August saw a rash of protests in Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut. The protests, initially sparked by a row over rubbish collections and creating a buzz on social media, rapidly developed into calls for the overthrow of the Lebanese government. Violent clashes ensued and the story loomed large for a few days in the imperialist media, before making way for more pressing news.
The grievance that underlay the ‘You Stink’ campaign was real enough. For 18 years, people had been agitating for a permanent recycling plant to deal with the capital’s vast refuse disposal needs. That never got built: instead, a ‘temporary’ landfill site filled the gap in provision. This was a health disaster for villagers living near the dump, who fell prey to cancers and respiratory problems at unusually high levels.
Eventually, the villagers, driven to desperation, mobilised to block access to the dump. With nowhere else to go, the rubbish then piled up on Beirut’s streets, attracting rats. The government’s solution to this was to spray rat poison on the festering heaps, creating a new environmental nightmare.
This public grievance served as a point of concentration for a more widespread popular anger. At first, the so-called ‘You Stink’ demonstrations in Beirut were mostly peaceful, but by 22 August matters grew more serious, as demonstrators armed with rocks and firecrackers confronted police armed with water cannon, rubber bullets and teargas. Slogans about rubbish collection were superseded by calls to ‘make it a revolution’ and to ‘overthrow the regime’.
The Red Cross reported that at least 343 people were treated for injuries and another 59 hospitalised after the demos on 22 and 23 August. There were many casualties on the police side, too, with 99 injuries, of which 30 were serious. The prime minister, whilst apologising for the use of ‘excessive force’, also warned that “we are going toward collapse if matters continue”, adding grimly, “Let all officials and political forces bear their responsibilities.” ‘(‘Make it a revolution!’: Lebanon protesters give 72-hour ultimatum to government, RT, 29 August 2015)
To speak of ‘collapse’ in Lebanon is to touch on a very raw nerve. Thanks to endless imperialist meddling, repeated zionist invasions, exacerbated sectarian divisions, an ineffectual national army and still-fresh memories of the 1975-90 civil war, the threat of national ‘collapse’ is never far from the surface of political debate.
It has been in the interests of imperialism to keep Lebanon weak and divided, unlike Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. In the absence of a deeply-rooted national consciousness to unite the country, the ‘solution’ to sectarian friction has been to arrange matters so that the prime minister is always a sunni, the speaker in parliament a shia and the president a maronite christian.
Whilst the arithmetic may be sound (the population is roughly 40 percent christian, with the remainder evenly divided between sunni and shia, plus a tiny druze contingent), this arrangement has only helped perpetuate the sectarian divisions it seeks to resolve. For over a year now, the parliament has been unable even to agree on a new president.
Meanwhile the West’s proxy war of subversion against Syria and its cultivation of Islamic State terror has only intensified Lebanon’s problems – not least by causing an enormous influx of refugees into the country. The UN estimates that by year end 1.5 million refugees from Syria, Palestine and Iraq will be living in Lebanon, amounting to a third of the entire population – a staggering ratio that is matched nowhere else on the planet.
Some of those camps, like those on the Turkish border with Syria, are under the sway of Islamic State and their kindred spirits. Cameron’s recent PR visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, presumably scouting for the ‘right kind of refugee’ to benefit for British ‘philanthropy’, needs to be understood in this light.
Given this context, with zionism always sniffing around for a weak point and Islamic State going all-out to annex a slice of the country, those who speak of ‘bringing down the regime’, ‘making it a revolution’ or a new ‘Arab Spring’ have a weighty responsibility to be clear about how they propose to strengthen and unite Lebanon in face of what is truly an ‘existential threat’. Yet for all the sound and fury from the You Stink campaign, there has been no discernible programme put forward beyond vague calls for unity.
In the wake of the You Stink protest, however, separate demonstrations were held by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a secular coalition that now includes both Michel Aoun’s supporters from the christian community and the patriotic resistance movement Hizbollah.
In 2006, the FPM signed a memorandum of understanding with Hizbollah, which transformed former antagonists into allies. The reality is that it was Hizbollah, a key part of the axis of resistance against imperialism, that was able to expel zionism from the country before, and is now proving itself to be indispensable in the struggle likewise to rid the country of Islamic State.
In a significant show of strength, the FPM was able to peacefully mobilise thousands of supporters from all segments of society, waving FPM and Hizbollah flags. One FPM activist told RT: “Regarding the You Stink movement, we have similar demands, but they are not as organised as us and we have a list of demands with priorities.” (Thousands rally in Beirut calling to elect president by popular vote, RT, 5 September 2015)
On a much smaller scale, but with a clearer understanding of the connection between the anti-imperialist struggle and the proletarian revolution, and setting an inspirational example of heroic resistance, the Lebanese Communist Party has formed a guerrilla group to patrol the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country to guard against any jihadi incursion. If You Stink activists want an example of genuinely ‘revolutionary spirit’, let them learn from the example of these brave fighters.
A year ago, jihadists surrounded and attacked Lebanese army checkpoints, going on to capture Arsal, 124km northeast of Beirut. Now every border town in the area lives in fear of the same fate befalling them. The positive result is that almost every family in every border village in that area has a member who has volunteered for the communist militia and learned to use a gun.
RT quoted one fighter as saying: “Until now, there have been no direct battles with Islamic State or al-Nusra. We are here as support behind the lines of the Lebanese army. For sure, there are some small groups of fighters who manage [to get] through the mountains and we are here to detect them and find them. The main difference between us and Hizbollah is that we are from different Lebanese factions – sunni, shia, druze. We are mostly secular and we are different from the Lebanese army. We are not a classic army.”
Another fighter declared: “We have a strong will and desire to fight the extremists. We will not leave this land until the last drop of our blood and last metre of our land.” (Communists form guerrilla group in Lebanon to fight back against IS, RT, 5 September 2015)
The Lebanese government is currently actively negotiating with those concerned about the disgusting rubbish pile-up to try to find a solution. Without an analysis of exactly how this situation could have arisen, the facile accusations of unspecified government corruption or even inefficiency can only play into the hands of enemies of the Lebanese people. Without a proper understanding of the real causes of the problem, which, for the moment at least, none of the opponents of the Lebanese government have been providing, any alternative government that might be elected in the event of the new elections they are demanding, would not be able to manage the crisis any better.
It must be understood that whatever the failings of the current Lebanese government might be, it does at least maintain Lebanon’s independence and enables the different religious communities to live together in peace. These are not small achievements and they must not carelessly be put at risk.