The Lebanese protest movement suffers growing pains


While the protest movement and its demands are all seemingly righteous, being right doesn’t always lend itself to winning the battle

Makram Rabah's picture
Monday 7 September 2015 12:33 UTC

Following the assassination of former PM Rafik Hariri in 2005, politicians and activists were debating how to brand the opposition movement to demand the immediate withdrawal of the Syrian regime from Lebanon, which was accused of killing Hariri. Many people at the time were eager to pronounce it a revolution, something which the Western media jumped on and coined as “the Cedar Revolution”.

However, Samir Kassir, a prominent columnist and intellectual, later to be assassinated, warned that it was perhaps more appropriate  to describe it as an uprising rather than a revolution. Kassir’s reasoning was plain and simple: the Lebanese had neither the stamina nor the vison to wage a revolution. What was needed was a swift political protest movement with a limited agenda, capable of achieving short-term gains.

One month since the start of the garbage crisis and the continuous failure of the government to address this challenge, the protest movement (under its different groups and factions) has shown Kassir’s fears to be well-founded.

#Youstink, the main protest group, started to gain momentum as disgruntled citizens took to the streets to demand an immediate solution to the garbage epidemic. The direct success of this protest came when the government was forced to reject the new tenders for waste management because of their absurdly outlandish costs.

The protesters followed up this victory by issuing a nationwide call for protest on 29 August in downtown Beirut, to continue their ever-growing list of demands. On that Saturday, Martyr square - the site of the 2005 Cedar Revolution demonstrations - witnessed a somewhat impressive crowd of people with no real sectarian or partisan affiliation.

At the end of this demonstration, the protesters gave the government a 72-hour ultimatum which included the following demands. A solution of the garbage problem, electing a new parliament, electing a president, resignation of the minister of environment, and holding the minister of interior accountable for the security forces’ excessive use of force against the demonstrators. However, the overarching spirit of the protesters remained the resignation of the government and ultimately the downfall of what they believe is an incorrigible regime.

Naturally, three days into the ultimatum, the protesters escalated the situation by storming the Ministry of Environment, and embarrassing its minister who remained detained in his office for the duration of the standoff. This episode lasted for hours before the police forcefully removed the occupiers, who announced that this form of peaceful resistance was one of the many measures they will employ.  

While these protesters seemed ostensibly united under the banner of fighting corruption and instigating change, the reality is somewhat different. Slowly but surely, the protest movement, like most social movements, witnessed the rise of new groups and factions with different ideological packages as well as varying visions of how to achieve their desired goal.

On the other hand, the majority of the ruling elite have refrained from responding to the attacks of the dissidents and taken on a more appeasing approach by declaring the legitimacy of the demands, going as far as self-flaggellating the corrupt class which they belong to.

The real counter-attack by the establishment, however, came one day after the 29 August rally, through the current speaker of the house Nabih Berri. Berri used the annual commemoration of the disappearance of the founder of the Amal Movement, Sayed Musa al-Sader, which Berri currently heads, as an occasion to pacify the raging street. Speaking to an estimated crowd of 70,000 supporters, Berri sent a clear message that street politics and mass mobilisation was and will always remain a tool readily accessible to the ruling class

Berri simply resorted to the oldest trick in the Lebanese political playbook, issuing call for dialogue.   However, the proposal to rehash the old round table of dialogue which met in May 2014 shortly before the office of the president fell vacant, would tackle seven main items exclusively. These crucial items in their order of importance according to Berri are: electing a new president, the work of the parliament and the Cabinet, a new electoral law, administrative decentralisation, reclaiming Lebanese nationality for the diaspora and equipping and supporting the Army.

Practically, what was expected from the different heads of the parliamentary blocs and sectarian leaders was to sit down and agree on issues they have been bickering over for the past 10 years. This is wishful thinking on the part of Berri at best. This move on the part of Berri, however, is a clear indication that regardless of what the protesters assume that their revolution might nick the walls of the corrupts, the reality is otherwise. 

The ruling junta as it stands is banking on a number of factors, basically for the revolution to eat itself up from the inside, but more importantly for the rebels to keep asking for the impossible and thus lose touch with the masses.

The protesters responded to Berri’s call for dialogue, calling it unconstitutional and a mere ploy to unify the corrupt ruling class against the demands of the rightful protesters. Further, they called for a demonstration on 9 September around the Lebanese Parliament, the same day the round table of dialogue is scheduled to convene, to oppose these illegitimate shenanigans.

Paradoxically however, #YouStink and their fellow travellers have been endorsing a government option to resolve the garbage epidemic which allows returning waste management to the municipal level and transferring billions of Lebanese pounds to municipal accounts.

While empowering the municipalities is theoretically a step in the right direction, this move will only give power to mediocre provincial groups who are basically a byproduct of the ruling elite.

Furthermore, the real problem with the previous company which handled the waste management was not its efficiency in collecting the garbage, but rather a lack of government vision, which favoured dumping waste over more environmentally friendly options.

While this remains a tactical move and can be debated and fixed, strategically the protesters need to realistically acknowledge the limitation of the game they are playing. Instead of barraging their supporters with a list of rightful demands they should channel the silent majority’s support to force the election of a president. Demanding that parliamentary election precede the presidency is somewhat of a theatrical farce which should not be suppported neither by the protesters nor by some political groups.

The 1972 Lebanese parliament, whose remaining members were to elect the post-Taef president, is somewhat similar to the current house, whose primary responsibility is to only elect a president. If the protester truly want Prime Minister Tamam Salam to resign, they should channel their efforts and the popular support they are claiming to possess to demand an end to the presidential vacuum and shedding all the other demands for now.

Vacuum has proven to bring more chaos to an already rotting Lebanese political system. And while the protest movement and its demands are all seemingly righteous, being right doesn’t always lend itself to winning the confrontation. Part of the growing pains of any reform movement is to know when to cash out and when to go all the way - this is where the real challenge is to be found.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975” and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon. 

Photo: A Lebanese protester flashes victory sign during a protest against the ongoing garbage crisis and alleged government corruption outside the government building in Riad al-Solh Square on August 29, 2015 in Beirut, Lebanon. (AA)