Lebanon has been swept by mass protests for the last two weeks. These have been triggered by the unbearable accumulation of tons of garbage in the streets of the capital Beirut -a measure of the unbridled corruption and outright bureaucratic incompetence of those in power, and of the greed of big private companies.
On 17 July, the government’s contract with Sukleen, the private company responsible for waste collection in greater Beirut, expired. This resulted in the suspension of trash collecting services. Politicians in the government, looking to line their own pockets through links to the owners of different private companies competing in the bidding for renewing this contract, have been unable to come up with a viable solution to clean the streets of the capital from the mounting piles of rubbish. This has generated growing environmental and health damage, threatening the spread of cholera and other serious diseases.
The hot temperatures of the summer have added insult to injury, contributing to a nauseous smell, metaphorically expressing the unbreathable atmosphere of a society mired in corruption, growing social collapse, political paralysis and the chronic dysfunction of the state. The Lebanese official political scene is profoundly divided, and the country has been without a president for over a year (the parliament on Wednesday failed – for the 28th time – to elect a new one) and its parliament has unconstitutionally renewed its own mandate twice since 2009.
A group of young activists started a campaign named “You Stink” to protest at the garbage – the political garbage in power especially. There were a number of small demonstrations before their campaign started to build momentum, to finally explode on the weekend of 22 and 23 August.
The call for protesting on Saturday 22 August opened a breach for thousands of young Lebanese and whole families to vent their anger at the government and at the general state of things. If the garbage problem was the tipping point, anger toward the ruling elite’s appalling performance had been building up for a while. The protestors’ goals promptly widened from the garbage crisis per se, to demand an end to the widespread corruption and to mass economic inequalities, to the pervasive youth unemployment, to the daily electricity cuts and water shortages, and to the country’s sectarian-based political system which has plagued Lebanon for decades.
A wind of panic penetrated through the ministries at the big concentration of demonstrators that had come into downtown Beirut on that day, enthused by the idea of collective, grassroots action to demand real change. The authorities responded savagely to the protests, with the police firing tear gas, water cannon, rubber and even live bullets, arresting and beating up protestors by their hundreds. One protester is still in intensive care as a result, and several hundred others have been injured in the violence. Dozens have been arrested. Among other demands, the CWI in Lebanon calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all those who are still being detained.
Through its swift and nasty repression, the Lebanese government had only shown that it was far more efficient in removing protestors than in removing the mountains of garbage obstructing the city’s streets and pavements. That is what it thought – but the brutal response from the State machine only infuriated people further, giving the revolt a snowball effect. Around 10,000 protesters had turned up on 22 August; at least twice that number came back the next day.
At the beginning of last week, the government decided to erect a concrete wall near the prime minister’s office in central Beirut; but it was forced to dismantle it within 24 hours under public pressure. Inconsistencies of that kind have illustrated how stuck in horror the ruling class is of wider social explosions, and how desperate it is to avoid them at all costs.
On the following Saturday, 29 August, tens of thousands of protesters - up to 60,000 according to some estimates- from across Lebanon flocked to a mass rally in downtown Beirut. A mood of hope, enthusiasm and confidence was predominant. “May the power of the corrupt fall, starting with the MPs”, “You stink! ‘Bye bye’ to the corrupt!” were among the slogans chanted by the crowd. Contrary to the weekend before, police repression was on the back foot, as the government felt it would have been counter-productive and would only increase public sympathy for the movement.
Mass united action vs divide-and-rule
The country’s two main political blocs – the Hezbollah-led ‘March 8’ alliance and the anti-Assad, ‘March 14’ – are headed by corrupt warlord politicians relying on clientelist networks, religious sectarian identities and their corresponding militias, and are both aligned with competing sectarian foreign powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively, whose allies and offshoots are waging wars against each other all across the region.
Yet the recent protests have attracted supporters from across Lebanon’s religious and ethnic divide: Christians, Sunnis, Shias and Druze united for the same goals, along with Syrian and Palestinian refugees. This clearly shows that at the base of society, there is a genuine desire for unity; the rumbling sectarianism which is affecting the country and the region’s politics is not an inevitable fate for the populations of the Middle East, but rather is incited by the ruling elites’ power games and lust for profits.
Chants of “The people want the fall of the regime” and mass street demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people have been reminiscent of the revolutions that shook the Arab world nearly five years ago, confirming that beneath the poisonous dynamics unleashed by sectarian forces and the military conflicts devastating entire countries, aspirations for genuine revolutionary change are still running deep across the region.
Weaknesses of the “You Stink” campaign
While the “You Stink” campaign has remained the main public façade of the protest movement, its framework has in effect been superseded by protesters calling for the overthrow of the government and going far beyond the organisers’ initial intentions.
The “You Stink” organisers have had a tendency to lower their political demands in order to achieve small, supposedly more ‘practical’ gains, rather than to argue for bold demands based on the steam that developed from below. They have focused their attention on the resignation of the Environment minister and on bringing to court the Interior Minister responsible for last weeks’ repression.
These would obviously be welcome moves, giving confidence to the movement about its own capacities to push the government in delivering concessions. But if the struggle was to restrict itself to these demands, it would in effect absolve from responsibility the very system which has bred those politicians, and replace one pair of rotten and corrupt politicians by another pair of rotten and corrupt politicians.
The “You Stink” campaigners’ insistence on “non-involvement in political action” is highly contradictory. Partially based on the understandable rejection of the ruling establishment parties, such a view prevents the movement, however, from adopting a clear political outlook, highlighting what is needed to replace the present ruling elite.
The politically faint-hearted approach by the “You Stink” organisers is also accompanied by a not-very-inclusive approach vis-à-vis the mass of demonstrators and newcomers in the movement, as well as with members of other political organisations, which they regard with deep suspicion. This results in restricting the decisions regarding the protest actions to a ‘select’ number of people, without accountability to the movement as a whole.
This undemocratic approach runs the risk of aborting the momentum of the campaign, by alienating people and by dispersing the existing energies in all sorts of fruitless directions. Several activists have for instance launched an open-ended hunger strike on Thursday, September 4, outside the Environment Ministry, until the minister in charge resigns. Although this is evidence of the determination of some of the protesters, it is a desperate, hazardous and rather exclusive method of struggle, of which positive effects on the broader movement are, at best, questionable.
The limitations of engaging in such isolated actions were also illustrated two days before, on Tuesday, when about 30 protesters from “You Stink” decided to storm the Ministry of Environment in Beirut and begun a sit-in inside. While such an occupation could have gathered mass appeal and active support, the fact that it was organised without warning by a small group of protesters, during working hours, dramatically limited its impact and exposed the action to an almost immediate and easy repression by the State. The police cut the electricity and air-conditioning within the building, then beat up and forcibly removed the occupiers, badly injuring several people, including journalists who had stayed inside the compound.
The movement needs to develop democratic structures if it is to sustain its dynamic and achieve real victories. Popular action committees and local assemblies in the neighbourhoods would be helpful, to allow open discussions and democratic decisions to take place on the strategy needed to conduct the struggle, based on the lessons from the movement as it has unfolded in the course of the last few weeks. This would also enable the election of a genuine leadership, accountable to the whole movement, rather than self-proclaimed leaders only accountable to themselves.
The power of the working class
It is clear that whatever the amount of energy and bravery of the youth, regular street protests without wider perspectives will eventually run out of steam.
On August 13, before the recent protest movement really kicked off, one particular episode highlighted what the militancy of the organised working class, directly hitting at the pockets of the bosses, can achieve. The workers of Beirut’s seaport engaged in an open-ended strike to protest against the dumping of garbage nearby the port facility, due to serious health and safety concerns. Just a few days later, the Prime Minister was forced to revoke the plan of dumping rubbish there.
This simple example shows that if the economic power of the working class is fully utilised, the movement can acquire new strengths and force the current regime to retreat. Despite all the complications that have emerged since 2011, this also remains one of the most essential lessons of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt: the escalating strike waves in both countries were the decisive ingredient that toppled the dictators Ben Ali and Mubarak.
Some independent trade unions from the public sector (teachers, doctors) did join the protest last Saturday. The teachers’ union has been fighting for wage increases for months with the government. Migrant domestic workers have been involved in militant actions and in the setting up of a trade union to defend their rights and fight back against their slave-like working conditions. These numerous struggles from amongst various sectors of workers need to find a common outlet with the voices of the protesting youth, and with all the other social and economic grievances of the wider population. As a start, a 24h general strike coupled with a mass demonstration, for example, could provide such a rallying point to hit a powerful blow at the government.
Connections between the so-called “garbage protesters”, the unemployed youth, and the militant trade unions and their struggles need to be developed. For this to materialise, the current movement needs to adopt clear social and economic demands, with the aim of appealing to the mass of the workers and the poor, and of bringing these layers decisively into the battle.
At the heart of the present crisis is the crisis of capitalism and the wide-scale privatization of public services that it has unleashed; this has enriched a myriad of influential private providers and their associated friends in the ruling political circles, while pushing up basic prices, increasing poverty and bringing about the crumbling of basic services for the rest of the population.
The CWI argues that the State and municipal councils should be in charge of waste management, not private companies. This service should be brought back immediately under public ownership. For that to be economically sustainable, a broader alternative economic and social plan, that can put an end to capitalist plunder and corruption, will be necessary: a genuine democratic and socialist plan. This should start by cancelling the astronomic public debt (which stands at 143% of GDP) and by nationalising, under the control and management of workers and ordinary people, the major private companies and banks, where the big money of the super-rich lies.
In its last leaflet distributed in Beirut, the CWI-Lebanon says:
Build a mass movement against the corrupt and sectarian regime, to end poverty and civil wars!
The garbage crisis has become a serious danger to the health of all people in Lebanon, especially the working class and the poor, and despite the fact that all the health and environmental solutions are available, the ruling class insists on the privatization of waste.
Today’s movement should only be the starting point to build a mass movement to overthrow this rotten system, and needs to move to expand and include the largest possible segment of the working class, the youth and the unemployed. This should be the beginning of the end of this sectarian regime, that is allied with the owners of big capital.
•End the garbage crisis immediately by bringing back under public ownership the garbage companies via the local councils.
•Release all the arrested activists.
•Build a united mass movement of workers and poor against sectarianism and neo-liberal economic policies.
•Bring in the participation of the largest number of independent trade unions and public sector workers in the movement
•For a democratic socialist program, to eradicate poverty, unemployment and wars.
Report from CWI reporters at a solidarity protest in central London
Lebanese people around the world have been demonstrating their support for the protests in Beirut. Clare Doyle (CWI) and Lisa Bainbridge (Socialist Party) joined hundreds of lively and angry young people at Marble Arch in London last Saturday (29 August).
“Lebanon is a small and war-torn country,” one of the organisers said. “There are more than 14 million Lebanese outside Lebanon and no more than 4 million inside the country of just 10,452 square kilometres. There are also one and a half million Syrian refugees and half a million Palestinians in Lebanon. We see all the political parties and politicians as, at best, incompetent and worse - sectarian and corrupt. And the country has a $70bn debt!”
Amongst the slogans and chants were:- “We want a government chosen by the people!”, “MPs are building themselves castles, and the people are without electricity!” and "Let’s walk together against sectarianism and dictatorship!". One of the chants referred to the government’s order to get rid of Beirut’s rubbish by dumping it somewhere in the North of the country. They sang: “North and South of Beirut; East and West of Beirut: We should stand together!” Another call was for “A government chosen by the people!".
Some demonstrators said “We have seen that the left is still alive in Lebanon”, others spoke of the call for the country’s fishermen to come in from the sea and join the demonstrations. “We are fighting for freedom”!
One placard had a black bin bag attached to it and said (in Arabic): "Lebanon, sold for a bag of rubbish!”