Lebanon: ‘Garbage protests’ shake the ruling class

Interview with Tamer Mahdi, CWI member in Lebanon

Can you explain what has happened in Lebanon in the last few days?

The recent events have been triggered by a garbage-related crisis, which started over a month ago. The contract of the private company in charge of the garbage collection expired. Since then, the government did not renew the contract and infighting has developed between competing wings of the ruling elite about which company to give the new contract to.

This issue has exposed the collusion between establishment parties and big business interests, and the rampant corruption underlying it. Those who suffer from this crisis are ordinary residents in the capital, Beirut, and other cities, since the rubbish has not been collected for weeks and a mountain of rubbish is piling up in the streets.

Last week, a campaign was started on Facebook, called “You stink!”, aiming at drawing the link between the garbage crisis and the “political garbage” in the government, with calls for street protests. This became a point of reference for people to express their anger, not only about the garbage problem but about everything else.

Last Saturday (22 August), a call for a general protest in downtown Beirut in front of the parliament and the Prime Minister’s palace was attended massively, with over ten thousand people turning up: families, young people, workers, unemployed, etc. However, about one hour after the protest started, the Lebanese army, which was in charge of guarding the parliament, begun to employ systematic violence to repress the demonstration. They were beating up protesters, using machine guns as sticks to do so, shooting bullets into the air to scare people away from the parliament etc. This was done while the overwhelming majority of the protesters were peaceful, without any plan to use violence or to riot.

After this repression, most families who had young children with them left the area, and a few hundred, maybe over a thousand people tried to stay on the square. The police and army tried to chase them away, shooting rubber bullets. People were shouting “we are not leaving, we are not leaving!”, and the confrontations lasted until about 2am. This resulted in about 40 protesters being arrested and over 50 injured – one was shot with a rubber bullet in the stomach, and just left hospital today.

So what happened after that?

The organisers were lost, as they didn’t expect such a response to their campaign. They were not really prepared for the repression and didn’t have any communication with the protesters on how to respond to it.

On Sunday morning, they called for another demonstration, also as a protest against the State’s violence the day before. People started to gather in the square at around 11am, and this went on for a while. But at night, suddenly a group of youths known as being on the payroll of a Shia sectarian group started to come to the square and infiltrate the protest to sabotage it, throwing stones and clashing with the police, etc. This was used by the State to repress everyone again, shooting tear gas, rubber but also live bullets into the crowd. One man was shot in the head and put in a coma as a result. It seems he is getting better now, but he almost died.

Clearly, such a brutal response from the State and sectarian parties indicate that the ruling elite is very scared of this movement and is trying to destroy it. In the speeches made by politicians, some are accusing protesters of being under the influence of a foreign agenda – like Ben Ali or Mubarak tried to pretend in the past in order to discredit mass protests. But this propaganda does not work at all, as the movement has only grown bigger by the day.

Can you say a bit more about what the protesters are demanding?

Corruption is the main issue about which everyone is shouting and complaining. But the protesters are demanding. down with the regime and with the corrupt warlord politicians. The famous popular slogan of the ‘Arab Spring’ “The people want the fall of the regime” has been heard from the start.

The problem is that the organizers of the campaign are essentially confining their demands to the garbage crisis, while people in the street are already far ahead of that. The organisers initially demanded the resignation of the government. Now they have even dropped that demand, and are only arguing for the resignation of the environment minister. So, in many respects, you can say that the people are much more radical than the organisers. Yesterday (on Monday), the latter were trying to hold off on further protests until Saturday. But demonstrations went ahead anyway as the protests have now taken on a dynamic of their own, and people are now just turning up in the streets spontaneously on a daily basis.

What have the political effects of this movement on the government been?

The government is very confused. They do not know what to do and are wondering how they can get people off the streets. The politicians are throwing the blame at each other for the crisis which has developed.

Monday’s protest was not met with the same savage repression as during the weekend, as the regime fears a backlash. The government is really shaking now and could fall at any time. The whole ruling class is scared as it has no solutions to offer, and they know that the people are not going to easily accept any usual corrupt “solution”.

How, in your view, is the movement going to develop in the coming days, and what do you think should be done to build a successful struggle?

The organizers of the movement have decided to restrict the demands only to the garbage crisis, and even refused explicitly to let some activists take part in the organizing of the movement.

But if that continues to be the case, they will lose control over it, as the protesters are not going to accept this. Their demands have a clear political character, targeting corruption in general, but also calling for the fall of the government.

As a member of the CWI, I have been arguing from the start that this campaign should link up with issues like unemployment and poverty, the collapse and privatisation of public services, as well as exposing the connections between the sectarian parties and big business. Exposing how privatization works and how corrupt politicians get billions out of it. We should call for the nationalization of garbage services, as the municipalities should do this job, not private companies with profit as their only consideration. This movement should have a class-based programme that can attract young people, workers and the unemployed from all communities and bring them together. To enlarge its scope, this campaign should also appeal to the independent trade unions, especially public sector unions (who have engaged in a lot of strikes in the last few months), to join in.

The experience of the last days and the limitations of the organisers’ outlook also highlight the need for democratically-elected structures to build the movement, with leaders accountable for their actions. Setting up local committees in the neighbourhoods is crucial, to organise the campaign from below, and to bring in more people into mass action.

We also need international solidarity from activists abroad to help with publicising this struggle on a wider scale.

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