last straws

Letter From a City Buried in Garbage — and on the Brink of Civil War

Mideast Lebanon
Protesters angered by Beirut’s garbage crisis burn a mattress on a barbed wire barrier that blocks the road to a government building. Photo: Hussein Malla/AP/Corbis

The demonstrations over the towering piles of garbage accumulating in the streets of Beirut started in late July, when the city’s main landfill was shut down because of pressure from residents of a nearby town and arguments over which politician’s cut of the business would be larger. The refuse has been piling up all over town ever since, and the only happy residents of Beirut are the cockroaches and stray cats that haunt the city like bony little wraiths. Local municipalities have tried sprinkling the mounds of trash with chemicals to kill the insects, but the powder does nothing to mask the stench. Entire roads have become impassable, obstructed by smelly heaps. Growing mounds of waste across the city simmer in the August heat.

What began as a small group of protesters swelled as thousands of angry Lebanese took to the streets, using the hashtag #YouStink to express their disgust not just with the trash, but also the corruption and incompetence of their government. Drone footage from the protests reveals the immense scale of the crowds. “Beirut’s revolution reeks of the decay of the Arab state,” one particularly dramatic headline trumpeted. Last week, the demonstrations turned violent, and security forces used brutal tactics to disperse them, unleashing water cannons and firing live rounds into the crowd. The crackdown sparked nationwide outrage and prompted even larger crowds to protest against their paralyzed, endlessly divided leaders. Minister of the Environment Mohammed Machnouk has been a favorite target because of his inability to solve the crisis, and calls for his resignation can be heard at all of the demonstrations — including the one on Tuesday in which he was literally held hostage in his own office.

Residents cover their noses as they walk past garbage piled up along a street in Beirut, Lebanon August 26, 2015. Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters/Corbis

The protesters’ rage at their leaders is understandable. Sectarian strife and political squabbling have rendered the Lebanese government almost completely useless. The current parliament has extended its term twice, because representatives from the four major religious sects and various political factions haven’t been able to get it together enough to elect a president. They’re too busy bickering over which side’s candidate will win the election, so Lebanon has been without a leader for 15 months. The country is still struggling to recover from the unthinkably violent civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990, and the sectarian divisions that sparked the bloodshed remain very present.

The general security situation is fragile at best. Tensions between the Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition and Hezbollah’s alliance (representing Shias and Christians) are running high. Deadly attacks aimed at either faction have become more and more frequent. The threat of terrorism by ISIS cells looms in the background, and Lebanon’s borders are increasingly violent. ISIS has been mounting limited but consistent incursions from war-ravaged Syria into the northeast of the country since 2014. Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia and political party, is reportedly now on its highest alert level along the Israeli border following a brief military flare-up in January.

The country seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of disaster without falling in — yet. But a foul-smelling reminder of the government’s ineptitude is now strewn across Beirut, and it might just prove to be the straw that broke a long-suffering camel’s back. Parliament is hopelessly deadlocked as to a possible solution to the trash crisis, because it can’t agree on a waste-management company to take away the trash. Last week, the cabinet unanimously rejected the winning bidders for the contract. Ministers from the coalition aligned with Hezbollah walked out of the emergency meeting. It doesn’t look like there will be a feasible resolution in the near future, and it seems near impossible that the war-weary little country will be able to handle much more political strife before its tenuous stability completely collapses.

Lebanese citizens pass a pile of garbage blocking a street in the town of Jal el-Dib east Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Bilal Hussein/AP/Corbis

Just before I arrived at the compound housing the building where Machnouk was barricading himself inside his office, I was having lunch with Joey Ayoub, one of the founders of the YouStink protest movement. He explained to me how the group organized when it became clear the trash wasn’t going to be collected any time soon.

We didn’t have a long-term plan when we first met up,” he told me. “Most of us didn’t know each other. It was basically just an organic expression of frustration at the garbage crisis.”

I asked Ayoub what he hopes to accomplish long-term. Having watched similarly large-scale, enthusiastic protest movements in the Arab world bring about chaos and even civil war, I was curious to see if YouStink has a sustainable plan for the future.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about basic standards of living,” he replied. “We’re also asking for new elections. We want the power that was hijacked from us given back.”

What about the possibility that things might spiral out of control and finally push Lebanon over the edge?

Well, the country is already fragmenting,” Ayoub countered. “Regardless of what we do or don’t do, it’s happening,” he said. “On the contrary, we’re trying to calm things down and get them back to some kind of equilibrium, because the way it’s going now, with this stuff literally piling up in people’s homes, it’s going to get out of control.”

Just then, Ayoub checked his phone, which had gone off repeatedly during our conversation.

Everything okay?” I ask.

We gave the government 72 hours to answer our demands, and if they didn’t we said there would be further escalations,” he said. “We just announced that we will be occupying the Ministry of the Environment until our demands are met. That’s where everyone is right now.”

People drive past buring piles of garbage in the area of Jal al-Dib in the northern outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 31, 2015. Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

So I make my way to the compound in downtown Beirut, where a handful of protesters sneaked into the ministry building and are staging a sit-in outside Machnouk’s office. A few dozen more gather in front of the building before security forces seal off all of the entrances.

Journalists are the only ones allowed in now, so there seem to be more of us in the courtyard than protesters. But the crowd outside the compound is growing. I can hear them chanting and clapping, calling for Machnouk to come down. Internal Security Forces (ISF) members clad in riot gear shift uncomfortably in the hot sun, not bothering to mask their irritation.

We have him trapped!” one young man shouts jubilantly. “He has no food or water and no way out!”

I’m not sure what to think as I watch the protesters run around, yelling and gesturing at their friends beyond the ring of black-clad police. It’s a chaotic scene. Outside the compound, a middle-aged woman shakes a sign and shrieks at cops ringing the main entrance, calling them animals and wishing shame upon them. At some point, the entrance to the basement parking lot of the compound opens, and two sleek black cars try to exit. Someone recognizes them as Machnouk’s, and the vehicles are pelted with bottles and curses until they’re forced to retreat. No one seems to know if the minister was in the cars or remains trapped in his office.

The crowd is certain Machnouk is still in the building. It’s almost dusk now, and there look to be thousands of people gathering. Scuffles break out sporadically, and some protesters are injured. I read on Twitter that the ISF locked the bathrooms and turned off the AC in the ministry building, trying to make the demonstrators outside Machnouk’s office uncomfortable enough to leave. Cops attempt to clear them out, and one of them sends down a note saying that they need the Red Cross. Uniformed EMTs arrive on the scene shortly afterward and carry a wounded protester out of the building.

Protesters face off with security forces outside the Ministry of Environment in Beirut on September 1. Photo: Sulome Anderson

Much of the scene is reminiscent of demonstrations I’ve covered in Egypt and Turkey, but Maha Yahya, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says the YouStink movement is unique in many ways. “The Beirut protests are not targeting one regime head,” she writes later in an email. “Rather, they are implicating an entire political class that is ruling the country.”

Asked if she thinks the protests will cause an already fragile security situation to further deteriorate, Yahya seems cautiously hopeful.

The protesters are breaking a political status quo that has led to a degeneration in the quality of people’s lives and are asking the political class to act as responsible civil servants,” she replies. “They are forcing a paralyzed political system to move. Best- and worst-case scenarios will be very dependent on how a political class that is seeing its authority and interests challenged in an unprecedented way reacts.”

As dark falls outside the ministry, more protesters are wounded fighting with police, who launch a couple of tear-gas rounds into the angry crowd outside the compound. Inside, a cop is hit on the head with a rock and receives medical attention from EMTs, who hurriedly bandage his wounds.

I watch as a young woman smacks the helmet of a riot policeman who shoves past her. He keeps moving, undeterred.

Wait until after 8 p.m.,” one talkative cop tells me with a grin. “It’ll be a massacre in here.”

A couple of hours later, I’m at the American University of Beirut Hospital in Hamra, about ten minutes away from the ministry. It wasn’t quite a massacre, but police moved in to clear the ministry as sketchy-looking young men emerged and started provoking security forces by hurling rocks. I made my exit before things became too dangerous. I’m meeting there with Assaad Thebian, another protest leader, and we chat in a little park outside the hospital while he waits for news about the protesters who’ve been hurt. Thebian is a dark, serious-looking man of about 30.

I ask what Thebian hopes to accomplish long-term, curious to see if his expectations match Ayoub’s. He does list the same demands, but adds another element, making it clear that there appears to be a lack of consensus on the part of protest leaders as to what can be realistically accomplished.

We want a new electoral law so the same people don’t get elected,” Thebian tells me. “But I won’t go into more detail about that.”

Given the political atmosphere of the country, this seems like wishful thinking. “So what’s the worst-case scenario?” I ask.

That we continue the way things have been here,” Thebian replies. “That nothing changes and we live in the same shit we always have.”

Can Huge Piles of Garbage Create a Revolution?