2015-09-04

A burgeoning hope

Events have been going on frantically in Lebanon recently. What began last July as an environmentalist protest to find a solution for the recent garbage management crisis is quickly growing into an organised political movement that is threatening the corrupt political system.

The cumulative crisis

Dialogue session between the politico-confessional oligarchs of Lebanon in 2012
(Credit: Marwan Tahtah for Al-akhbar newspaper)

The Middle-Eastern country, land of several cohabiting religious confessions, was torn apart by a 15 years long civil war which ended in 1990 by establishing a system in which previous warlords –and confessional leaders per se– play a major role under the patronage of the Syrian regime.

Over the following years, all sorts of corrupt deals were being struck under the pretext of the post-war rebuilding process. One of the many conspicuous deals, which is relevant to the current situation, was the awarding of garbage management to a company with shares divided between politico-confessional oligarchs or their proxies, with ridiculous costs.

By 2005, the public debt was estimated to be around $45 billion, while the country had no decent infrastructure and whatever was rebuilt reeked of corruption. That same year, the political assassination of ex-PM Hariri triggered a series of events that eventually led to the retreat of the Syrian military presence, without diluting its influence via its local “allies”, with a growing influence of Iran, and the influence of various Gulf countries was established in the country. A new era, supposedly began and the political scene was polarised between 2 major camps –not to go into more complex intricacies– which are the March 8 camp and the March 14 camp, each made of several alliances and realignments of the same political class of warlords and confessional oligarchs from the pre-2005 era, and supported by the opposed international players in the region.

This formula proved to be very unfavourable (to say the least). The political bickerings between the two camps, culminating in armed clashes in Beirut in May 2008, needed another intervention from the international players and an agreement was signed in Doha to enable the election of a president and agreeing on an electoral law, albeit a terrible one. By the 2009 elections, a status quo was established between the two camps, and any temporary change was directly related to temporary shifting between international powers. The political crisis was also being accompanied by signs of an economical crisis, with decreasing growth rates and increasing prices, and consecutive governments failed to address most of the issues, from the most trivial office appointments to more urgent social needs. And an atmosphere of terror was being spreaded, especially by 2011, the year of the beginning of the events in neighbouring Syria. The Lebanese people were facing a very bleak situation economically, but could not speak up due to the fear from disturbing the confessional system and because the security matter was more relevant, with terrorist attacks happening in several parts of the country. Only a few dared protest and demand changes, most notably the UCC (Unions Coordinating Committee) demanding their rights in a fair pay scale –more than 15 years overdue, for a brief period several civil organisations which demanded the abolition of the confessional system and environmentalist protests raising the voice against the situation of the waste landfills.

This pushed the political class to complete its act of power hijacking, by extending the term of the parliament in 2013 for very dubious reasons. Despite some opposition by a minority of the MPs, nobody resigned, and the extended parliament survived, without any direct mandate from the people. However, this didn’t solve any issues, but instead the country was slowly slipping into political deadlock. The extended illegitimate parliament was unable to elect a president in due time and the office has been vacant for the past 15 months. The government couldn’t address the economic and social needs of the people and in a mob-like way dismissed the demands of the UCC and extended the contracts of the company handling the garbage management until 2015. Moreover, the parliament renewed its illegitimate term extension until mid 2017.

By mid 2015, the public debt was estimated to be over $72 billion, growth nearing zero, about 25% unemployment rate, about 40% of the people are under the high poverty line and the political scene was totally ineffectual.

A hot Lebanese summer

Garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut. (credit: Naharnet)

In July 2015, the crisis reached its peak when the biggest of the waste landfills became saturated, garbage collection stopped, in an extortive manner, for weeks and the garbage was piling up in the streets, while the government failed to provide new solutions.
Small groups of civil activists and environmentalists started organising protests against the situation and proposed the solutions they envisioned to get out of the garbage crisis. Those protests were attracting tens of activists and supporters at first and eventually started gathering more people to reach a few hundreds by 8 August.

Meanwhile, the government had prepared a highly suspicious call for proposals with even more suspicious specifications. The date of awarding was set to 19 August, but the Ministry of Environment, due to unclear reasons, decided to postpone for a week. This decision happened while activists were protesting in the street and despite their relatively small number, the security forces resorted to violence against them and arrest a few. This signaled a very dangerous situation and spread suspicion among a bigger number of people who immediately gathered to support the detained activists, until their release.

Support was growing over the next days, and anti-corruption demands were being raised alongside the environmentalist ones, to reach thousands of people on 22 August, to the surprise of the political class, which pushed the government to take security measures by erecting fences and barbed wires on the way to the government headquarters, the Serail, and on all entrances to the parliament. Moreover, that night, the government deployed riot police and resorted to violence to brutally disperse the peaceful protesters who were challenging those unlawful security measures. The next day, the number of people taking the street in support of the demands doubled, and slogans of freedom of speech and refusal of the legitimacy of the current were also being raised, which didn’t stop the government from resorting again to violence against the protesters and erecting a concrete wall to block the way to the Serail, only to remove in less than 24 hours under pressure from the protesters.

On the other hand, the Ministry of Environment surprisingly decided to bring forward the date of awarding results, revealing an even more corrupt situation: the monopoly of waste management was distributed among the politico-confessional oligarchs and the administrative area was enlarged to cover the entire country, divided into six zones in which a contractor close to the dominant politico-confessional oligarch in the region was awarded the rights to manage garbage, with the same, or even higher, costs. Only to cancel those results the next day in a twisted political maneuver.
The organising groups in the protesting movement called for a protest on 29 August to support the following demands:
  1. The resignation of the Minister of Environment for failing to solve the garbage crisis properly
  2. Holding the minister of Interior and whoever investigation reveals responsible accountable.
  3. Finding a solution to the current garbage crisis by giving municipalities their withheld funds and allowing them to find local, cost-effective and environmental-friendly solutions.
  4. Considering the self-extended parliament as illegitimate and the demand for elections.

The protest proved to be a success with the largest number of people yet taking part of it, in support of its demands. To take on the established momentum, a 72-hour ultimatum was given to the government to start fulfilling those demands.

The political class, however, decided, following an initiative from the Parliament Speaker, to hold a dialogue session among its constituents on 9 September.

In an act of escalation, about 50 activists stormed the Ministry of Environment and staged a peaceful sit-in inside it, demanding the resignation of the minister, which ended in a violent intervention from the security forces to take the protesters out and facilitate the exit of the minister.

The following day, the Minister of Interior, reported the results of the investigation in the violent events, and only 2 low-ranking officers and 6 staff were held responsible, while more than 18 civilians were held in custody and face trials in the Military Court.

Planting the seeds of hope

Thousands demonstrated on 29 August in Martyr's square to demand a solution for the current garbage crisis and for the activation of political life in Lebanon (from twitter)
For the first time in years, a political movement is growing beyond the confessional regime and beyond the post-2005 polarisations and seeks to actively fight corruption in Lebanon. This movement, which began as the #YouStink movement, is currently being organised under one umbrella namely the “Movement of 29 August”, which is expected to join activists, unions and marginalised leftist political forces to actively work towards improving the political, social and economical situation in the country. The challenges are big and, for now, the demands are still basic, but this presents a good chance to make a difference and for the foundation of a new political regime.

This movement will not be constrained to the current crisis but into a long struggle to re-establish the political scene in Lebanon. The next stop in this struggle will be on 9 September. The movement is organising a protest to raise the voice against the futile dialogue being held between the oligarchs on the same day, and to re-insist on their demands raised on 29 August.

Many challenges face this movement, from its inside and from its outside, but one thing is sure that it totally relies on the popular support it is increasingly gaining.

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