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#YouStink – a little more than a response to Lebanon’s rubbish crisis

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About a month ago, I arrived to Beirut for my usual summer visit to Lebanon, little did I know, I would arrive to a rubbish-ridden pit of abandoned waste, reeking of everyone’s week-old dinners. The stench was overpowering, and it was commonplace to find commuters walking into work with surgical masks on their faces.

Sukleen (Beirut’s rubbish disposal company) has, until now, been responsible for making sure that Beirut is kept relatively clean by dumping waste into landfills located in the outskirts of the capital. This summer, Sukleen’s contract with the government expired, and not only was there no alternative organised by the government to follow suit, the closure of the already overloaded landfill site at Naimeh impeded any hopes of a continuation of Sukleen’s contract. On top of that, the Lebanese parliament has failed to appoint a new Prime Minister, or even construct a working government to meet the needs of the people. All these ill-timed and debilitating factors resulted in a somewhat “hiatus” from picking up Beirut and Greater Beirut’s rubbish. In a city where there is no public education on waste management and that already houses far more people than it can hold, has to now deal with large piles of disease-ridden garbage strewn literally everywhere.

Whilst the rubbish crisis can be conventionally viewed as another result of a hugely inefficient government reluctant to invest adequate funds and effort in ensuring basic health standards are met, the political consequences are far deeper. Out of a mixture of anxiety and resentment, ‘You Stink’, a political organisation comprised mainly of young social activists emerged and voiced their concerns through a peaceful protest in Martyrs Square on the 22nd of August. What started as a peaceful protest, calling for a total revamping of an age-old dysfunctional political structure, quickly escalated into an immense riot, spreading and involving much of Beirut city centre. Police forces did not hold back on inhumane and wholly unethical methods of crowd dispersal: at one point even a Red Cross tent was tear-gassed.

Since then, there have been multiple collateral protests, including a major sit-in in the Ministry of Environment on the 1st of September, calling for the resignation of the Minister of the Environment, Mohammad Machnouk. Water, ventilation and food supplies were cut off to the protesters, who continued to sit and wait for action to be taken on an extortionately hot summers day and were eventually kicked out of the Ministry, following the departure of Machnouk. Not only that, police have gone as far as to beat up certain outspoken members of ‘You Stink’, and unleashing an all-out attack at the party, in an effort to silence their angst.

Some have dared to call it Lebanon’s chance at an uprising reminiscent of the Arab Spring, and others have dismissed it as just another political upheaval in the already turbulent country. Regardless of what we decide to label it, it should not be taken lightly. Although Lebanon’s complex and fragile history has left it with a tough legacy of sectarian and multilateral political parties that fail to see eye to eye regarding the most essential of policies, they were quick to rally up against ‘You Stink’. Whether or not they will be successful in achieving a breath of fresh air that the country so desperately needs is still up in the air, but for now, the stench of ineffective and corrupt post-war politics remains rather pungent.

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