Beirut – #YouStink. Untethered by ethnicity and religious affiliation, Lebanon’s youth are uniting in protest, aiming to defend their shared values and country against the effects of corruption and monopolies birthed by capitalism. On Aug. 29, for instance, an estimated 10,000 people gathered in downtown Beirut, calling for the resignation of the government officials responsible for the country’s ongoing waste crisis and demanding that new elections to be held.
A nation propelled by political and institutional inertia, the #YouStink movement is taking Lebanon by storm. And though many observers have been quick to associate it with the 2011 Arab Spring movement, arguing Lebanon has also fallen victim to the revolutionary bug, Lebanese protesters argue otherwise. Sarah Haddad, a student at Lebanese International University and political activist, spoke to L’Indro last month, emphasizing that Lebanon is not “another Arab Spring.” “We are most definitely not revolutionary,” Haddad said by phone from Beirut. “What we are calling for and demanding is not regime change. There is no dictatorship to oust here. What we suffer from is kleptocracy. What we need are institutional reforms based on the principles of national equality.” She continued: “Lebanese want to reinvent their society and reclaim control over their state institutions. If I was to label our protest I would say it is a socio-political awakening. We are simply asserting our identity as Lebanese. About time, too! Lebanon cannot possibly be expected to remain in the shadows of those colonial powers which shaped it.”
Cities consumed by rotting garbage
Indeed, Lebanese anger toward their officials has been a long time coming. “If anything, the Lebanese people have been late in their demands. Lebanon has a plethora of problems, one of which is corruption,” Maymwna Saleh, an American-Lebanese journalist and lecturer at Al Maa’ref University in Beirut, told L’Indro.
A dream for venture capitalists and a prime example of capitalism run amok, Lebanon has been plagued by poor state infrastructure and failing social services, including electricity blackouts, weak health services, and the privatization of its garbage collection services. Lebanon is governed by an unscrupulous elite, itself organized around a political system which tends to favor a select few at the expense of the majority. When it emerged that the Naameh landfill had closed after exceeding capacity, and piles of rubbish were amassing on the streets of Beirut, it prompted a wave of anger of such magnitude that Lebanese started protesting loudly and frequently.
Completely organic, apolitical and cross-sectarian, the #YouStink movement was born out of the failure of Lebanese officials to adequately manage state affairs. At the heart of the controversy is Sukleen, the private corporation hired to handle Beirut’s waste management for the past two decades. Although waste management remains a municipal responsibility, those state funds were handed to Sukleen. Since July, much of the rubbish collected by Sukleen has been dumped under bridges and other public spaces, forcing residents to breathe the putrid smell of advanced decomposition.
Sukleen is no stranger to controversy. Al Akhbar, a prominent Lebanese news organization, ran a report in 2012, laying bare the organization’s shady dealings. “The smell of scandal is rising from the controversial relationship between the Lebanese government and Sukleen, the country’s main waste management contractor,” Mohammad Zbeeb reported. With Beirut buried under a growing pile of rubbish, Lebanese have vowed to take on their government and challenge the plutocracy. They want their officials to serve those they were meant to represent all along — the people. Officials, however, aren’t easily bowing to public pressure. “Despite growing public outrage, Minister Akram Chehayeb has already confirmed he wishes to renew Sukleen’s contract with Beirut municipality,” Aly Sleem, the leader of the #YouStink movement, told L’Indro.
While armed with a contingency plan to handle Lebanon’s rubbish crisis, state officials have yet to enact change on the ground. “The objective of the government plan has been to identify a solution which has the least negative environmental impact, can be implemented as rapidly as possible and at the lowest possible cost,” said Chehayeb, the agriculture minister appointed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam to head the committee assembled to handle the trash crisis in late September.
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