Lebanon: capitalism stinks

Over the summer a new street movement brought Beirut to a standstill as Lebanese protesters raged against the side-effects of privatisation, which left uncollected garbage rotting in the streets. The #YouStink campaign mobilised demonstrations of tens of thousands, with many rapidly becoming radicalised, calling for 'revolution against the system.' State police and organised thugs responded with brutal violence and targeted Syrian and Palestinian refugees. In a country paralysed by corruption, privatisation, sectarianism and, the primary cause of all three – imperialist intervention – the only certainty is that the current state of things cannot continue.

The spark for the protests was the closure in 17 July of the Naameh landfill site which had already taken over 15 million tons of rubbish when its planned capacity was only two million tons. Sukleen, the private company running waste disposal, refused to collect any more trash. By 26 July, 20,000 tons of rubbish were rotting on Beirut streets leading to the first protests. Government promises to find a new landfill site proved groundless and protests started to broaden their opposition to governmental incompetence in the management of other services. There are three-hour rolling power cuts in Beirut, which are extended in the summer, with some of the poorer neighbourhoods going days without electricity. Water shortages still abound, an absurdity in a country with 16 rivers. Last year, private water companies prospered as they filled water tanks after a particularly dry winter led to severe shortages as early as May. About a third of that water was wasted because of ailing infrastructure, with bursting water pipes flooding streets whenever the government turned the taps on.

The protests exploded when a demonstration on 22 August of over 18,000 in Beirut was confronted by the army, using clubs, teargas and live ammunition. Red Crescent treated over 400 people. On 24 August the Lebanese Daily Star reported the death of one protester, Rida Taleb, from head injuries sustained as crowds battled police at the demonstration the day before. Over 40 others were injured by police. #YouStink campaign leaders attempted to diffuse the situation and called off the next protest, saying that infiltrators were provoking violence. Nevertheless, protesters kept coming, and despite the heavy state repression, over 100,000 marched on 29 August calling for the interior minister to be held accountable for police brutality. When security forces built a huge concrete wall around the Serail government buildings, protesters painted 'the revolution is coming' on it and told MPs: 'You have failed at everything... Go Home.'

While it remains an informal movement, protesters have evolved a list of demands, including the state provision of basic services such as electricity, water, decent roads, higher wages, elections, and an end to the current sectarian parliamentary arrangements. Crowds have called for the sacking of environment minister Mohammad Machnouk and the resignation of Prime Minister Tamam Salam. Machnouk responded by conceding information on the private companies set to profit from the waste management privatisation. But this move only made it clearer that the government was intent on lining the pockets of their rich business contacts and the demonstrators insisted that the problem be handed over to local municipalities.

On 16 September further protests took place as politicians met for yet more talks to try and resolve the crisis. Defying intensifying police violence, the protesters pelted convoys of MPs and officials, shouting 'thieves’, chanting revolutionary slogans and demanding real public services. 40 were arrested and others beaten to the ground by police batons. On 20 September an anti-government march was met with a right wing counter-mobilisation in Martyr's Square, as several hundred thugs waited to attack the protesters.

The forces involved in the protests include youth faced with a bleak employment situation and others made redundant as the economy collapsed. Youth unemployment hit 35% in 2014. A retired woman told reporters: 'We are ruled by corrupt losers! All of them — warlords, legislators and ministers — are working for their own interest and not those of the people.' Marwan Basha, a 57 year-old engineer attending a sit-in near parliament wore a t-shirt asking, 'Where is the water, where is the electricity, where are the job opportunities?'

Even before the emergence of a mass movement, Lebanese politics was in a state of deadlock. MPs have been unable to successfully legislate on anything significant since November 2014 but have found time to extend their own terms of office until 2017. The current parliament is dominated by the March 14 Alliance, which includes the Saudi-supported Future Movement party, in coalition with Christian fundamentalists and other smaller parties which see Syria as their main enemy. The alliance blamed Hezbollah for Israel's invasion in 2006 and is led by Saad Hariri, the Saudi-born billionaire son of former President Rafik Hariri, assassinated in 2005. The US Obama government, and particularly presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have lobbied Saudi Arabia to maintain funding for the March 14 Alliance. Current divisions in parliament are expressed in attitudes towards Syria. Hezbollah and its mainly Shia allies on one side support an Axis of Resistance to Isis and imperialism, opposed virulently by Hariri and the big business elite.

Crucial to the development of any progressive movement in Lebanon will be how it relates to and involves the refugees, who form a significant oppressed minority. Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees to its native population of any country in the world, with 500,000 Palestinians in addition to the more than 1.5 million registered refugees arriving from Syria, many of whom are also Palestinian or Kurdish. Syrian refugees earn an average of 40% less than the minimum wage. Only two out of 10 working refugees were female, earning about 40% compared to their male counterparts while Palestinian residents of Ein el Hilweh refugee camp suffer from 70-80% unemployment.

Hezbollah's support for an anti-imperialist position in Syria and its history of resistance to Israel maintains its popularity among many of the poorest in Lebanon, and it has offered vocal support to the #YouStink protests. During demonstrations in late August, Hezbollah and its Christian allies walked out of an emergency cabinet meeting in protest at the ‘mounting and worsening corruption’ demonstrated by the trash crisis. In the meantime, the non-sectarian Lebanese Communist Party has played an active role in the protest movement declaring that ‘the people want the fall of the regime.’ The old sectarian order is bursting apart.

Louis Brehony

 

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