“We want to change everything” announced one of the few demonstrators still camping by the road. Squabbling beside them, the soldiers made the protest seem like it had twice the numbers. “We want to change the whole system”. I didn’t doubt her sincerity, just the scale of the task she and others like her had set themselves.
The protesters had been camping by the road for some days now, hoping that the authorities would release their comrades from prison. The demonstration the week before had turned violent and as a result, 33 of them had been arrested – 5 still remained in custody. Both the security services and the protestors blamed each other for the clashes; there were accusations of brutality and vandalism from both sides.
Lebanon has been experiencing a series of protests since the ‘trash crisis’ in July that left Beirut’s streets overflowing with rotting trash. The trash has since been moved from most neighbourhoods but it has not disappeared altogether. People are worried that the remaining piles of trash will become disease-ridden if the crisis is not solved soon, and the rains that arrive in the autumn are likely to make matters worse.
But these protests weren’t just about the trash, as one activist told me: “the rubbish crisis is only the surface. There are so many problems in Lebanon, but the main problem is corruption”.
This frustration is felt throughout the country. Daily power and water cuts affect people from all walks of life, but it is the lack of social security which is pushing the the poorest into desperation. Many of them are refugees from Syria and Palestine, but these protests claim to be for everybody living in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s democracy has an unusual political system where the allocation of parliamentary seats is decided by a quota from the different Lebanese communities. This is often described by anti-sectarian activists as “the tyranny of the eighteen” (in reference to the eighteen communities). Since the Taif agreement in 1989, half of all seats must go to Christians and the other half to Muslims, but within those distinctions are 18 official communities that each have a quota themselves. In addition to this, the President must be a Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia.
Many agree that this system is broken. Lebanon has once again been unable to decide on a president, this time since May 2014. Deadlock has made corruption endemic and, as a result, basic services are not provided effectively. This has meant that even small decisions are hard to make; the inability to decide on a new landfill site caused what is just the latest in a run of national crises.
In talking to the protestors, it is clear what they are demanding in the short term: First and foremost, a solution to the rubbish crisis followed by the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk. They are also demanding the writing-off of municipalities’ debts and the prosecution of the security forces who attacked and arrested their fellow-protesters. However at the heart of these issues is the lack of accountability and the current political system.
But what is less clear are the long term solutions. For the demonstrations to be more than just pressure on the government they need an alternative to the current political system. This is a challenge given the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics and a change in the quota system would have some clear losers. The population has changed greatly since the Taif agreement and a more proportionate democracy would disenfranchise some communities.
For now, the groups organising the protests have said they will continue their the struggle, as one activist put it, to “change the whole political system”. As I walked back to the city centre from the camped protesters, I caught sight of a young boy by the side of the road, his silhouette momentarily illuminated in the headlights of the traffic speeding by. He was asleep, clutching a bunch of roses he had been selling to the passing motorists. A change to the whole political system? I hope for his sake they succeed.
Oliver Berthoud is a contributor for Global Public Policy Watch on Middle Eastern Issues. As an expert on the Middle East and he has spent a considerable amount of time in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan. His academic speciality is in Minority Muslim Communities and he is a University of Exeter alumnus. He is an Arabic speaker and currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon.
Cover image ‘#YouStink Protest-August 29, 2015‘ by Joelle Hatem