Speaking to the organisers of Beirut’s You Stink group

A strong voice of protest has risen on Beirut’s streets along with the rising tide of rubbish. But who are the organisers of You Stink and why is there a fierce reaction to the group’s success?

Lebanese protesters hold up placards as they protest against the trash crisis. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
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Assad Thebian is a man in a hurry. The young marketing buff speaks quickly, almost out of breath. He is angry that his home country of Lebanon – once a beacon of so much promise in the Arab world – is drowning in corruption. He believes it has permeated every level of state service – right down to the rubbish.

Only a few months after its first protests over the mounting litter on the streets, You Stink is shaking the fragile apparatus of a caretaker government and a parliament that voted itself an extended term last year, in a country barely able to contain its sectarian divisions.

Well-known for extraordinary resilience, the Lebanese public’s patience has been stretched to breaking point over the country’s rubbish crisis: when politicians appeared not even to care about rotting garbage piling up a few feet from voters’ front doors, something snapped and the protest group, You Stink, was born.

But the new movement is a political voice that bemoans much more than the nasty smells rising from the pavements. The pressure group has helped to expose a bigger issue in Lebanon, which Thebian explains quite calmly is a carve-up of cash allotted to various members of Lebanon’s political elite. He talks about wholesale mafia-type corruption in a matter-of-fact way, almost like a plumber talks about pipes.

Thebian claims that Lebanon’s very political system is at the heart of endemic corruption with many on the payroll of regional power brokers and a national press that is also paid off when it comes to how it reports important news. You Stink itself is big news and its momentum is threatening to add yet another break to Lebanon’s troubled political system: people power.

The group started life with just 40 members in early August. It now claims a following of 100,000, all demanding sweeping change in Lebanon: the current sectarian system is not only outdated, but it is failing on every level, the group says.

Protesters began adopting much broader demands than the resolution of the rubbish disposal crisis at a large rally in August, with some calling for the resignation of Tammam Salam’s government. The prime minister refused to take the protesters seriously until a sit-in at the environment ministry building – with the minister himself trapped in an office on another floor. This led to the police beating a number of the hard-core protestors.

Shortly afterwards, hunger strikers began camping outside the environment minister’s offices demanding that he resign due to his poor handling of the garbage crisis, which began when residents near the landfill site in Naahmeh, normally used for Beirut’s rubbish, blocked access to it, reacting to an unfulfilled promise that the government would close it.

You Stink is not terribly well coordinated, a point that plays into the hands of its critics.

Some of its members are demanding changes to the electoral system that would produce an entirely new generation of MPs under a new voting system; others are seeking key political scalps, including that of the environment minister and even the prime minister.

Thebian tells me that a new parliament is vital if the country’s wider woes are to be tackled head on, along with the rubbish crisis. “A proper environmental and health solution for the garbage issue is needed, as well as parliamentary elections,” he says adding, somewhat coyly, that the grass-roots movement is still in its infancy and is wrangling to agree on the best way ahead.

Thebian doesn’t want to talk about what plans are afoot, cautious that any press reports might tip off state officials.

He defends accusations of disarray by stressing that You Stink is a democratic movement, not tied to one particular political bloc. Therefore, its members can and will differ over how to reach a common goal. “It’s true [there is disagreement] … we’re not a political party and we don’t have money,” he says.

“But we’re still in the streets demonstrating, picking our fights carefully … And we’re working closely with people, so we can make achievements.”

Thebian believes it’s time the Lebanese saw their political system as a catalyst for embezzlement.

“This system is using sectarianism as a cover up for corruption,” he claims, “and this is run by a few people in government who are also active in the business world, bankrupting the state while filling their own pockets.

“It’s not only garbage, it’s also electricity and water. For the last 25 years we’ve spent billions on the electricity infrastructure, but we still don’t have power 24/7.”

The success of You Stink in having its voice heard has brought smaller splinter groups into the fray that would appear to have almost identical demands; groups such as We Want Accountability, an ideologically left-wing organisation, largely made up of communists and aligned to Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad – as a counterweight to most of the movement, which is perceived to be pro United States.

Indeed, while some critics dismiss the You Stink movement as disorganised and unfocused, others see a well-considered, foreign-backed plot.

Lebanese intelligence sources and some academics have raised concerns that You Stink is an American-financed protest group and spread fears that the US is engineering the movement and the rallies with one aim: to bring about the collapse of Tammam Salam’s fragile government. This, the logic goes, would bring about a temporary occupation of Beirut by the Lebanese army and fresh elections for a new president.

The country has been without a president for the past 18 months, and it is the view of the Americans and their regional allies that this office is crucial for overcoming the country’s woes.

Those same sources claim that You Stink is actually being run by a group of well-financed, US-backed NGOs in Beirut whose wider goal is an NGO-led coup. Once the army is in control and presidential elections are close, they believe that the Americans will unveil their candidate for president, Jean Obeid – a former minister and close ally to Saad Hariri.

But key to bringing about this plan, originally, was the arrest of the 71-year-old environment minister, labelled “useless” and who almost certainly had no idea of the political fallout when he refused to resign over his handling of the landfill crisis.

Yet the minister, Mohammed Machnouk, defied his critics; he was neither arrested nor pressured into resigning. If he had resigned, critics believe that the cabinet would have collapsed – a scenario that would have forced the army to take control.

Thebian denies any such grand plan exists in the strongest terms. It was never the intention of You Stink to bring down the government, it just wanted the resignation of the minister “because he didn’t do his job properly”, he says.

Regardless of the endless claims and counterclaims, US-funded NGOs are a powerful force in Lebanon and a cluster of a dozen or so hold considerable influence, often through promoting free speech and democratic values.

Sources say that a cohort of NGO heads looks to the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, for direction. This may well be just rumour, but conspiracy theorists say that two events would seem to support claims of a US link. First, the recent call by the UN security council in New York for Lebanon to restore political serenity and install a president in office; and second, Lebanon’s army chief’s reassurance to the US ambassador that the army was capable of securing the Greater Beirut area if the need arose.

Whatever the truth of these accusations and counter-claims, political change is definitely being called for by increasing numbers of Lebanese.

Ayman Mhanna is a free-speech advocate who works for the Samir Kassir Foundation – a prominent NGO that focuses on the rights of freedom of expression. Named as one of the organisations being directly influenced by the US, Mhanna dismisses the accusation outright. American backing “is a classic accusation that is thrown everywhere in the Arab world when anti-government movements emerge”, he argues, though he does say that a number of “members are involved on a personal level in the [You Stink] movement and are providing logistical support to the protest”.

Vital to any change, he argues, is a new electoral law and what he calls “new blood” in the political class.

Martin Jay is a correspondent in Beirut and founding editor of An Nahar English.