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Saturday, August 29

Beirut: You Stink campaign, Round 2. "If we stay home they will rule for another 25 years"

"It is seen as the biggest protest movement in Lebanon's history organized independently of the sectarian parties that dominate politics."

The YouStinkers lost Round 1 but they came roaring back for the second round.

   Thousands rally today in anti-government protest in Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut

 Photo: REUTERS/JAMAL SAIDI

Thousands rally in Beirut against political leaders, rot
BY SYLVIA WESTALL in Beirut
Sat Aug 29, 2015 1:37pm EDT
Reuters

Thousands of protesters waving Lebanese flags and chanting "revolution" took to the streets of Beirut on Saturday for an unprecedented mobilization against sectarian politicians they say are incompetent and corrupt.

The "You Stink" protest campaign, ignited by a waste crisis, has widened to reflect anger at widely-perceived graft in the political class and the state's failure to provide basic services.

It is seen as the biggest protest movement in Lebanon's history organized independently of the sectarian parties that dominate politics.

"We need a revolution to free ourselves from these politicians," said Hani Abu Hamdan, a 23-year-old unemployed civil engineer.

"We want power, we want water, we don't want rubbish in the streets. We want these politicians to get lost."

Protesters mobilized after the government failed to agree on trash disposal, leaving piles of refuse stinking in the summer sun. Protesters say the crisis reflects the rot inside Lebanon's political system.

Similar protests descended into violence last weekend and Prime Minister Tammam Salam threatened to resign, a move that could tip the state struggling with political deadlock and spillover from Syria into deeper turmoil.

Protesters, including families and people of all ages marched, played music and sang as they protested in areas around Martyrs' Square, the scene mass demonstrations in 2005 after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

By nightfall the area took on the atmosphere of a huge street party as soldiers watched the crowds from newly-erected barricades.

"People want the downfall of the regime" chanted groups of marching protesters, employing the slogan of mass movements that shook the Arab world in 2011.

Campaigners are calling for the environment minister to resign, for snap parliamentary elections and a resolution to the garbage crisis. They want better public services in a country with daily electricity cuts and summer water shortages.

They are also frustrated with the parliament that has extended its own term until 2017. Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year and the last parliamentary polls took place in 2009.

"YOU FAILED"

One protester held aloft a sign showing pictures of leaders of six of the main Lebanese factions reading: "We will not elect you again, and all of you means all of you."

Another sign read: "You failed in running the country, you failed in running worship, you succeeded at theft and corruption."

The garbage crisis has exposed wider political deadlock in Lebanon, where sectarian and power rivalries have been intensified by the Syrian conflict next door, more than two decades after Lebanon's own civil war.

Salah Noureddine, a Lebanese national who traveled from Britain to take part in the protest, said it was time to remove "the corrupted system we inherited after the civil war".

"If we stay at home, they will rule for another 25 years or more," he said.

Amnesty International said on Saturday Lebanon should investigate allegations that security personnel used excessive force to disperse protesters in Beirut last week, calling for restraint ahead of the new rally.

Organizers blamed last weekend's violence on "infiltrators" linked to political movements. Security forces last week fired water cannon and tear gas at demonstrators, some of whom threw stones and sticks at riot police.

Amnesty, quoting figures from the Red Cross, said at least 343 people were treated for injuries and 59 more were hospitalized last week.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Ali Abdallah and Ahmed Bayasli; Editing by Andrew Roche and Raissa Kasolowsky)


[END REPORT]

Now is all this citizen foment leading anywhere?  Well, yesterday Lebanon's Daily Star reported that the country's PM had asked his Turkish counterpart for help in resolving the garbage crisis. So Turkey is sending some of their technocrats to Beirut to ponder the situation and make recommendations.     

Now for a recap of Round 1, which I wrote on August 27:

Residents cover their noses as they walk past garbage piled up along a street in Beirut, Lebanon
August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

A reporter for the Daily Beast wrote a few days ago that the garbage had been cleaned up in Beirut. Maybe briefly and in some parts of the city but anyhow it's baaaaaaack.

So I don't know what happened to the new contract the government signed with a company to clean up the garbage although the problem would remain the same no matter which company was hired:  where to put the garbage once it's collected.  I just know this is a great photoshopped picture:


Translation courtesy of the Beeb:  "The tweet reads 'This is what planes will look like at the Rubbish International Airport #YouStink'"

The rest, I'm afraid, is terribly unclear to me and I'm not sure it's terribly clear to the Lebanese, either. This on account of they don't want to deal with the fact that they have a fundamental problem if they want a functioning government. So even without the control that Iran's military exerts over the government, they can't get there from here.  

The BBC spelled it out in an August 19 analysis by Carine Torbey, filing for BBC Arabic from Beirut (Lebanon wracked by political dysfunction):
[...]
Lebanon's political system
  • Political office in Lebanon is divided by a power-sharing agreement to ensure that the three major religious blocks - Shia, Sunni and Christian - are represented
  • The National Pact of 1943 established this division, declaring that the president must be Christian, the prime minister Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim
  • The president is chosen by a two-thirds majority of parliament, or 85 of the legislature's 128 members
  • Several attempts in parliament have failed to agree on a consensus president, some of them because of a boycott by MPs
[...]
It's even more convoluted than she explains in her crash course.  From a Wall Street Journal report filed late this afternoon from Beirut by Matt Bradley and Dana Ballout (Anger Over Garbage in Lebanon Blossoms into Demands for Reform):
[...]
Even on the best of days, Lebanon’s government, made up of seven main political parties grouped in two opposing blocs, barely operates.
The country hasn’t had a president for more than a year. Legislative elections haven’t been held since 2009. Parliament is rarely able to achieve a quorum to conduct business, yet has renewed its mandate until 2017 on what many Lebanese say are dubious legal grounds.
The current government paralysis is partly the result of a political system constructed by quota.
Each cabinet position and parliamentary seat is distributed among Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religions and sects, including Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians and followers of the ancient Druse faith.
“You have 18 different dictators, represented by the sectarian community,” Ms. Nassar said. “It’s by nature dysfunctional.”
[...]
As Torbey goes on to explain, the above means a vicious cycle is always in effect -- one that WSJ report makes very clear the Lebanese have been willing to live with up to this point because they've seen the only alternative to be civil war. It's just that the garbage crisis has made it impossible for Beiruters to improvise their way through the worst, as they've done with the city's water and electricity shortages.

Thus, a grassroots protest, a genuine grassroots protest by all accounts, which cuts across all the religious and political divides and is united under the banner of the "You Stink" campaign.  

The problem is that just because this is a non-sectarian protest led by the city's 'liberals' in the Western sense; i.e., people more concerned with good government than divvying up a political - religious pie, its influence is feared by the hyperpartisans -- and thus, feared by the elites and probably also by the external players (e.g., Iran) who've found the country's perennial political deadlocks to be useful.

The upshot:  YouStink's massive peaceful street protest last weekend was co-opted by violent renta-mobs, hired by whom -- the finger pointing is still going on.  And I wouldn't automatically assume the guilty party was Hezbollah. But there's no doubt about the government's response to the violence:

  
Workers unload concrete barriers to increase security, a day after protests against the government turned into violent clashes with police, near the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon August 24, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR




Spray-can artistes fought back by decorating the blast walls installed at Riad al-Solh Square to contain protesters. (Photo: The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban). 

But it was a defeat, or at least a setback for the grassroots campaign.  They called off another planned large-scale protest, although a few hundred congregated on Monday to commemorate those wounded in the weekend protests:
Hundreds return to Downtown Beirut after weekend violenceThe Daily Star (Lebanon)
August 24, 2015 - 9:13 PM
BEIRUT: Several hundred people gathered in downtown Beirut Monday in honor of those wounded during weekend clashes with security forces and to demand authorities be held accountable for police violence.
But the gathering was not a protest officially called on by the You Stink group, which organized Saturday and Sunday's evening rallies at Riad al-Solh Square.
Rather, the citizens who gathered in the square Monday appeared to have gone on their own initiatives, and it was unclear if the rioters who stirred violence at Sunday's rally would attempt to return.
You Stink wrote on its Facebook page that its supporters would gather at Riad al-Solh at 7:30 for a candlelight vigil, but the gathering did not resemble the massive protests that descended into violence over the weekend in which they demanded the government's resignation.
"We do not want to topple the government, nor are we calling for parliamentary elections. We just want electricity, water and to live in a clean environment," one man told Al-Manar TV from the protest square, in a dramatic shift of demands heard the previous two nights.
Another man had his head wrapped in a bandage, telling reporters that he was wounded during Sunday's protest. He said his injury did not deter him from returning.
"As much as they try to scare us, they [will fail]," said another man.
A couple hundred people from a group that called itself "Demanding Accountability" marched from the Justice Palace to Riad al-Solh.
A woman from the group told MTV that their march was organized to hold accountable those who were involved in the attacks that took place over the weekend.
The activists said they would march silently and light candles to support the wounded protesters. The movement also demanded the release of all detained demonstrators.
They also urged citizens to attend a separate protest Tuesday at Riad al-Solh Square at 6 p.m.
Riot police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters at Riad al-Solh Saturday. Protesters, angered by the police response, turned out in force again Sunday, in a largely peaceful protest that moved itself to Martyr's Square after some elements within the crowd began provoking police.
A smaller group, denounced by You Stink, remained in Riad al-Solh Sunday evening, hurling stones at security forces, setting fire and damaging property.
[END REPORT]
What now?  Unclear. The government has won round one, whether or not it was the culprit in the mustering of renta-mobs.  Round two is supposed to unfold this weekend in a large protest, although how the organizers plan to keep away the renta-mobs, I don't know. 

A guess would be that they get help from Hezbollah, which while very busy these days fighting in Syria for their Iranian paymasters is good at organizing and overseeing street protests, and from Daily Star report is supporting the YouStink campaigners, although whether this was the case earlier I don't know. 

I also want to mention a passage from the Wall Street Journal report that caused me to raise an eyebrow:
The latest crisis began in July after residents near a large landfill south of Beirut, worried about possible environmental hazards, blocked garbage trucks from unloading trash. Unable to locate an alternate dump site, authorities allowed trash to accumulate on Beirut’s streets.
That is not my understanding of what happened; I thought the landfill had been filled up, and that this was the reason the collectors tossed the garbage into the streets.  But I'll have to look into the situation further when I scrape together the time.  

I should also mention that the consensus from people the WSJ reporters interviewed is that at most the YouStink campaign it will bring about some reforms but not enough to repair the system: 
But even as Lebanese complain about their sectarian system, the country’s political establishment hews to it, said Firas Maksad, a Lebanese political analyst and founder of the Washington-based consultancy Global Policy Associates.
Even widely popular secular movements such as the “You Stink” campaign are unlikely to persuade voters to support candidates outside their own sect, Mr. Maksad said.
“I actually think that Lebanon’s archaic sectarian system is deep in patronage and corrupt, but it’s also an accurate reflection of Lebanese society,” he said. “I think the Lebanese with the garbage crisis are being forced to face their own rotten reality.”

Veteran activist Gilbert Doumit said he still plans to attend “You Stink” protests, though he said he is heartbroken by decades of failed overhaul efforts.

“I don’t have high hopes anymore for such movements,” he said. “I literally failed in every movement that I’ve been involved in. One of the symptoms of the political environment we’re living in now is my failure, and the failure of the people of my generation.”
We'll just have to wait and see how Round 2 goes.  But this August 27 report from Reuters, also filed late in the afternoon, doesn't bode well for real change. 

Lebanon's Hezbollah, Christian allies boycott government meeting

The Lebanese group Hezbollah and allied Christian politicians will boycott a cabinet meeting on Thursday, deepening a political crisis that has paralyzed Prime Minister Tammam Salam's national unity government.

Media run by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of Christian politician Michel Aoun, the Shi'ite group's main Christian ally, reported that Salam had been informed of the decision, but did not immediately give a reason for it.

Ministers from Hezbollah and Aoun's FPM walked out of a cabinet session on Tuesday. They are in dispute with other members of the government over issues including decrees passed without their approval.

The political conflict has obstructed efforts to find a solution to a crisis over waste disposal that has fueled public anger and triggered anti-government protests that brought thousands of people into the streets at the weekend.

The Salam government, formed last year, groups parties at opposite ends of the Lebanese political spectrum, including the Future Movement led by Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri, and Christian rivals to Aoun.

With the presidency vacant for more than a year, the Salam government has spared Lebanon a vacuum in the executive arm. But it has struggled to take even the most basic decisions.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Chopra and Dominic Evans)


[END REPORT]

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