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How Beirut's 'YouStink' protests bloomed into political movement

The stench of putrid waste no longer lingers in Lebanon, but environmentalists and activists warn the crisis has not really gone away
A worker uses a front-loader to move piles of garbage from Jdeideh, a Beirut suburb, to the country's largest landfill of Naameh, just south of the Lebanese capital, on 20 March 2016 (AFP)

BEIRUT - It has been a year since images of Lebanon’s roads, rivers and Mediterranean coastline, piled high with mountains of rotting rubbish, were beamed around the world.

Thousands took to the streets in open revolt, and soon the biggest protests in a decade had morphed from frustration at the rubbish into a popular uprising against the political establishment’s failure to provide even the most basic services.

The YouStink movement – a tongue in cheek reference to the corruption and ineptitude of politicians – was born. 

Twelve months later, normality has ostensibly returned to the Lebanese capital. Rubbish is being collected and the stench of putrid waste no longer lingers in the summer air, but environmentalists and activists warn the crisis has not really gone away.

And the wider goals of the YouStink movement – to root out systemic corruption, sectarianism and political paralysis that allowed the garbage crisis to fester – seem as distant as ever.

Recycling old mistakes

From the corner of her seventh floor balcony, Marie, who did not want to giver her surname, can see trucks organising plastic-covered waste in a dusty, open-air dump.

Her east Beirut flat overlooks Bourj Hammoud landfill, one of two temporary spaces established by the government this spring to hold rubbish from the capital and surrounding province while they hacked out a longer-term solution.

“I hate living so close to the landfill,” she told Middle East Eye. “We don’t know what [materials] are going in there. Is it toxic waste? … I’m worried about pollution, and the smell and my children’s health."

According to environmental expert Christ Der Sarkissian, she is right to be concerned.

“The crisis is still here, it’s just hidden. The only difference now is that the trash isn’t in the streets, but no sustainable or tangible solution has been reached,” he told MEE from his office at the NGO ArcEnCiel, where he coordinates the sorting of waste on behalf of Beirut councils and facilitates recycling initiatives.

The Lebanese government’s current strategy is to construct two permanent landfills, one next to the temporary Bourj Hammoud dump and another next to the country’s only airport, in south Beirut’s Costa Brava area; proposals that have been met with fierce hostility by local residents like Marie.

Der Sarkissian is also sceptical of the government’s plans. He described land filling as the worst option for dealing with a country’s waste. Although he said some were necessary in Lebanon, ArcEnCiel estimates that some 80 percent of waste could be composted or recycled.

At the moment, that figure is closer to eight percent. The environment ministry did not respond to MEE’s questions about whether plans were afoot to increase recycling.

Der Sarkissian also warned that the government had not “learned from the mistakes” of last summer’s crisis.

The country’s waste management system collapsed in July 2015 when the only landfill serving the capital eventually shut its doors, 12 years after it was scheduled to close.

Despite repeated warnings that Naameh landfill was far beyond capacity, taking in 13 million tonnes more trash than it had been constructed to hold, politicians had not agreed on an alternative. Without another landfill ready and in the absence of a proper recycling system, rubbish quickly began to pile up across the city.

“We are going down the same path again," said Der Sarkissian. “If they don’t do much more recycling and compositing within 10-12 years, Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava will be full, exactly like Naameh.”

Political failure

One of the leaders of the YouStink movement, who requested anonymity, told MEE the new initiative was a "major scandal" and said the anger at the political class ignited by their campaign had not gone away.

“In Lebanon we live in a sectarian regime that has been able to elect warlords as members of the parliament and government for the last two decades. We have a state that is not running at all," he said.

"We have people who are corrupt, who are stealing our money. And everyone knew this, but nobody spoke about it.”

At the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990, a controversial amnesty kept most of the country’s military leaders out of jail, many of whom then went into professional politics.

Those same politicians are today accused of systematic corruption, nepotism and paralysis which is so widespread that they have been unable to agree on a president for two years, while parliament has renewed its term until 2017 without holding elections.

The collapse in rubbish collection last summer was seen as just the latest in a litany of basic public services – including 24-hour electricity and running water – that the political class was failing to provide.

“What we did last summer was show the people in power that there were thousands of people who were fed up with what they were doing. In that sense, I think we established a street movement that served its goal,” the activist leader said.

“The general consciousness created since last year is enormous.”

Whatever the problems with the new plan are, he is not alone in seeing some positive consequences from the 2015 demonstrations.

During local elections in May 2016, a new coalition called Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City) stood on a non-sectarian platform, campaigning on practical issues like garbage and water. They won 40 percent of the vote, a significant victory considering they were pitted against a coalition of every major political party in the country.

It is a success that Carmen Geha, a professor of public administration at the American University of Beirut, said was testimony to the “language and knowledge” of the YouStink movement and demonstrates citizens’ growing confidence in articulating anti-sectarian, anti-establishment sentiments.

Hijacking the protest movement

Yet Geha also argued that one of the greatest challenges to YouStink and subsequent movements were attempts by the political establishment to co-opt the cause, dragging both the language and practical concerns of the movement into the political mainstream.

“Politicians have a vested interest in keeping the dependency on a system that keeps them in power… [making it] inevitable that protest movements get threatened and then co-opted,” she told Middle East Eye. During the height of last summer’s protests, the energy minister somewhat took the wind out of the activists’ sails by himself arguing that the country’s electrical situation was untenable.  

Nowhere does this concern ring truer today than at the Bourj Hammoud landfill, where those spearheading the fight against the government’s project are not grassroots activists, but the Kataeb, one of the most powerful Christian political parties in Lebanon. Two weeks ago, members of the party began a sit-in at the entrance to the permanent landfill, railing against the environmental risks of the scheme and preventing work on the site from going ahead.

The actions of the Kataeb have drawn praise from some environmentalists, but others say the decision to launch a sit-in in Bourj Hammoud, but not at the second landfill in Costa Brava - a predominately Shia Muslim area - smacks of the very sectarian behaviour the YouStink movement stood against in the first place.

“They couldn’t care less about Costa Brava. If their approach was caring about health and the environment, it should be at a national level, not a district level,” the YouStink activist leader said of Kataeb.

During a tour of the landfill, Marwan Abdallah, a coordinator for the foreign relations office for the Kataeb party, shrugged off allegations of sectarianism, telling visiting journalists: “This is not a Christian problem, or a Druze problem or a Muslim problem. It’s a national problem. Our political discourse is not sectarian.”

And back on her balcony overlooking the Bourj Hammoud landfill, Marie said she was just happy to have somebody fighting in her corner, sectarian or not.

“Right now the most important thing is dealing with this trash... Who does it is not that important, as long as someone does.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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