Myra Abdallah

What happened to the groups protesting in Beirut?


Mountains of trash in central neighborhoods, foul smells, rats and an invasion of flies raising fears of an epidemic. Months since the government decided to close down Beirut’s overflowing main waste dump in Naameh, the Lebanese cabinet still has no viable solution as civil society is getting ready for a new anti-corruption march scheduled for 22 November, Lebanon’s Independence Day.


But managing a social movement in Lebanon has proven to be as difficult as forming a government, many activists say. The uncollected trash brought thousands of Lebanese to the streets under the slogan #YouStink in August, when citizens demanded a sustainable, permanent solution to the crisis. You Stink was a social movement umbrella that gathered bloggers and civil society activists who congregated in front of the Lebanese government building in Riad El-Solh Square and staged sit-ins. The activists launched a social media campaign encouraging people to join the movement. The protests turned violent at the end of August and beginning of September, with security forces cracking down on protesters with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas.


Not much happened at the governmental level despite the massive protests, but the social movement itself has gone through many changes, with several groups leaving the initial umbrella because of disagreements over how political their goals should be. Moreover, while some activists were leaving the movement, several NOGs, such as the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, Offre Joie and Legal Agenda, joined the initiative and set up a Coordination Committee. But that also was to undergo changes. 


“The two main groups — We want Accountability and You Stink, in particular — preferred to work independently,” activist Mark Daou told NOW, adding that the two groups do not share the same objectives. “We Want Accountability were not active participants in the Coordination Committee since it was created. Therefore, You Stink organizers considered that they made sacrifices to help the Coordination Committee — since they started participating in the committee’s meetings, they had to adopt many political slogans. They wanted every group working independently and coordinating with other groups only when needed; therefore, they also decided not to be part of the committee anymore.”



How things changed in the social movement


The Coordination Committee is the organizational group that still comprises NGOs and other activists representing several groups such as The People Want, Change is coming, Leave us alone, The youth of August 22, Legal Agenda, LADE, Offre Joie, Akkar is not a dump and other, smaller groups. According to activists NOW spoke to, You Stink left the Coordination Committee because they wanted to focus more on pressuring the Lebanese state to solve the garbage crisis as a first step towards reform. We Want Accountability left because they have political objectives such as changes in the electoral law and accountability.


“The non-governmental organizations, especially LADE, Civil Society Movement and Legal Agenda, were the force behind the establishment of the Coordination Committee. These organizations are not political and they monitor all the debates. Therefore, they have credibility and experience in doing social work,” Daou told NOW. Civil society organizations have played a significant role in the movement. Legal Agenda and collaborating lawyers, for example, took voluntarily charge of the defense of the activists arrested during several protests. Offre Joie took the initiative of cleaning up the streets and removing the trash blocking the roads.


Activists say that both You Stink and We Want Accountability did collaborate with the Coordination Committee in the beginning, but that lately it’s clear that they don’t communicate anymore.


“Many groups are facing problems in cooperating with We Want Accountability,” said activist Ali Sleem, who is part of You Stink. “We were part of the Coordination Committee before we decided to withdraw; We Want Accountability never participated. They never wanted to cooperate with the other groups.”


The disagreements, he says, were mostly over political demands. “For example, we chose the slogan 'All of them means all of them' because we think that every politician — directly or indirectly — is somehow related to corruption,” said Sleem. “That includes politicians who did not expose corruption during their terms. We Want Accountability did not agree to this slogan because they wanted to exclude some politicians from this equation, and this became a major problem.”


Neamat Badreddine, who is part of We Want Accountability, told NOW that the group never stopped cooperating with anyone. “We called people to participate in the You Stink march and we participated in their protests,” she told NOW. “We are not a political group. We are a group of independent individuals who are working in politics. Our movement aims to push for reform in the garbage crisis, electricity, water, V.A.T. and different problems in Lebanon. We think that we should tackle different problems at the same time.” 



The Independence Day march


All groups agree that something has to be done on Independence Day. They only disagree on who came up with the idea. 


In fact, according to activists NOW spoke to, Leave us alone (Hello Anna) is the group that came up with the plan to organize a national march on Independence Day. All groups agreed: a march on this day would make an important statement and all groups should participate.


We Want Accountability activists, however, say the idea came from their group. “We took the initiative of organizing a march on 22 November and we will be communicating with different groups,” said Badreddine. “This march has a national aspect and we want to involve different sectors — syndicates, regions, student movements, university professors. The goal behind this march is to give Independence Day in Lebanon its value back, especially after the last two years when there were no celebrations taking place.”


You Stink activists say they were the initiators. “We want to organize one march. However, We Want Accountability took the initiative of organizing an activity on their own; a different march,” Sleem said. “We are like an ant that is fighting a whale that is holding tight to all political and economic institutions. Therefore, we need to be more united than that. We can’t ask politicians to agree on a solution for the garbage crisis when we, as activists and social groups, are unable to agree with each other.”


Activists from other groups are worried that these disagreements might affect the presence of supporters at the rally. Many of the activists NOW spoke to voiced concerns over the fact that politics is making its way into the movement. “We’re protesting against the trash crisis, political interests,” an activist who wanted to remain anonymous told NOW. “If we can succeed in the trash crisis, people will be able to trust us in fighting for other rights.”


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah


We’re protesting against the trash crisis, political interests,” an activist who chose to remain anonymous told NOW. “If we can succeed in the trash crisis, people will be able to trust us in fighting for other rights.”

  • gassfarah

    Can’t see any hope is this country. Everything seems to be difficult and chaotic, even fighting for your own elementary rights. Why would tiny differences garble the whole movement? Ego? I’m definite now that genuine reasons behind all ills of this republic are people themselves, not only their councils. People are stupid, egocentric, individualist, materialistic, and racist, fragmented and corrupt … yet full of themselves to laugh at other cultures, give lessons to other countries, look down on other people... even their own. Dump state for Dump people!

    November 19, 2015