Of the various episodes of state repression I have witnessed in post-coup Honduras in 2009, one scene in particular stands out in my mind: a water cannon loaded with pepper spray chasing a small group of blatantly harmless anti-coup marchers, including elderly citizens.
Indeed, across the globe, peaceful protests are regularly met with excessive displays of violence by state security forces. This past weekend, Lebanon played host to just such a spectacle when riot police and soldiers were deployed en masse to deal with a crowd of several thousand people who had gathered in the country’s capital of Beirut to express their dissatisfaction with the present Lebanese landscape of willful government incompetence. As blogger and activist Joey Ayoub, one of the protest’s organizers, commented on Twitter: “There’s more security than if both Israel & [Syrian President Bashar] Assad invaded at the same time. Are we that scary?”
The name “You Stink” meanwhile refers not only to the negative olfactory effects of rotting garbage, but also to a rotten political system characterized by rampant corruption, nepotism, and institutionalized sectarianism.
The rallies were part of the “You Stink” campaign, named in honor of one of the government’s most recent transgressions: converting Beirut and the Mount Lebanon governorate into rotting garbage dumps by totally mismanaging a waste collection crisis which had in fact been long foretold.
The breaking point was the July closure of the Naameh landfill south of Beirut, which had since 1997 been a primary destination for refuse. Meant to operate for only six years, the landfill’s closure was repeatedly postponed until it reached 500 percent capacity and residents of the area physically blocked further deliveries. As other parts of the country understandably refused to replace Naameh in the role of garbage receptacle for the country’s more privileged capital, trash piled up on the streets, adding to the obstacles to daily existence in Lebanon and—given the summer’s high temperatures—posing an obvious health hazard.
Although the heaps were finally collected and dispersed across various locations, no permanent solution has been found. The name “You Stink” meanwhile refers not only to the negative olfactory effects of rotting garbage, but also to a rotten political system characterized by rampant corruption, nepotism, and institutionalized sectarianism. Political and administrative posts are allocated according to religious sect rather than capability, and the Lebanese are forcibly defined according to religion.
As I wrote in an article last month for Middle East Eye, titled “Lebanon’s rubbish state: A metaphor comes to life:”
“[T]he current deluge of trash … aptly symbolizes the essence of a country built on vast inequality - a true indicator of systemic filth. Just under the much-vaunted cosmopolitan image of Lebanon, and especially Beirut, lurks a fetid set-up in which sectarian elite bank on the politico-financial oppression of the general population in order to maintain their profitable stranglehold on power.”
Because the political class is dedicated to its own enrichment rather than to popular wellbeing, the government is hard-pressed to find time for things like providing necessary services—water, electricity, and so forth—or allowing the Lebanese any options for non-sectarian identity that might jeopardize the whole arrangement.
So when, this past weekend, protesters demonstrated cross-sectarian solidarity against the powers at be, the forces of law and order were unleashed in an attempt to rectify the situation with water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and whatever else happened to be lying around. Video footage shows members of the police and military behaving in unhinged fashion — and also, it seems, accidentally spraying themselves with the cannon, among other acts of bumbling viciousness that might be amusing were they not so vile. No attention was apparently paid to the presence of children and elderly people, and scores of protesters were injured, some of them critically.
And while some of the participants threw water bottles and other items and engaged in minor acts of vandalism, this doesn’t at all compare to the thuggery of the army and police — not to mention the policy of official looting that passes for governance in the country, or the inherent brutality of a system predicated on vast socioeconomic disparity and presided over by sectarian warlords who rule with impunity.
The protesters’ demands have included the resignation of Lebanon’s environment minister for the handling of the trash crisis, the resignation of the interior minister for the heavy-handed response to the protests, and the resignation of the whole government for corruption and ineptness. The post of Lebanese president would, of course, be exempt from the resignation process; the country has been without one since May 2014, thanks to the government’s failure to select a candidate.
Lebanon requires many more sweeping adjustments than simply a new crop of sectarian politicians, but disposing of the current crop would at least be a first step in taking out the garbage.