What started out as a targeted protest against the government's inability to handle Beirut's garbage problem, has turned into something much bigger. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh reports from the Lebanese capital.
On Saturday, August 23, at 6 PM local time, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the Grand Serail section, outside Nejma Square, to protest against the government’s handling of the growing trash issue throughout Lebanon. Men and women of all ages and religious backgrounds chanted together demanding change to the government’s inaction after Lebanon’s main trash dump was filled to capacity. Although the protests, which also took place this past Wednesday, were initially aimed specifically at ending the trash crisis, they have taken on a new tone. The demonstrators want new elections and an overhaul of the government.
From 6 to 7 PM local time, the protests remained peaceful. The organizers of the YouStink campaign stipulated that protestors were to stay peaceful and unified. During this time, chants of “The people want the regime to fall” and “Revolution!” echoed through the air. Cynthia Abu Hassan, a worker for the Unite Lebanon Youth Project NGO, was clear in her own opinions, “We need change. This transcends trash. We want radical change,” she exclaimed. A nearby man yelled toward the police, “It’s all bullshit.” The man, a Lebanese-Australian business owner, who was educated overseas, stated, “There is no change. 4 or 5 rich people control the country.” In a reference to the blackouts also plaguing Lebanon, “It’s not just the garbage. It’s the blackouts and the failing tourism industry. It’s all bullshit. We want change and new elections.”
The unifying garbage theme of the protests also symbolizes how many of the protestors view their elected officials. Charb Elbiad, a man in his early 20s, held a tree branch with garbage hanging from it and noted that, “the politicians are garbage too. We need to correct the mistakes. They have failed us. We need new elections. We need to end nepotism.”
The protesters included more than just young urbanites from Beirut. Old men and women joined in with the demonstrators. Some parents brought their children. Israa Darwish, a young veiled woman from the south of Lebanon, expressed her belief that, “The government is corrupt. The politicians are robbers. The same ones who were responsible for the civil war are still in power and are the reason for this crisis.”
Amidst all of these protests and chants, Lebanese security forces looked on, many smiling at the protesters, and some even taking pictures and filming the events. The crowd taunted the police for not joining the protests. Up until 7 PM, this and a few water bottles hucked at police were the only interaction between the crowd and police forces. Then at around 7 PM local time, a protester threw a firecracker into the police section, prompting a forceful response. Police beat protesters with batons, fired tear gas into the crowd, and even shot rubber bullets at the demonstrators.
— Joey Ayoub Ø¬ÙÙÙ Ø£ÙÙØ¨ (@joeyayoub) August 22, 2015
Some members of the crowd fainted and according to The Daily Star, 75 protesters were injured. The Internal Security Forces claimed to have 35 injured, mainly from rocks hurled by street protestors after the evening turned violent. Police also used water cannons to disperse protesters, but 1,000 of them remained, pitching tents and spending the night in front of the police barricade of Nejma Square.
Activists used Twitter to spread their message and maintain organization. Joey Ayoub, a leader of the YouStink movement, took to Twitter throughout the events and announced, “a permanent sit-in until the resignation of this criminal parliament and until we have parliamentary elections.” In addition to these demands, the protesters specifically demanded the resignations of both Minister of Environment Mohamed Machnouk and Minister of Interior Nouhad Machnouk.
In a press conference this morning, Prime Minister Tamaam Salam announced that, “security forces responsible for violence against protesters will be held accountable.” State Prosecutor Samir Hammoud has already ordered investigations into the violence against protesters, according to the state-operated National News Agency.
The outcome of the protests remains to be seen. Another protest is already planned for 6 PM local time, Tuesday, August 25, at the same location. The protest will still demand changes to the government’s handling of the trash crisis. They will now also include manifestations against both the current government and the violent crackdown on protesters. What began as a movement against one government policy has now transformed into a series of protests against the whole government. Change is in the air.