Many Lebanese hope that the “You Stink” protest sparked by the rubbish collection crisis could turn into a national, non-sectarian uprising.
The protest has coalesced around anger at corruption and Lebanon’s sectarian division of power. But this “serious youth-led protest movement”, as described by the Lebanese news website Al-Modon, may not see its Arab-Spring style slogan “people want the downfall of the regime” come to fruition.
The movement, Al-Modon said, has suffered “a setback”, which proved beyond doubt that the protestors’ slogan is merely “an illusion”, notwithstanding the realisation shared by many Lebanese that “the downfall of the entire regime” is the only way to redress the current failings—power cuts, uncollected rubbish, widespread corruption.
One striking image of the uprising has been a protest banner which features the heads of Lebanon’s political leaders, perceived by the protestors to be the root cause of the Lebanese crisis, popping out of rubbish bags, according to Al-Modon.
But one head is mysteriously missing from the rollcall of ‘rubbished’ politicians thus providing a clue as to who is behind this supposedly non-sectarian revolt.
What triggered these questions, on social media, was the missing picture of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah from the ‘bag parade’.
Nasrallah’s missing head was taken to mean that he, the leader whose party has a strong base among the country’s Shiite population, is the sole exception within the despised political class, which the protest was supposed to be against. The missing head fueled suspicion that Hezbollah may be behind the You Stink protests.
The country has been locked in a standoff between the two main political blocs at loggerheads primarily over their stance on the Syrian regime - Hezbollah’s Iranian-backed, pro-Syrian 8 March alliance and the Saudi-backed 14 March coalition of anti-Syrian parties and independents.
In Lebanon, the lack of political consensus—a by-product of a political system based on a sectarian division of power—makes the development of national policies a difficult task. And even when this is possible, it is equally difficult to fund and oversee the effective administration of national policies at the municipal level.
Scaremongering tactics have been used by various political leaders to ward off more protests—their “most naïve” aspect being a warning of the prospects of Lebanon experiencing Arab Spring-style turmoil currently playing out in five Arab countries, according to Al-Modon.
The current political deadlock means Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014 and parliament has failed more than 25 times to elect the next president. The national unity government, in the meantime, has been grappling with a declining economy, an influx of Syrian refugees and a rise in Sunni extremism in the country in response to Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
The Facebook page of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian Maronite political party, and members of the anti-Syrian 14 March coalition, was rife with slurs against the protestors and condemnation of “the infiltrators” and those who “preplanned the riots”.
“Beirut fell into the hands of the riff-raff even as its real, rebellious people who love the city are busy thinking and even planning for a coming period marked by prudence and knowledge,” wrote Vera Bou Moncef in an article posted on the party’s website and shared on Facebook.
Another article posted on the Lebanese Forces’ website made a direct swipe at Hezbollah, accusing it of orchestrating the protest.
“The slogans chanted by the infiltrators exposed them and put the spotlight on the political parties standing behind them,” the article said.
Hezbollah, it contended, might have wanted to “play its hidden card (the fall of the regime)”—a demand made by the protestors—“with the intent of imposing a new status quo and changing the rules of the political game.”
In a toned-down warning, the Lebanese Forces’ ally, Saad al-Hariri, the leader of the Sunni Muslim Future Movement, warned on his Facebook page of the danger of Lebanon sliding “into the unknown”.
“We admit a failing in solving a national crisis but protesting against uncollected rubbish and calling for a speedy solution is one thing and demanding the fall of the regime is another. The fall of the government would mean the downfall of the last stronghold of legitimacy and Lebanon sliding into the unknown,” Hariri warned.
The antics of Lebanese political parties—their desperate attempt to create a sense of crisis and panic about the prospect of the country descending into Arab Spring-style chaos have a certain déjà vu quality. Similar antics have been used by several Arab regimes in rejecting all calls for political change.
To some Lebanese, the broadening of the demand of the protestors to include the downfall of the regime brought to mind the spectre of Arab Spring-style upheaval in countries like Syria and Libya.
In the following video posted on Facebook, a Lebanese man, Bilal Najjar, is cautioning the protest organisers against any further escalation.
The fear of regime change expressed in this video is felt by many Arabs from Morocco to Bahrain. In their minds, regime change means political upheaval and the risk of armed conflict such as those experienced in Libya, Syria, Yemen and to a lesser degree Egypt.