Over the past few weeks protesters in Lebanon have reemerged after a slumber in great numbers, talking over downtown Beirut. “You Stink” protests, which started as a result of a “garbage crisis” and government incompetence have been met with severe repression leading to one death and hundreds of injuries. Bay Area Intifada reached out to a comrade on the ground who has been engaged in the demonstrations. Lara is an anti-authoritarian media worker from Beirut. The following interview was conducted on Monday August 30th – Thursday Sept 3rd. No changes or edits have been to the text.
*Q: Can you talk about what ignited the current protests taking place in Lebanon? It’s hard to believe it’s just about the garbage crisis.*
*A:* The easy answer would be to say they were ignited after July 17 when access to the Naameh landfill was forcefully sealed off and people started drowning in garbage. This landfill, which has been in use since 1997 and absorbs most of Beirut and Mount Lebanon’s trash, was successfully shut down by environmental activists and residents living near the dump. Or, you could trace them back to January when the same scenario took place but was resolved relatively quickly after promises were made to permanently shut down the Naameh landfill in July. Or, maybe to 2004 when the plan to use Naameh expired but was renewed (the 6-year arrangement has lasted 17 years turning the agreed-upon 2 million tons of trash into 15). Alternatively, you could go further back to 1995 when the Hariri-connected Averda company was awarded a secret contract to manage garbage in the two aforementioned governorates. At the time, Rafiq Hariri (the assassinated former prime minister notorious for displacing thousands of Beirutis) privatized waste management and allowed Sukleen and Sukomi to monopolize it and turn it into a profitable industry without any accountability or transparency. Averda charges taxpayers three to four times the regional average per ton while arrogantly ignoring the terms of its contract, namely when it comes to recycling and composting.
I think it’s important to trace the garbage situation back to its roots because it illustrates the level of ineptitude, corruption, and brazen incompetence of the successive Lebanese governments.
The more complex answer would be to trace them back to the foundation of the modern Lebanese nation-state, that is on political sectarianism.
But as you rightly point out, garbage is not the crisis, it is a mere symptom, a very visible and smelly one of a much larger crisis. Trash only exposed the filthy face of this regime. It was the catalyst and dealing with it was the main demand. But government repression and brewing anger toward the ruling elite led what was a mere “anti-garbage” mobilization to quickly become an anti-government movement.
Finally, bear in mind that this trash situation comes in the midst of decades-old shortages in water, electricity and all basic services and some months after learning that there is, quite literally, shit in the food we consume.
*Q: Can you briefly elaborate on your last point about “political sectarianism,” what’s the link?*
*A:* As it stands, politicians are united by their sectarian incitement and neoliberal politics. The political elite keeps religious communities constantly scared of one another and worried about the “rights” of their respective sects, so it can split the profit it generates through corrupt and often illegal government dealings. The political class has essentially divided the country’s resources/wealth among one another and each so-called representative of a sect has tasked himself with keeping his subjects docile while exploiting his public office. The theft of almost all of our shoreline perfectly exemplifies why this governance model is rejected by the protesters.
This supposed representation also fosters high levels of nepotism and clientelism, hence the incompetence.
But political sectarianism is deeply entrenched in the national fabric and shaking it, let alone toppling it, requires a long and arduous struggle. On the one hand, it allows the political elite to distract most Lebanese with considerations for their sect instead of class struggle. On the other, it is a great divide-and-rule tactic that ensures the survival of the decades-old political dynasties and the squashing of any resistance to their rule.
*Q: What about class issues? Can you address them?
A: Some quick context first: at least 35 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line. Over a third is composed of displaced Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqis. And 0,3 percent own 48 percent of the wealth, so it’s fair to say our division is primarily based on class.
The challenge for protesters now is to educate and agitate more people to join despite the dominant patriarchal and sectarian discourses that have allowed ex-warlords, now illegitimate representatives, to amass great wealth and power.
Downtown Beirut, the site of the protests, hosts several targets of these demonstrations (Government Palace, Parliament, the Municipality of Beirut, and the Ministry of the Environment). But the area is also known as “Solidere” after the private real estate company that turned the bustling heart of the capital into a desolate shopping mall for the rich. Animosity against the capitalist regime is crystal clear there and Solidere is a convenient and ideal target to expose the inequalities the company, and others like it, created with the help of the government’s neoliberal economic policies. Protesters have renamed the “wasat tijari” (commercial center) to “wasakh tijari” (commercial dirt) and “down with Solidere” is scribbled on every other wall you see.
So it is not only the downfall of the current political system that is being called for, but also the economic system.
Q: Considering that a “secular state” is one the goals of this movement, what (if any) role have Muslims played? Has this created a divide between different religious communities?
A: A “sectarian state” is not to be confused with a religious state and demanding a secular one does not infringe on the rights of any religious community. On the contrary, it would allow all of them to have equal access to jobs, housing, etc., and a more just political representation. The divide that has persisted in Lebanon since 2005 is along political lines and is split between two coalitions known as March 8 and March 14. Both include Muslims and Christians.
As far as the role of Muslims, it is not noticeably different from that of others. Our lives here, regardless of religious affiliation, are saturated with interferences by religious authorities so young folks pushing for change are not so concerned with asserting or exhibiting their religious views. We’re leaving that role for the state whose expertise is to divide us on that basis.
*Q: What is the make up/demographics of those participating in the demonstrations?*
*A:* When the protests first started, they primarily attracted the young (early 20s to late 30s) bourgeoisie. As they grew, they became a bit more representative of the country as younger (early to late teens) and poor protesters from the suburbs starting joining us. As they continue to grow and change, the sites of the demonstrations have become a place for anyone to come express their grievances. On the only nightlong sit-in held in Riad Solh, I met a family of five that had come from Tripoli to join us because the father, a taxi driver, was being denied a taxi license, which prevents him from earning a living. The other night, a woman who was 100-something-years-old came to plead for help to find her missing children. Activists battling domestic violence and the corrupt judiciary are but some of those who have joined the struggle to topple the current regime.
*Q: What parties/movements are joining in and how is that affecting the mobilization?*
*A: *So far, only independent activists and politically unaffiliated people have joined the protests. The first was organized by the group now known as “You Stink,” but in the past couple of weeks broad coalitions, from radical leftists to establishment reformists, have formed and are now mobilizing their folks as well with varying demands. Traditional political groups and public officials are not allowed to join the gatherings — even if some have been attempting to co-opt or adopt the movement. A couple of politicians have tried to join us but were promptly kicked out.
In the past few days, there has been a great development in that the organizing has become much more decentralized. So we’re seeing several parallel actions at once, tangibly hitting capital, the police, and state interests at once. We’ve already had a few small victories and I’m hopeful we’ll have many more if things continue this way.
*Q: Tweets in English reveal discord between the organizers and protesters. Some organizers denounced self-defense, is that true? What’s going on? *
*A:* The protest was launched by reformists, liberals, and what now seems clear to me, the next generation of wannabe leaders. “You Stink” organizers are not a homogeneous group and some have engaged in revolutionary violence but overall, yes, they are more prone to favor non-violent direct action. However, everything changed on August 23rd when the usual crowd was joined by working class young men who did not meet the politics of respectability or the image demanded explicitly by some organizers and other protesters. They were almost immediately denounced as “mundanaseen” (infiltrators) and accused of being the “thugs” of political party Amal. Shortly after, rumors started spreading that they are being paid $50 to $100 a day to disturb the rallies and riot. Putting aside the allegation, organizers missed an important opportunity to engage with these young demonstrators and instead withdrew their supporters from the protest and called on the police to deal with these so-called infiltrators.
This action led “You Stink” to lose a lot of credibility and it was harshly criticized in its aftermath, but it seemingly remains undeterred in its quest to allow only some voices to be heard. They will inevitably fail. At the last march, many could be seen holding signs proclaiming, “I am proud to be an infiltrator” and many chanted, “raise your hand, infiltrators, we don’t need any theorists.”
Who did it better? pic.twitter.com/x5rhBPqGhT
— Thurayya Zreik (@ZreikThurayya) August 24, 2015
*Q: How has the state reacted so far? *
*A:* It is in full panic mode, taking confused and conflicting actions to kill the movement. Case in point, it built a wall to protect the Government Palace but took it down less than 24 hours later. Then earlier this week, it built another wall-like structure in the same place. We’re all eager to find out what will come next, artists are crossing their fingers for another big canvas.
So you’ve got your customary police state response that includes the use of violence, tear gas, live and rubber bullets, water cannons, random and targeted arrests, and the mass deployment of the army and police. State violence, however, has been widely criticized by all segments of the population so the tactics have recently changed, going from the visible and mediatized to the hidden and silent kind of repression. Some demonstrators have been receiving threats on their phones, others have been snatched after protests by cops in civilian clothes, and others have been disappeared for a few days. Many, of course, have been arrested, beaten and denied any of their rights. Detained protesters have been forced to take urine tests, in hopes of charging them with drug use. When that fails, attempts are made to find some “dirt” on them.
At the time of this interview, more than 100 people have been arrested so far while 22 others have been charged by a military court with the brand new crime of “infiltration.” One prominent activist has been charged with “sectarian incitement” for jokes posted over two years ago on his social media account.
There is a quite noticeable presence of undercover police in all gatherings. I think its goal is not to simply gather intelligence but to sow discord between protesters and create an atmosphere of mistrust. At one ail solidarity rally, an undercover intelligence officer casually admitted to me who he was after I asked him, confirming that he’ll be spending the night with us out on the street. This is a benign example of the climate of fear that the state is hoping to create. In some respects, it hasn’t been very successful thus far.
As for government officials, their positions have fluctuated from full support and attempts at co-optation to outright denunciation of “foreign conspiracies,” namely by the US and Qatar.
*Q: Can you briefly talk about the resistance to this repression? *
A: On the legal front, a committee of lawyers has formed to defend arrested protesters and a “know your rights” sort of campaign has been widely circulated. On the ground, demonstrators have been sharing knowledge and material to confront the physical force of the state. Online, tips are shared and many communities have been established to organize more effectively. Citizen journalists have been doing a stellar job in exposing the brutality of the police and alternative media pages are being created daily to strip state-media from the control it has over our narrative.
But just being together in the squares of the capital, reclaiming our public spaces, engaging in conversations, and caring for each other while imagining the possibilities is ample resistance as a start.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the street tactics being used to confront police and state aggressions?
A: There hasn’t been a solid line of organized defense yet that has allowed sustained confrontation with the police. It’s been a lot of hit-and-runs, which is why we haven’t managed to hold on to a space for longer than 24 hours or significantly damage any of our targets. Makeshift barricades and shields, setting fires, and pelting rocks, etc., have all been in use but again rarely in an organized fashion. Also, diversity of tactics is not widely accepted so the wannabe Gandhi’s in the crowd continue to interfere and disturb more efficient/strategic street tactics. So far, I’ve only witnessed people forming human chains to protect the police, no black bloc tactics or the like to protect fellow protesters or push back against the police/army.
At the same time, police violence has been gradually increasing and it’d be hard to deal with a sniper for example (as one protester is rumored to have been shot by one) with traditional defenses. On one particularly battle-rich night, 400 people were injured.
*Q: Some are referring to these protests as a burgeoning revolution, what’s your take?*
*A:* I think it’s much too premature to label what amounts to a series of angry demonstrations, akin to the ones witnessed in 2011 against the sectarian regime, albeit grander. Granted, they are exceptional in that they are non-sectarian and independent of all political parties. However, they are mostly led by depoliticized civil society activists, are infused with revolting nationalist sentiments, and remain elitist in their discourse. Thankfully, the leadership of these protests has been strongly contested by many leftists and the working class, who have managed to impose new realities and different discourses.
The main organizers are to be credited for possibly opening a revolutionary space that allows for acts of political imagination and collective dreaming that could significantly alter the political system in Lebanon. However, it is but a pocket of resistance to the status quo right now.
To stress that they are against the entire political class, activists have been reiterating that “when we say all of them, we mean all of them,” without any exceptions. That’s an excellent first step, the second will be to agree that, ” when we say all of us, we mean all of us.” And by that I mean we must be more inclusive of the rights, demands and participation of migrant workers, refugees, the poor and the most disenfranchised.
Organizing in a non-hierarchical manner, reassessing our decision-making, opening up meetings to all (instead of a select few representatives) are but a few changes that need to happen immediately.
*Q: In a few key words only, what do these protesters want? *
A: A secular state, equality and social justice.
*Q: One last question. What are the similarities with protests in Iraq (anti-sectarian, basic rights, etc.)?*
A: The link to Iraq and its mode of governance is very direct as it went through a “Lebanonisation” in the aftermath of the American war and occupation. The establishment of sectarian power-sharing in Iraq has caused it some of the same chaos and sectarian divisions it has here. Their protests were triggered by the electricity crisis and later evolved into a mobilization against the corrupt political class and judiciary.
I’m not aware of any direct connections or networks established between folks here and our Iraqi comrades, but we’ve been expressing solidarity with their cause, as well as with the Syrians’ and Palestinians’, in our banners, chants and statements.