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'You Stink' demonstrators occupy Lebanon's environment ministry

'We don't want the parliament of trash, or the parliament of extension,' chanted Lebanese activists frustrated with the government
A Lebanese activist holds a national flag during a surprise sit-in at Lebanon's environment ministry in Beirut to demand the minister's resignation on 1 September 2015 (AFP)

BEIRUT - A group of activists occupied Lebanon’s environment ministry on Tuesday in Beirut, calling for the resignation of the country’s environment minister, Mohamed Mashnuq, in the latest development in a popular protest movement targeting Lebanon’s political establishment.

At around 1pm, activists gained access to the ministry, located on the eighth floor of a building that is within walking distance of Beirut’s Martyr’s Square - where popular demonstrations against the Lebanese government’s failure to resolve a rubbish crisis have taken place in recent weeks. The sit-in came after campaigners presented the government with a 72-hour deadline to meet a list of demands presented in a manifesto last Friday.

The demands of the "You Stink" campaign, which has been advocating for a solution to a rubbish crisis that has seen trash pile up on streets in Beirut and dumped beside highways throughout the country, include Mashnuq’s resignation and that parliamentary elections be held immediately.

On Monday, Mashnuq announced his intention to stay in office despite stepping down as the head of a ministerial committee tasked with finding a solution to the rubbish crisis, stating that “most political parties” in Lebanon were “running away from their responsibilities”.

Emergency cabinet meetings held last week saw ministers from the respective US-Saudi backed 14 March movement led by the Sunni Future Movement, and the pro-Iranian, Syrian-backed 8 March movement lead by Hezbollah, fail to agree upon new contracts to be signed with prospective waste companies amid claims of political wrangling.

The "You Stink" movement has gathered support as a secular movement, not affiliated with any of Lebanon’s confessional political parties, drawing supporters from diverse socio-economic backgrounds across Lebanon.

In mid-July, the closure of the Naameh landfill - Lebanon’s largest - sparked a nationwide waste disposal crisis. But after security forces reacted violently to demonstrations in Beirut’s Martyr’s Square on 22 August, the protests gathered numbers and momentum, and have morphed into a wide-sweeping critique of perceived political cronyism and the failure of the Lebanese state to provide basic public services to the population.

Unsure how to react, Lebanon’s political establishment has increasingly appeared to be in a state of crisis, as evidenced by threats from the country’s prime minister Tammam Salam to step down from office. On Monday, Nabih Berri, the country’s parliament speaker - who has been ridiculed by some protestors for the longevity of his stay in office - set 9 September as the date for a national dialogue session aimed at bringing together Salam and the heads of the 14 March and 8 March blocs.

Police forcibly remove protestors

At around 9:30pm on Tuesday night, riot police entered the building that houses the environment ministry removing protestors and evacuating Mashnuq. Outside, hundreds called for Mashnuq’s resignation, uniting in chants that compared the Lebanese government to the fetid piles of rubbish that now line many of the capital’s streets.

A number of protestors left the building supported by friends or members of the Lebanese Red Cross, including Lucien Bourjeili, a playwright and one of the founders of the "You Stink" movement. Images later emerged on social media showing Bourjeili with bruises under his left eye, left shoulder blade and lower back, while protestors outside the building scuffled with security forces.

Imad Bazzi, one of the organisers of the "You Stink" campaign, said police had shoved a dozen activists from the building shortly after the rest had been driven out in a raid that left several people injured.

"You Stink" said on Facebook that activist "Lucien Bourjeily and a group of people participating in the sit-in were beaten and cannot be reached".

A Red Cross official said 14 people were treated at the scene for light wounds sustained in confrontations with police.

A 15th person was treated for respiratory problems, and one activist was taken to hospital for treatment, the official added.

Human Rights Watch has criticised Lebanese security forces for using excessive force in attempts to quell recent "You Stink" demonstrations. The "You Stink" campaigners have demanded the country’s interior minister is held accountable for the violent actions of security forces on Saturday 22 August.

Leaning on a dusty Nissan in a parking lot opposite the environment ministry Zachariah Kfoury, 34, a foreman from Tripoli based in the Bourj Hamoud district of the Lebanese capital, expressed his support for calls for Mashnuq to leave office.

“If a state cannot provide basic public services then it should be held accountable. Therefore Mashnuq must go,” said Kfoury, shaking his head.

“He quit the (ministerial) committee trying to find a solution (to the waste crisis), but he is staying in office. So what is he doing, taking his pay cheque but doing nothing?”

Executive power making in Lebanon has been paralysed for over a year due to the failure of the Lebanese parliament to agree upon a successor to former president Michel Suleiman, who stepped down in May 2014. But the Lebanese parliament has also extended its own mandate twice without a national vote, further eroding public confidence in the state.

In addition to Lebanon’s current waste crisis, over the last year power-cuts have increased and water supplies dwindled, tenders that require parliamentary approval to kick-start the country’s offshore oil and gas industry have gone unsigned, teachers have gone on strike in protest to the government’s failure to enact a salary increase that the country’s parliament had previously promised them, and the country has been rocked by a food scandal that has exposed a widespread culture of supermarkets and restaurants selling rotten produce.

“People don’t trust the politicians in this country,” said Ali Ghaddar, 28, a shopkeeper.

“Claiming that the rubbish problem is because of events in Syria, or that serving rotten meat is because of Syria is just not true.”

In 2013 the Lebanese cabinet justified the second extension of its own mandate until 2017 citing potential problems conducting nationwide polls at a time when the country was experiencing heightened security threats as a result of the proximity of Syria’s civil war.

Political stasis has been attributed to the effect of Syria’s civil war accentuating internal political divisions and compromising decision-making.

But Lebanon’s waste management system has been a ticking timebomb from long before Syria’s civil war in 2011. The Naameh landfill was opened as a temporary facility in 1998 and was meant to close in 2004.

Many protestors outside the environment ministry held banners carrying sentiments expressing a lack of faith in the transparency of their country’s power brokers.

Lebanon ranks 137 of 175 countries in Transparency International's most recent global corruption survey, while the Lebanese government has failed to file a budget since 2005.

Sukleen, the company contracted to collect rubbish in Beirut, charges around $135 per tonne of rubbish collected, a huge figure by global standards, leading to suspicions that politicians have been lining their pockets at the expense of the public.

Despite expressing support for the "You Stink" campaign, Looma Choueiri, a 31-year-old logistics officer, said she was pessimistic that Mashnuq would willingly leave office, or that the campaign’s demand for elections would be respected.

“These politicians were the same politicians who were here in our parents generation, during the civil war,” said Choueiry, standing amongst a crowd opposite a line of riot police.

“They have shown they are stubborn and how much they love their (political) seats. The protests must get bigger but in Lebanon there is always the fear of violence. They have used violence before.”

Standing a few metres back from Choueiry, John Imad Nasr, a 34 year-old musician, struck a note of optimism.

“I don’t think there has been anything like this before in Lebanon. We are witnessing this direct, spontaneous coalition building separate from the established political parties,” said Imad Nasr, as chants of "Revolution" rang out from the assembled crowd.

“When you come to these demonstrations you feel you are a part of a new social movement fostering new definitions of citizenship away from the current, sectarian system. I think the the political establishment feels a bit on the ropes at the moment.”

MEE staff and agencies contributed to this report.