Never an uneventful place, Lebanon is now in the throes of a “garbage protest” movement calling itself YouStink—the “you” referring to the country’s cabinet and broader political elite. Angered by a garbage collection breakdown that has trash piling up on the streets, thousands of protesters in Beirut have demanded the prime minister and his cabinet resign. Security forces have reacted violently, injuring some. There are reports of one fatality, after thugs apparently infiltrated a demonstration on Sunday, clearly trying to sabotage the protest. The prime minister has insisted he will not resign, and no major political players have asked him to, probably because they sense they are targets as well.
It seems rather late for Lebanon to be having its own Arab Spring, if that is what the YouStink movement is. In truth, however, Lebanon experienced a revolution years before any protests and demonstrations erupted in the Arab world. In 2005, hundreds of thousands—by some accounts, up to one-third of the population—held mass protests in response to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. They demanded the government resign and that Syria, widely accused of killing Hariri, end its military occupation of Lebanon. The more idealistic among them hoped to change Lebanon from a feudal-sectarian post-Ottoman relic to a nation of laws and citizens. The idealists got their first two wishes, but certainly not the third. The relic endures.
The 2005 Cedar Revolution (as it came to be known in the West) attracted a million and a half people because it targeted the unaccountable, violent, and venal police state that emerged under Syrian occupation, and tried to build a real republic in its place. Similarly, the YouStink movement, while far smaller, is not merely about getting national garbage collection services up and running. As any Lebanese can tell you, garbage is not rotting on the streets because of administrative or logistical error, but because governing the country is simply outside the capacity and interest of the political class—indeed, some have reportedly responded by setting up shop to procure private garbage collection contracts. Amid all this, Lebanon has been without a president for over a year. Rather than hold parliamentary elections on schedule, parliament has renewed its own mandate—reelected itself, essentially—twice. Worst of all, there seems to be no sense of urgency to fix any of this.
Lebanese can find it difficult to describe to outsiders the subjective experience of being a citizen of Lebanon. It is true that seeing garbage pile up on the roads is distressing, as is dealing with constant power cuts, interminable traffic delays, and countless other annoyances. All of these are aggravating, but in isolation they are inconveniences, irritants. Even the sporadic wars and bombings are tolerable—facts of life akin to natural disasters. The real horror of being Lebanese is the deep sense—the certainty, actually—that no one is in control or accountable, and that the ones who ought to be are comfortable enough to shirk their duties. The buck does not stop with Lebanon’s elected officials. In fact, it does not stop anywhere. You, dear citizen, are on your own.
Because Lebanon is not a dictatorship, there is no one despot against whom to direct one’s anger, or to dethrone. On the plus side, no one is going to barrel-bomb pro-opposition neighborhoods whose residents join the YouStink demonstrations. Paradoxically, however, the state’s weakness is why it is so difficult to compel its politicians to change their behavior. They will always point to either the malice of their opponents or the dysfunction of the political system (both often valid) to deflect blame. Finally, in the absence of a state, anyone who wants a job or access to what little passes for public services needs the goodwill of a politician. The Lebanese, it seems, are stuck.
Lebanon’s protesters therefore face a fiendish task. They may be able to stay focused and effective, but only if they remain non-partisan—but doing so denies them the political elite’s mobilizing power. Non-partisanship also creates space for any one particular party to piggyback on the protest movement. That would bring about the protests’ collapse, since it would provoke countermeasures by other parties, alienate participants who oppose that party, and allow the political elite against which it is aimed to either co-opt or fragment the movement. Simple thuggery might also derail the movement. This is surely why such thugs appeared mysteriously on Sunday and tried to provoke a fight with security forces. It is a safe bet that an important Lebanese politician dispatched these gentlemen.
The Cedar Revolution failed in its larger goals partly because the Syrian security apparatus and its local allies continued to kill its leadership and demoralize its supporters. It was also defeated, however, because its leaders were themselves pillars of the political elite, deeply divided amongst one another and invested in the petty political system that many Lebanese had hoped to sweep away. The “garbage revolution” does not carry this baggage, but it will need patient and wise leadership, drawn from within civil society, to survive and just maybe, bring about meaningful political change in Lebanon.