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Protests in Lebanon: Demonstrators should remain focused on the constitution

Protests in Lebanon: Demonstrators should remain focused on the constitution
Published 4 Sep 2015 

The crisis over garbage collection in Lebanon continues to pile up. This weekend thousands of Lebanese gathered again in downtown Beirut to denounce politicians for their failure to resolve this problem and the myriad others that Lebanon faces. These include, but are not limited to: constant water and electricity shortages; the failure to elect a new president; the delay of parliamentary elections and general malaise about the problems of unemployment, infrastructure and the refugee situation.

While the initial build-up of refuse was disposed of earlier this month, government handling of garbage in general and bickering over whom to award the new contract has led to accusations of corruption from disgruntled citizens. It was reported that members of the ‘You Stink’ campaign stormed the Ministry of the Environment and have staged a sit-in until the Minister, Mohammed Machnouk, resigned, but the protesters were later forcibly removed by riot police.

The protests began just over a week ago, with a peaceful demonstration that grabbed local headlines mainly because of the conduct of security forces in shutting it down. According to a personal account from a participant which appears to have been widely circulated on Facebook, the protests in downtown Beirut on 22 August began peacefully at 6pm and included families and small children. Around 10,000 people turned up, which is a significant number for a spontaneous protest in Lebanon that is not backed by a political party (at least since the epic protests that took place after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005).

According to the blogger, the crowd were mostly chanting ‘down with the system’ – as they were again this week. The blogger noted that the Internal Security Forces and the Lebanese Army were present in large numbers and that he overhead one of them remarking they had a ‘carte blanche’ for the day. Around 7:15pm the army started firing; reports on this vary in other media sources but it's generally agreed that rubber bullets were fired, and water cannons and tear gas was used to disperse protestors.

The use of live ammunition is unconfirmed. The level of violence used by the protesters is currently also unclear, but it is suggested that some people responded aggressively to the Government’s use of force. [fold]

Ultimately the Lebanese are tired of a malfunctioning political system that appears to benefit only those in the upper echelons of power. The ever-present security threats that extend from the region – be it ISIS or an Israeli invasion – are consistently used by politicians to justify their grip on power, such as postponing elections and failing to appoint a new head of the armed forces or a new president. Bureaucrats sometimes invoke security threats in absurd attempts to cloak bureaucratic incompetence.

One such example was the reaction to a food safety campaign launched by the Minister for Health Wael Abou Faour, to investigate the state of public hygiene in Lebanon’s food outlets and supermarkets. The campaign garnered immense public interest as restaurants and high profile supermarkets were named and shamed as harbingers of disease. Rather than congratulate their colleague for trying to safeguard the nation’s health, the economic minister initially accused the health minister of 'terrorism' and described his actions as putting 'a bullet in the head' of the economy. The tourism minister argued the campaign would damage tourism – as if concerns about food hygiene are the reason tourism in Lebanon is struggling. It's behaviour like this that ordinary civilians are becoming increasingly frustrated with.

The latest protests raise two concerns for Lebanon that are not insignificant.

After the first wave of protests, I was surprised the Lebanese Armed Forces did not receive more negative feedback from the general population regarding the way in which the protesters were suppressed: the army’s use of force against a largely peaceful demonstration by its own people risked crossing a very dangerous line. The army is arguably the single most important unifying state institution in Lebanon, and has thus far largely retained its image as an impartial and non-sectarian guardian of the people. It has the respect of the population, and works hard to maintain it. So its actions in suppressing a popular protest was a high-risk strategy. Yet criticism of the army has been curiously muted since the initial crackdown, and attention has remained focused on the politicians themselves.

The second, more serious, concern is the risk that a growing protest movement will destabilise the country, running the risk of being hijacked by organised political actors for their own gain, as has happened repeatedly in the Arab Spring: in Egypt, in Yemen, in Syria. The Lebanese protesters need to ensure protests remain peaceful and focused on specific demands – yes, infrastructure – but more importantly on constitutional decisions such as reaching agreement on a new president. Finally they need to remain inclusive and representative of all Lebanese not just in terms of religious sect but also socio-economic status.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Victor Choueiri.

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