, cannot be dismantled overnight.
Political parties benefiting from the system will work to hijack the movement, as shown by violent rioters who were deliberately tasked with disbanding the march.
The unregulated prevalence of illegitimate weapons among Lebanon’s militias and the state of turmoil ravaging the region have also raised fears of potential unrest.
As the leadership of the “You Stink” movement, the main body behind the demonstrations, huddle together to re-evaluate strategies ahead of future protests, my advice to them is this: Don’t get tangled up in losing wars. Fight the small battles that could actually bring about productive change.