Lebanonʹs rubbish crisis and youth protests

"If not us, then who?"

Something remarkable has begun in Beirut. Massive government mismanagement and the attendant rubbish crisis two years ago inspired and galvanised Lebanese youth to demand more of their government and to hold their leaders accountable. It all began with the closure of the Naameh landfill, which was over-capacity. Kareem Chehayeb recalls the protests

Chapter 1: Piles of rubbish

June 2015: Although politicians knew for years that the Naameh landfill was to eventually be closed, they were never able to come up with a sustainable, long-term waste management plan for Lebanonʹs capital. And with Naameh closed and no place else to put Beirutʹs trash, the corporation that handles Beirutʹs trash ceased collection.

Within 24 hours, sidewalks were blocked and within days, cars couldnʹt drive through some streets because they were choked with rubbish. Had the government taken action? It sure didnʹt look like it. With no alternative plan in sight, the Beirut municipality covered the waste in a white powder called calcium carbonate, hoping that rats and other pests would not fester and take over the streets. 

But it got worse. Residents began burning the rubbish. The stench of rubbish festering in in the sun was overwhelming. People wore masks. Opening windows invited into your house the foul stench of trash and smoke. People shared pictures and videos across social media platforms of rubbish being burned on their streets and neighbourhoods. People were outraged. I remember conversations I had with my family. While we were all shocked and disturbed by what we saw, my parents and uncles were equally concerned that calls for protests and the resignation of the government would lead to political or social instability, two issues that are ever-present fears for many Lebanese.

Rubbish on the streets of Beirut in summer 2015 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Environmental and political bankruptcy: when one of the cityʹs biggest landfill sites closed in mid-July 2015, stinking piles began to mount up on the countryʹs streets. The "You Stink" campaign was directed against corruption and maladministration, but also against the political stalling regarding the election of a president

Their worries were understandable. My parents had lived through Lebanonʹs 25-year civil war, in which over 150,000 people were killed and more than one million people were displaced. I, on the other hand, hoped the rubbish crisis would push people to mobilise for a better political and economic system in the country.

I remember driving past a burning pile one night. I parked the car around 100 metres away and got out, just to take a snapshot. But by the time I opened the door, the stench of burning rubbish overwhelmed me.

Chapter 2: Initial Sparks

With the government looking like it didnʹt care that we were drowning in filth, young people began to take the streets. It started out with small marches and rallies. There werenʹt more than a few dozen people. They carried signs and bullhorns. They chanted anti-government slogans and called on people watching from their balconies to come down and march. And they did.

Whether or not this group of people were going to instigate a mass movement, one thing was for sure; this was no longer just about the rubbish crisis. People were fed up with years of government mismanagement, corruption and inaction.

A larger rally soon took place in Martyrsʹ Square in downtown Beirut. There was music and people aired their grievances. They tied the rubbish crisis to economic corruption and lack of transparency regarding public spending.While the young activists started to get minimal media attention, the crowds attending the rallies grew larger. Speaking to my parents, older relatives and even older bystanders around the protests, they all had similar concerns. "What if this leads to instability and bigger problems?" they would usually ask.

It was obvious that they had the civil war at the back of their minds, which pitted Christian against Muslim, leftist against nationalist...etc. But the rubbish crisis was different in almost every way possible. The piles of festering rubbish didnʹt affect just one of Lebanonʹs 18 religious sects. It affected everyone. And the young men and women that did not live through the war were fed up. They could not just sit back and tolerate as their parents continued to.

Protesting against the rubbish crisis and political corruption in Lebanon in summer 2015 (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Weʹve had enough: triggered by a waste disposal crisis, a new movement formed in Lebanon. Yet the "You Stink" campaign was more than an initiative against unsolved rubbish problems; it was also a rebellion against Lebanon's family clans and confessionalism

Iʹve been to many protests over the years in Lebanon for a wide variety of issues and causes: secularism, opposing illegal Parliament term renewals, campaigning for a domestic violence law, LGBTQ rights, among others. This was different.

This was the first cause in many years that the whole country, which is divided along sectarian and political lines, could agree on. This was not a Christian issue or a Muslim issue, a religious issue or a secular issue. This was about corruption and the failure of our leaders, something all Lebanese could agree on.

This was rage at a government that clearly did not care about its citizens at all. I felt that the rubbish wasnʹt the only issue, but it was just on the top of the list. It was the final straw.

Chapter 3: Opening the floodgates

 In Lebanon, the moment the police forcefully end a protest or when the government turns a blind eye long enough, the movement dies out. But this was different. When the police attacked protesters with water cannons, rubber bullets and mass arrests to try and stop protests from taking place, more people turned out and the crowds grew. When the police lobbed tear gas canisters, protesters threw them back. And, of course, people came back the next day in larger numbers.

When Iʹd ask several protesters whether they feared police violence and arrest, they would tell me that they had to be on the streets. "If not us, then who?" was a common response.

Local and international media were present and Beirut was centre-stage. Families from all backgrounds joined the young protestors. They chanted: "The people demand the fall of the regime."

This was a generation that hadnʹt lost hope the way the last one did. Living through 15 years of war is soul-destroying. The people that made up the majority of the protestors were willing to fight for a better life and were willing to take matters into their own hands.

While our parents put stability first, fearing another repeat of the civil war, this new generation saw things differently. Some of the older people did eventually take to the streets, but many others chose to support the protests from a distance.

Theyʹd sometimes tell people as they pass by that they are happy they are doing this or cheer them on from a distance. However, many would also observe with an emotionless look on their face, not being sure what to make of it.The protests were like a snowball picking up speed and growing rapidly. Statements from authorities and political leaders were met with bigger protests and louder calls for the resignation of the government.

Given that my childhood wasnʹt tarnished by the war, I can understand why an escalation concerned my family, but as a journalist trying to cover the protests, I struggled to contain my excitement.

Chapter 4: Escalation

The police were ruthless; they shot rubber bullets from short range, causing many injuries. They beat protesters as they tried to run away. They attacked journalists and anyone who tried to help people caught in the chaos. Mohammad Kassir, a college student mere months from his engineering degree, was shot in the back of his head and fell into a coma. Though Kassir survived, his life will never be the same.

Protesting against the rubbish crisis and political corruption in Lebanon in summer 2015 (photo: Reuters)
Fed up with political mismanagement: "With the government looking like it didnʹt care that we were drowning in filth, young people began to take the streets. It started out with small marches and rallies. There werenʹt more than a few dozen people. They carried signs and bullhorns. They called on people watching from their balconies to come down and march. And they did," recalls Kareem Chehayeb

I remember my parents and parents of friends heartbroken over the incident. They asked me and others who were covering the protests or protesting to not end up in his situation and to stay home instead and that it wasnʹt worth the risk. Lebanese Red Cross ambulances zoomed off to the nearest hospital every few minutes when clashes escalated.

Protests would go on all day and all night. At night, the riots escalated. But the protests only ended when people left the streets fearing their safety, or in an ambulance, or a police van. Standoffs between young protesters and riot police became routine.

Chapter 5: Transformation

Downtown Beirut was destroyed during Lebanonʹs civil war. It was rebuilt but without soul. It became an expensive area with nothing but banks, office buildings and pretty facades covering empty buildings. Where were the people?

The protests brought downtown Beirut back to life. For a brief period, downtown was full of people young and old. They talked. They laughed. They took selfies with their friends, sprayed graffiti, vented their frustrations and clashed with the police. They talked about possibilities that summer. They discussed what Lebanon could be.

When police built a concrete wall, artists painted anti-government murals within minutes. People gathered by the wall to continue their conversations, using it as shade.

Downtown Beirut briefly became what it was before the war and what it ought to be again: a place where people from across the capital and country can come together. It became a public space. Even small vendors selling ice cold water settled in the area, watering the democratic grassroots that Lebanon hasnʹt had in years.

Chapter 6: Whatʹs left? Whatʹs next?

Almost two years later, the rubbish has disappeared from the streets. Most of the barriers have been taken down, though some of the graffiti is still present.

The protests have subsided but a meaningful resolution is nowhere in sight. Beirut still does not have a sustainable waste management plan. The government simply opened new dumps with little to no environmental studies or planning and is pretending that everything is OK.

Was Lebanonʹs largest independent protest movement in its history all in vain? That remains to be seen. This much is clear: people are more engaged with local issues, especially when it comes to Lebanonʹs diminishing public spaces.

The general public is looking forward and approaching political issues in a slightly different way than before. My parentsʹ generation is tired. But the younger generation is angry. It knows Lebanonʹs leaders have failed them. This generation has many years ahead of it and it does not want to mitigate existing problems that the older generation has accepted.

Why canʹt we have a waste management plan like other countries? Why canʹt we have reliable water and electricity like other countries? Lebanonʹs Internet is so sluggish that streaming this report in rural areas might be problematic. Are we supposed to accept this?

So, whatʹs next? I donʹt know. Anything can happen. Are yesterdayʹs protest movement leaders tomorrowʹs political officials? Are we going to elect dynamic, forward-thinking individuals in next yearʹs Parliamentary elections, or will we continue to sweep the problems under the rug?

Will there be another mass movement like the one during the summer of 2015? I know this much: Lebanon is witnessing the emergence of a generation that refuses to sit quietly and that gives me hope.

Kareem Chehayeb

© Goethe-Institut Cairo/"Perspectives"

Kareem Chehayeb is a Lebanese journalist and political analyst, currently pursuing a Masters in Political Economy of the Middle East at Kingʹs College London. His work has been published on Middle East Eye, Al Jazeera, Refugees Deeply, among other platforms.

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