On Saturday August 22nd 2015 the Lebanese people took to the streets of downtown beirut to express their frustration with the Lebanese government’s handling of the garbage crisis. The streets of beirut have been drowning in garbage after political leaders failed to reach an agreement on a solution for the problem. The protesters were peaceful, comprising of families with children and elderly and, for a once in a rare time, people from all levels of society and all confessions, united to denounce the incompetence of the Lebanese state to deal with the situation. Security forces and military forces stood in the way of the protesters eventually assaulting them with high pressure water cannons, teargas grenades, and rubber coated bullets. Instead of dissuading the protesters, the assaults only strengthened their resolve as they fought back and occupied Martyr’s square, in downtown Beirut, until the protests resumed the following day. By the morning of monday August 24th 2015 the official number of injured protesters stood at 402.
The following is a scene from the protests at night in Beirut
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A History of Conflict and False Division
Lebanon is country that is divided along sectarian lines. This has been a fact since Lebanon’s independence in 1943 from the French mandate. According to the lebanese constitution the president has to be a maronite christian, the prime minister a sunni muslim, and the speaker of parliament a shia muslim. Such was the consequence of the french mandate and so it remained until now. 4.5 milion is the estimated population of lebanon… though that may not be an accurate representation since there has been no official census since 1932; you see, a new census would upset the delicate balance of power that is shared between 18 different confessions in a country that is 10,452 sq KM, the size of Cape Breton. In 1975 a “civil” war broke out between the various factions of Lebanon. History remembers this “civil” war as a war between different confessions… a war about religions… But the reality is that the war started because of bickering between the ruling elite families who were looking for a way to carve out a bigger share of the pie of national profits from public institutions, utilities, and expansion of business turfs. The heads of the ruling elite families capitalised on religious identity in order to further their own agendas. The war lasted 15 years, officially ending in 1990. Since then, Lebanon has continued to be governed by the same families that started the “civil” war… The same warlords, kingpins and their henchmen continued to rule Lebanon long after the war ended in 1990.
Lebanon also endured an occupation by the Israeli army that officially lasted until the year 2000, and occupation by the Syrian army that ended in 2005 after the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri, a member of the ruling elite himself. That year in the spring of 2005 the Lebanese took to the streets in martyr square in what is now known as the Cedar revolution.. And, at least officially, Lebanon was free from occupation for the first time in decades. But the political divisions and rivalries between the ruling elite did not end. Nore did the impunity of the henchmen, subordinates, and family members of the ruling elite ever end.
10 years later, the year is 2015, and not much has changed. One may say that matters have become worse rather than remain the same. For over a year Lebanon has been without a president because the previous president’s term ended and the political leaders of lebanon could not agree on a “consensus” president. You see, the president of Lebanon is not directly elected by the people, but rather appointed by consensus between the different alliances of political parties. Since 24 May 2014 the president’s seat has been vacant. For the same reasons, when the term of members of parliament ended, they, the members of parliament, saw fit to extend their own mandate until 2017 completely skipping an election and disregarding the democratic right of the Lebanese people to choose their own representatives.
Understandably, the Lebanese people have been living under sever stress and anxiety in these times of uncertainty. Like a pressure cooker that just blew its lid, the people of lebanon finally reached a point where they could take it no more when the government failed to find a suitable location to dump the garbage collected from households and garbage started to pile up in the streets.
As a measure to “safeguard” people from diseases, the piles of garbage are burned on the streets in the middle of a very hot and humid summer.
The problems do not end there however; after the government spent more than $20 billion to improve the power grid, Lebanese households still only receive 12 hours of rationed electricity per day, and this is just an average, there are parts of the city of Beirut and its suburbs that get less than that. With Lebanon ranking 136 on the corruption perception index one has to wonder how the $20 billion were spent to “improve” the electrical grid if electricity is still rationed.
To top it all off, the current political dissonance of Lebanon coupled with the neighbouring Syrian crisis has created an environment of impunity for the political elite and their henchmen. Armed bodyguards and thugs belonging to the various political factions and leaders roam around with total impunity, bullying anyone in their way and murdering innocent citizens for the simplest of reasons as was demonstrated by the caught-on-video murder of Georges Al Reef, in front of the eyes of his wife, in a road rage incident perpetrated by the bodyguard of a “prominent” banker.
Security forces shoot at protesters
On August 22nd 2015, Lebanese citizens of all walks of life and levels of society took to the streets to protest against the growing garbage crisis. The protest was spearheaded by a online citizens campaign under the hastag of #youstink.
99%Media journalist, Issam Kassem Ibrahim, confirmed that protest area, downtown beirut near Nijmeh Square where the Lebanese parliament is located, was full of Internal Security Forces (ISF) and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – Lebanese police and Lebanese Army respectively. Ibrahim also confirmed that there were 10,000 peaceful protesters among whom there were families with children.
According to Lebanese blog A State of Mind, sometime after the protest started, the bloger overheard security forces say that they had a “carte blanche”.
Carte Blanche & Signal Jamming:
The crowds walked back from Riad el Solh square towards Martyrs’ Square. Naturally, every single opening that could lead to Nejmeh Square was closed off by armed personnel. The Lebanese Army was working hand in hand with the Internal Security Force (ISF) on closing off all the roads. As we passed them while walking back to Martyrs’ Square, we overheard a few saying they had a “carte blanche” for today. I didn’t give it much attention.
It was around that time that I first noticed my phone’s signal was getting jammed. My data connection kept dropping, and I failed to get my phone to connect to the 3G network even with restarts. I asked around, and I wasn’t the only one having that issue. There was a clear attempt to radio-silence the protest, but I didn’t give much attention to that either.
At 7:15 pm the security forces started firing high pressure water cannons, tear gas grenades, and rubber coated bullets at the protesters.
This is what happened to protester Elias Hamouche as he was protecting a girl from being assaulted by soldiers.
Lebanese blog A State of Mind writes:
I passed by a woman who had fainted on the side of the street. There was a little girl running away as well; she couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old.
Even journalists were attacked.
In an interesting moment, protester Karim Mostafa reports that a soldier who stopped being aggressive and just sat down and « completely lost it » as he started crying. Protesters came to comfort him.
Here is a video of that same soldier.
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A protester’s sign with the caricature figures of lebanese politicians in garbage bags reads “some trash should not be recycled”
99%Media journalist Issam Kassem Ibrahim, reports that protesters were angered and many of them decided to occupy Martyrs square, adjacent to Nijmeh square, overnight.
The Protests Continue
The following day, August 23rd 2015, Ibrahim reports that politicians started coming out on TV condemning violence against the protesters in the hopes of quelling their anger, except that this time around the people of Lebanon had reached the tipping point and no longer cared what the politicians had to say. The social media backlash against the political leaders was uncharacteristically harsh and, even more uncharacteristically, very unsectarian. Ibrahim reports that the people have had enough and are “not going to take the ‘hypocritical’ word of any of the politicians any more. The Lebanese people are rising up and demanding change. The protesters want all the political elite to step down and allow for non partisan people who represent the interest of the people rather than the interests of the ruling families to step up and take Lebanon into a new direction away from the incompetence of the current system. The Lebanese have had enough and they are not going to take it any more”
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Instead of being deterred, the protesters are continuing to protest. The garbage crisis may have been the trigger but the people are venting all their frustration. At times, to an outside observer, it would seem that the protesters are only voicing their discontent with regards to the garbage crisis, but the discontent and frustration of the people is by far much deeper rooted. Inspite of the fact that Lebanon is politically divided along sectarian – and intra sectarian lines – a civilian moment is growing. This civilian movement is agnostic and includes Lebanese citizens from all confessions and and social backgrounds. Their grievances are many but they all agree on one message; enough is enough, it is time to get rid of those who destroyed Lebanon and bring in people who are do not belong to any of the corrupt political parties. The Lebanese people need politicians who represent the interests of the people and not the interest of the ruling elite.
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In spite of the fact that politicians have come out condemning the violence against the protesters the violence has not subsided with 402 reported injuries so far, The protesters are not convinced by the politicians and will continue to protest even though many fear that the situation will escalate further. The general feeling among the protesters is that they have had enough and that the ruling elite have lied to them long enough for their words to mean rubbish. The trend so far has been that the protests start very peacefully at 6pm local time but by 8pm, when the sun long has set, things begin to turn violent. Angry protesters are apparently bringing their garbage bags with them and tossing them at the barricades in the direction of parliament in an expression of their frustration and anger to say #YOUSTINK