Removing the Stink
It was a busy night at Mezyan, a new pub on Hamra Street in downtown Beirut on a Friday this past August. It had recently gained a reputation among locals for being a hangout spot for Syrian activists currently in exile. A friend of mine involved in student government at the American University of Beirut was waiting for me, eager to discuss the changes that were taking place in the country. Beirut was embroiled in a crisis over garbage collection, a service in the hands of a private corporation whose contract with the municipal government expired without renewal. The garbage that had piled up on the sides of roads became so intolerable that a movement assembled to demand the resignation of the government. Protests organized by the movement have been taking place in downtown Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square for nearly two months. According to the movement’s early Facebook campaign, the “You Stink” protests started “as a response to the government’s inability to solve the crisis.” The “stink” was initially pointed at the government’s ineptitude in this particular disaster, but the group has since evolved as notable grievances like political corruption and lack of infrastructure were brought to the table. Images circulated of protestors assaulted by the police during the larger demonstrations of August 6 and August 23 that took place in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, and pressure subsequently mounted on You Stink to become an organized platform for exposing other forms of Lebanese dysfunction. Suddenly, there arose the pragmatic yet also existential need for the movement to organize its demands politically. Leaders of the initial movement, who were primarily students and other young people, faced a formidable challenge: addressing the wider systemic issues in municipal and national governance while avoiding an inevitable partition that would render their goals niche, obsolete, and sectarian.
Political mobilization in Lebanon and its inherent complexities pervade every realm of society from the military to education, access to public services, foreign relations, and employment. Its sectarian system of organization is what has left Lebanon without, or perhaps robbed of, a unique national identity clear of political grout. The balance of power in the country, mandated by sectarian allotments for Muslims and Christians as two broad categories encompassing many more, has made the country prone to major foreign, economic, and humanitarian destabilization that is both exigent and longstanding.
What I have found most interesting during my more recent trips to Lebanon is how our student generation witnesses and reacts to these events. Coffee shops, pubs, and restaurants cast a shadow over these harsh realities while simultaneously challenging them; pubs like Mezyan are incubators of a different form of political yet intellectual mobilization, one reminiscent of the meetings of intellectuals at Hamra Street cafés in the 1960s, now somewhat a thing of folklore. And the politics that pervade these social establishments have shifted along with the country: In 2005, it was the people celebrating Lebanese sovereignty after the expulsion of the Syrian army from its 29-year occupation; in 2007 and 2008, it was the lingering consequences of Israel’s bloody war with Lebanon during the summer of 2006; in 2011, it was the Arab Spring; in 2014, it was and continues to be ISIS.
So of course, the soupe du jour that night at Mezyan was fleshing out the garbage crisis. For many, the recent protests have provided a promising sign that it is possible to break the gridlock when basic services like garbage, water, and electricity are threatened. Although this uprising should not be mistaken for political unity in the country, evidence suggests that these protests can and will become a major turning point for the country and thus for the region altogether. But placing Lebanon in the context of the Arab Spring, examining the current demographics of the country, and considering its unique humanitarian and infrastructural constraints show us that this turning point likely isn’t a positive one.
Conflict & Representation
So how do the Lebanese conceptualize the origin of conflict? As simple as it is, it is a question that has defined the political edges of every representation of Lebanon in recent history from news media to foreign scholarship, artistic expressions, and political rhetoric. Many start their analysis of Lebanon with the eruption of the civil war in 1975. Some mark the beginning of a Lebanon distinct from Syria with the formation of Israel in 1948. Yet most commentaries of Lebanon’s current and past conflicts note that the country’s independence from France in 1943 was the most politically significant paradigm shift, allowing the country to establish a kind of national character while also instituting the National Pact of 1943, an unwritten agreement that institutionalized Lebanon’s configuration as a secular and multi-confessional state.
From this starting point stemmed a number of important developments, namely the use of a demographic census from 11 years prior to determine the representative proportions of Lebanon’s 18 recognized religious confessions (denominations) in a parliament of 128 seats. This unique configuration would never be sustainable, of course: as the country’s sects shifted in size, each one’s desire to hold or gain power increased, leading to political instability while simultaneously promoting sectarian identification. The National Pact’s stipulation that the president of the country always had to be a Maronite Christian and that the prime minister had to be Sunni Muslim also bestowed certain privileges on both groups that would propel inequality in income and social access for Shiites, Druzes, and other minorities. The mass migration of Palestinian refugees to the country upon the creation of Israel in 1948 further strained the country’s economic resources while creating further political segmentation; the entrance of these primarily Sunni Muslim refugees was politicized into a force throwing the sectarian order out of balance.
The ensuing tensions resulted in a civil war in 1975 with unique international stakes, involving major Israeli and American interventions, and an extended Syrian occupation that lasted until 2005. Perhaps most significantly, the militarization of sectarian groups became well commercialized and tied to foreign interventions to the extent that contemporary political parties and actors in Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah, are direct successors of the wartime militias, both in terms of the leadership that directed them, and the strategic alliances that they held on to as the post-war period progressed.
The issue of originating conflict in this fashion, at least from an epistemological standpoint, is that it subsumes continuation. The colonial period in Lebanon is politically significant and has various “lingering effects,” as is described by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism. Our understanding of Lebanon has been so deeply affected by the colonial paradigm that it seems to have begged the question: is every analysis of Lebanon necessarily skewed due to Lebanon’s political realities, or is there no “real” Lebanon and only a system of such representations? This relates closely with our understanding of democracy in the Lebanese context; in a system such as this one that promotes close sectarian identification, no one voice can claim to represent or speak for all. Our understanding of the sectarian divide is complicated by and implicated in the atmospheric problematization of representing the conflict and its players. Each sect’s pursuit of more power in the country has thus become synonymous with a blurred religious, patriotic, even linguistic decrial of the country’s perceived modus operandi, and it follows that each contemporary party has been paralyzed by both a tinted frame of political origination and wartime trauma, placing each into its own subjectivity, never to come to terms with or even understand another.
Beirut’s Party Scene
The end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990 did little to suppress the sectarian political fabric, but putting an end to the violence that had resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people over the preceding 15 years was a necessary goal. The most significant changes to Lebanon’s political configuration included a re-proportioning of the parliament to one that was exactly 50-50 Christian-Muslim, and exactly 50-50 Sunni-Shiite within the Muslim half. The other major development that accompanied the ratification of the Ta’if Agreement and the ending of the war was the disarming of all Lebanese militias that participated in the civil war, with the express intention of restoring political stability and normalcy while empowering a renewed secular Lebanese army and restoring Lebanese national character. The large exception to this rule was Hezbollah, which was permitted to keep its arms as a signatory of the agreement with the stipulation that its arms would be used for resistive purposes only; Hezbollah was heavily involved in fighting Israel in the south of the country during the preceding period, particularly after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and several of its predecessor-component militias also fought Israel during its previous violations of Lebanese territory (Lebanese army records show that there were one or two such violations every single day between 1968 and 1974).
The significance of Hezbollah’s presence as a paramilitary force with a sectarian character in Lebanon cannot be understated. On the one hand, their ability to counteract the army as a backbone of stability in the state is one of special status amongst Lebanon’s other sectarian parties. From another perspective, an armed group has the ability to inculcate a power dynamic amongst other parties that is physically and politically dominating. Finally, the strategic significance of this combination of military and sectarianism makes Hezbollah an important strategic asset for Iran and Syria. And as recent history has demonstrated, their resulting participation as an armed group fighting in the Syrian Civil War has made Lebanon a target for many of the conflict’s rebel groups and weakened national boundaries, allowing rebels and ISIS fighters to enter and exit Syria easily from Lebanon.
As the Shiite confession began establishing a character centered at least partially around Hezbollah at the conclusion of the Civil War, Sunni political representation took on a much different form. Rafiq Hariri, a business tycoon that made his fortune in Saudi Arabia in the preceding years, entered politics with the support of the Saudi Arabian regime that convened the Ta’if Accords, and served as prime minister for the majority of the period between 1991 and 2005. His administration was characterized by his plan to rejuvenate Beirut as a cosmopolitan commercial and cultural hub, signified by the development of a new downtown district by a private company called Solidere. The foreign investment that Hariri hoped to stimulate with the downtown project was successful, despite the problematic and controversial appraisal, payout, and confiscation of land that would eventually become part of the development. Hariri was assassinated in a car bombing in 2005, and the long and politically messy tribunal that has been tasked with the investigation currently suggests that Syria, which at that time was still occupying Lebanon on the basis of maintaining stability, ordered or at least sanctioned his assassination. Over 1 million people took to the streets in the weeks after his killing, calling for the expulsion of the Syrian military. The final withdrawal of Syria’s army in April 2005 marked the success of what was then known as the Cedar Revolution.
There is, however, a notable difference between people that demanded that Lebanon’s sovereignty be upheld by attending Cedar Revolution demonstrations, and people that reacted to the Cedar Revolution by mobilizing politically; notably, the latter resulted in the formation of new coalitions known as the March 8 and March 14 alliances, which together comprised the parliament of 2005. The March 8 Alliance, a big tent coalition, was comprised primarily of the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, and the Shiite Hezbollah and Amal Movement. The anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance, by contrast, was comprised almost entirely of the Sunni Future Movement, with the Maronite Lebanese Forces party and Kataeb as secondary participants. The emergence of these coalitions partially broke hard party lines while complicating divisions between the sects; while Sunnis and Shiites aligned themselves squarely within the March 14 and March 8 alliances respectively, Maronites and particularly Druzes, Lebanon’s fifth largest sect by parliamentary representation, continue to run on both March 8 and March 14 ballots in Lebanese elections. In fact, the current government is controlled partially by a new bloc separate from the post-2005 alliances comprised primarily of Druze, Maronite, and Armenian parties and politicians. Most importantly, the idea that Syria’s presence and exit was significant enough to question the status quo — only to simply reconfigure it — reveals an important insight on today’s garbage protests: that people’s demands, as related as they are to secular and even anti-sectarian causes, are prone to cooptation by political parties simply due to the dominating force of sectarianism.
As my friend and I continued discussing the prospect of these current protests avoiding this kind of political cooptation at Mezyan that night, a table nearby was embroiled in a debate about a different topic: the Syrian refugee crisis, which has brought over 1 million refugees to Lebanon. 25 percent of the country is Syrian, and Lebanon’s capability to assist refugees is abysmal compared to those of Turkey and Jordan, where the UNHCR has set up refugee camps and border registration services that account for most of the refugees that cross. The abject poverty that these Syrians have been living in is a humanitarian crisis of tragic proportions, and to further complicate matters, the forced integration of Syrians into Lebanese society has turned into a highly politicized issue. Syrians are not only seen as foreign invaders that are usurping resources by a population already exasperated by political and economic instability, but responsibility for their care is also relegated disproportionately on a confessional basis, because Syrians have settled in the majority Muslim area of Hamra in Beirut and certain areas of the Béqaa Valley near the border. Similarly to and in tandem with the Palestinian refugee crisis, which still persists in Lebanon, the emergence of these Syrian refugees has inspired ugly forms in jingoism in the media and national political rhetoric.
As our conversations eventually collided and the topic of ISIS violently perched at the border for the past year came up, I was struck by Lebanon’s simultaneous gravity and absurdity; and through the confusion that accompanies that paradox, I also became reminded of the deep divide I saw within people I knew on the state of the country. For a long time people have been resigned to be indifferent towards what might be called “the political situation,” a construct that transcends the instability, corruption, and other truths of daily life in Lebanon. The threat of conquest by ISIS has launched this situation into a stratosphere of “everything is so bad that it’s ironic.” Interestingly one category of people has responded by disengaging completely not only from the anxiety that pervades Lebanon’s irony, but also from a will to change what may be within their grasp. Why this persists is a critical issue, but some plausible explanations have emerged: people feel helpless in face of such insurmountable challenges, people see the consequences of taking up political causes, and people see no need to engage unless their lives are immediately at risk, suggesting a mass epidemic of insouciance. Yet a second category has emerged, one of great, unremitting anger, and it’s the category I argue has been most inspired by the current garbage crisis and has been almost perfectly captured by the slogan of “You Stink.”
Conversations in Beirut today center not around whether the garbage crisis has highlighted some form of systemic failure or even corruption in the government; this much has become clear. From my most recent discussions with other Lebanese as well as organizers of You Stink, it seems that growing cynicism and that indifference towards participation are the movement’s greatest enemies. Most importantly, the legacy of cooptation is still very much fresh and many are incredulous towards the notion of political action escaping the power gridlock. In this fashion, we are already beginning to see that these suspicions may be very much correct: major politicians from across the political spectrum have tweeted, uploaded videos, and published statements in support of the You Stink movement. Many accept this cooptation, unknowingly participating in the empowerment of these crucial counterparts in state corruption.
And this, in a way, is part of what makes Lebanon’s upcoming role in the Middle East particularly significant, and certainly more significant than as the next domino in the oft-described play-by-play of corrupt Arab regimes being brought down by the power of the people. On the contrary, what is happening in Lebanon has never been more different than Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and even Syria. A popular joke making the rounds recently nails it quite pithily: throughout the Arab Spring, people have been demanding the removal of their presidents. In Lebanon, the people have been demanding a president (that’s right: Lebanon’s gridlock has kept the country without a head of state for over 15 months).
Having taken their syncretism for granted, Lebanese have also seen the emergence of what Dr. Jamil Mouawad chronicles in The Guardian as a parallel state, one controlled by private corporations enabled by a systematically weakened regime. High expenses, lack of expertise and weak infrastructure in the post-war period led the government to place provision of water and electricity and the collection of garbage in the hands of private corporations. Officially, garbage is handled and budgeted by each municipality, but Beirut has been contracting a company to collect the garbage since 1994 and has allotted the spending budget to paying contracting fees. Public electricity only runs for 12-14 hours, and those corporations contracted to provide the rest charge exorbitant fees for limited and non-guaranteed service. What has resulted is a particularly unnerving symbiosis: a public state whose interests only protect few, and a private state whose controlling benefactors are the individuals that preside over the public state. It is a deadly cycle that the garbage crisis has exposed, and one that people have finally come to question on the most fundamental level.
I attended the You Stink protests during that trip to the city of my childhood. Despite our inability to ever fully understand or represent Lebanon’s political dimensions, those of us that came to the square to declare that the government indeed stinks still see this movement as a culmination, although of what we are not yet sure. What we held in common was that we saw this call as necessary for Lebanon’s survival, in the face of ISIS, in the face of humanitarian tragedy, in the face of threat of more civil war at any moment: essentially, in the face of overwhelming odds.
Critics of the movement call out their low numbers, citing that protests have been attended by only fifty to a hundred thousand people. The entire million that demanded Syria’s removal in 2005 cannot possibly have become disillusioned or cynical, but what many claim is that a significant proportion of that million didn’t see the removal of Syria as mutually exclusive with a domestic sectarian agenda. Breaking the cycle of reconfiguration and enacting a paradigm shift in Lebanon’s most base sectarian tendencies is a necessity that protesters have put their lives on the line for. And, in defiance of Lebanon’s great irony, this necessity poses the biggest worry of all: that the You Stink movement, at its most deep level, calls for an end to the sectarian — the only Lebanon that we have ever known — and that Lebanese people just aren’t ready to let go. •
Omar Osama Abboud is a senior at Columbia Engineering majoring in Operations Research and minoring in Middle Eastern Studies (MESAAS). He grew up in Toronto, Canada and is originally from Beirut, Lebanon. He was previously the President of CU Turath, Columbia’s Arab Students Association. He can be reached at: email@example.com.