Reporting by Alexander Liddington-Cox
Protesters have vowed to escalate and broaden their demonstrations beyond Beirut if the Lebanese government doesn’t meet their demands within 72 hours.
Thousands gathered in downtown Beirut on Saturday evening, led by environmental activist group #YouStink and a handful of other organisations. What started out as a campaign for better waste disposal practices in the wake of the city’s garbage crisis has now morphed into calls for a re-examination of Lebanon’s gridlocked political system.
Many protesters traveled from outside the Lebanese capital to be at the #YouStink-led demonstrations, which were sparked by the government’s mishandling of Beirut’s garbage disposal that has seen trash intermittently piling up in the streets.
Salem, an engineer from Tripoli, told Lebanese Streets he made the one-and-a-half hour car journey to Beirut because the garbage crisis is indicative of much deeper problems with the Lebanese political system that he can no longer tolerate.
“They’ve made us live like dogs,” he said. “The smell of garbage is revolting, and it’s made us revolt. The Lebanese population feel they are not being treated with dignity.”
The garbage crisis started when residents of Naameh, a coastal town just south of Beirut, blockaded the local landfill, which is now many times overcapacity. The government has failed to follow through on promises to find a new place for Beirut’s garbage and locals have complained of health and environmental consequences on a number of occasions.
Many protesters said the garbage crisis was just one of their complaints with the Lebanese government. Lebanon is still grappling with electricity and water shortages. Salem said the garbage crisis was just further evidence of the government’s inability to provide basic services.
“The solution is not the resigning of the government, the solution is to change the system of government,” said Salem.
The largely peaceful rally concluded with a demand for Environment Minister Mohammed Machnouk to resign by Tuesday. Protesters also called for greater accountability from Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk a week after dozens of protesters were injured during scuffles with security forces.
“On Tuesday our demonstrations will not only be held in Beirut but in different areas across Lebanon,” a member of the #YouStink campaign told thousands of demonstrators, according to The Daily Star.
Yesterday’s protests were largely peaceful and, unlike most political movements in recent Lebanese history, mostly devoid of political partisanship and sectarianism. Only Lebanese flags could be seen.
Thousands started marching from outside the Interior Ministry in west Beirut to Martyrs’ Square beneath the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque or Hariri’s Mosque, after Lebanon’s assassinated prime minister Rafic Hariri.
By 6.00pm the square was mostly full. Thousands chanted with and listened to speakers from two microphones, while music blared from two trucks on the outskirts of the demonstrations.
Police and military personal lined the borders of the protests, along with a small group of ambulances on the east side of the square.
By 7.30pm, some protesters had shifted from Martyrs’ Square to Riad al-Solh Square near the Grand Serail, which was heavily protected with large numbers of police and military personal armed with water cannons. An hour later tensions lifted slightly as some threw rocks and set off fire crackers over the Grand Serail wire fence, but clashes reminiscent of last week’s protesters didn’t eventuate.
Riot police began to clear Riad al-Sohl only after the #YouStink campaign had formally ended when a small number of protesters remained, making a handful of arrests.
Demonstrations organized #YouStink are expected to continue throughout the coming days.