From trash to tax: why Lebanon's protests are such a departure from the past

The last mass rallies in 2015 failed to ignite a national uprising, but today the country is on the streets

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In the summer of 2015, Beirut was drowning in rubbish.

Early in the summer, the only landfill site for Beirut and Mount Lebanon — an area where nearly 50 per cent of the country’s 4.5 million people live — was closed.

The life of the Naameh dump had been extended several times and the local population said enough was enough.

Despite months of warning, the government didn’t have a plan for what to do the day after the dump closed. Soon after the gates were shut, the main waste contractor suspended collection and over the next few days, the streets filled with rubbish.

Communal bins for local neighbourhoods overflowed, whole streets became blocked with rubbish and in the summer heat, the stench was overpowering.

The crisis, which lasted months and still hasn’t been fully resolved, sparked protests.

With thousands on the streets by mid-August that year, the clashes with the police started. Water cannons were used, riot police swung their batons and in one standout moment, a soldier in downtown Beirut fired into the air above the crowd.

While the protests carried on in some form for months and years, the mass rallies petered out after a few weeks.

The government had announced a series of measures condemned by experts and analysts for feasibility and environmental impact but the waste was collected and the movement faded.

What came next for activists trying to drive the movement forward — led by a group calling itself YouStink — was soul-searching. Why had they failed to ignite a national movement that affected real change?

That’s not to say that the movement failed.

Many of those who came together to plan, organise and rally built connections. New organisations and civil society monitoring groups formed in the throngs on the streets.

When Lebanon went to the polls for the first time in nine years in May 2018, new civil society parties that can arguably trace their origins and momentum back to the YouStink movement and the 2015 protests, ran dozens of candidates. Paula Yacoubian, who ran with Tahalof Watani (My Nation’s Coalition) won in Beirut.

But there is perhaps one single pivotal moment of the 2015 protests that mark it out as so different from what is happening on the streets of Beirut today where people are protesting up and down the country, from all walks of life and from all sects, political parties and creeds.

As the 2015 protests reached a peak in August and the clashes with the police also got more intense, protest organisers called for those participating to clear the streets. The suggestion was that “thugs” had infiltrated the demos to fight with the police and lead to more violence.

The perception was divisive. As a protester who identified himself as Ali told the New York Times on August 29 that rumours of infiltrators instigating violence were a case of "bourgeois protesters mislabelling fired-up working-class teenagers as thugs".

That comment went to the heart of a major dynamic of the 2015 movement — class.

While the organisers called on the working class of areas such as Tariq Al Jadidah or Dahieh to join them, the perception for many was of a movement led by middle-class intellectuals.

At the height of the rallies, it did become more inclusive and the demands broadened to issues about corruption, an ineffectual detached ruling class, electricity cuts — all the same issues that have driven people to the streets today.

But, the issue of class and inclusiveness remained. The protests were centred on central Beirut and, bar a few smaller rallies elsewhere, they failed to ignite a nation.

Today, that could not be more different.

A group of activists trying to map the scale of the four days of growing rallies by locating social media posts and reports from the ground shows the scale. These are nationwide, in almost every town, city and village. Highways across the country are closed.

In Sunni majority areas, posters of political leader Prime Minister Saad Hariri have been torn down, in Shiite areas the offices of Hezbollah and Amal have been attacked, Christians have torn down posters of President Michel Aoun.

Political strongholds, where people have the strongest backing of their respective parties, are out in force.

This time around, the protesters have no leaders. No one is calling on the nation to gather in Beirut or take to the streets of Tripoli, Nabatiyeh or Baalbeck.

Lebanon and its people have just had enough.

At the time of the 2015 protests, Lebanon was in the middle of its 29-month presidential gap — a period between May 2014 and October 2016 when Lebanese politicians failed to select a new leader.

Many of the country’s problems, the politicians said, were because the highest office in the land was vacant. Let us fix that, they said, and we can solve all our problems.

Today, that’s not the case.

The sitting Cabinet formed within 10 months of last May’s election (not that long by Lebanon’s standards), President Michel Aoun is halfway through his term.

Yet, the stagnation continues.

Lebanon is on the brink of financial collapse and is gripped with a shortage of US dollars, a major issue in a country that pegs its currency to the greenback and where you can spend interchangeably between that and the Lebanese Lira.

ATMs no longer dispense them, banks are limiting their withdrawals and sectors from petrol importers to bakers are warning about shortages.

At the same time, a 2018 aid conference for Lebanon saw $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) in favourable loans and grants offered to fix the intermittent power supply, build useable fast internet — currently ranked among the slowest in the world — and repair the ageing traffic-clogged roads.

Yet, over 18 months after the money was offered, the government has failed to pass the needed reforms to access it.

Then came the 2020 budget proposal. To fix the dire financial situation, the government’s answer was more taxation on the public.

One proposal on Thursday was to tax WhatsApp calls.

It was the straw that broke the camel's back, according to one resident of Beirut.

One protester interviewed on Lebanese TV on Thursday night described in colourful language how it felt like the government was trying to tax the people for everything they do rather than fixing corruption and mismanagement.

What the government gave the people was a remedy for the situation that encapsulated the years of financial mismanagement and the people used it as a rallying point. A driver to then talk about years of unemployment, non-existent services, and crony capitalism.

And the timing for the government could not have been worse.

When the WhatsApp proposal came, the public was already fed-up and angry about a problem of a very different nature but with arguably the same causes — wildfires.

As civil defence battled massive blazes from the Chouf to the northern border, the government admitted that three multi-million dollar firefighting helicopters hadn’t worked in years because no one had budgeted for maintenance and spare parts.

The government also had no blueprint for what to do, having never implemented anything like a national emergency plan for wildfires.

The two issues collided and the streets quickly filled.

And so, from across the spectrum, from across the country, from those who have been protesting regularly to those who have never joined a demonstration, the country erupted.