Rubbish revolution: How social media sparked mass protests in Beirut

This article was published by The Vocal on August 31, 2015.

In the sweltering heat of the Lebanese summer, increased electricity demands on an already strained system mean frequent power outages in addition to scheduled rolling cuts, while water becomes a scarce and precious commodity. This summer was no different. But in recent weeks, another burden was hoisted on residents of the capital, Beirut. Rubbish. Rubbish, everywhere. Piles and piles of the stuff, rotting away in the baking sun and choking even those perched on their apartment terraces.

Lebanese started tweeting about the rubbish crisis and the government’s incompetence using #YouStink. They took to the streets around the Grand Serail, the Prime Minister’s HQ. This displeased those in power. On August 20, the peaceful protests turned into violent clashes. One protester has died, hundreds more have been injured and arrested. The military erected a blast-proof wall to keep the unwashed masses away from the politicians. Lebanon’s hipsters made short work of it – within a few hours it was covered in slogans and caricatures reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. The Prime Minister quickly ordered its removal. On Saturday tens of thousands (some say up to 250,000) gathered in Beirut: the YouStink group demanded the resignation of the environment minister, accountability from the interior minister and security forces who fired on protesters, and a resolution to the garbage crisis within 72 hours; others called for revolution.

FYI: In 2005 we didn’t have social media. In Beirut or not, this is our biggest weapon against their bullets and batons.

25-year-old Lebanese freelance journalist Ilija Trojanovic, who is based in the Gulf, posted that statement on Facebook on Monday. The 2005 Cedar Revolution was an uprising of more than 1 million Lebanese, following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to demand Syria end its decades-long occupation. Lebanon’s youth believe their power to unite now lies largely in social media. The excitement is palpable, the sense of optimism and the hunger for change are tangible. And it’s not confined by geographical borders – Lebanon’s huge diaspora are taking part in the movement online and in their cities. “In 2005, when virtually the entire country congregated in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square against the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist (FB did, but it wasn’t what it is now),” Ilija told me. “It was a historic moment in Lebanon’s history. What we are witnessing with the #YouStink protests is Lebanon’s first nationwide show of civil disobedience where social media is playing a major role.” Videos and photos of clashes between police and protesters have been shared worldwide. “As the brutal crackdown of protesters by Lebanese security forces continue, the movement spearheaded by Lebanon’s youth can count on social media as its biggest weapon to hit back with,” Ilija says. “As long as this continues, and as long as the movement grows, it will become more evident to everyone that this is not only about the garbage situation in Lebanon, but more so with the continuous corruption that has plagued the country for so long.”

Social media has allowed members of the movement to maintain control of their aims and message when they could have been derailed. Lebanon’s media has been criticised by many as being on the authorities’ side. The French-language daily newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour called violent protesters “scum” who “infiltrated” the peaceful protest, in an article headlined: Who unleashed the dogs at the protests?, Ilija told me. Class issues also arose when some implied those using violence were from the lower socio-economic strata of Lebanese society. But social media provided a platform for campaigners to discuss these issues and rectify rifts. “I think most people who relate to this cause are worried about sustaining the momentum of this movement, and social media is crucial in this regard, as it is the only platform where people who aren’t politically affiliated can organise and coordinate their efforts,” Soraya said. “This doesn’t happen a lot, and most of us are ‘rookies’ when it comes to resorting to the streets to advocate for our rights.”

Sectarian party alliances based on protesters’ political allegiances formed after the Cedar Revolution. But Ilija says Lebanon’s youth want to avoid that. “After a decade of sectarianism blighting Lebanon, an important factor is that the majority of the protesters are vehemently against fragmenting the movement along these sectarian lines,” he said. And revolts and revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries are providing inspiration. “From the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square to the demonstrations in Gezi Park in Istanbul, the power of social media is unmistakably clear,” Ilija says. “But there still needs to be a strategy. As the days go by this movement is showing its real potential in actually achieving some much needed change in Lebanon.”

“Exciting things are happening beyond the #YouStink campaign, people once again believe in collective action and alternative groups are starting to form and collaborate, groups with a broader vision, striving for social justice and an eradication of the sectarian regime,” Soraya said. “These groups will not be silenced, and will not be intimidated by state violence.”

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Volunteering: You’re doing it wrong

This article was published by The Vocal on August 18, 2015.

It is often said that adversity brings out the best and the worst in people. That rarely rings true more than when disaster strikes.

After catastrophic earthquakes killed almost 9000 people in Nepal in April and May this year, and left thousands more living in tents as monsoon season approached, organisations and individuals from across the world mobilised to offer support. This scenario plays out time and again, proving that, while humans can sometimes be pretty sucky, they more often than not react to their fellow humans’ suffering with compassion.

So. Let’s take the Nepal earthquakes as an example. You see there’s massive damage and loss of life in what is already an economically-challenged country. You’ve got a couple of weeks’ leave up your sleeve, or you’re on break from uni, and you feel compelled to do something to help.

But how best to do so, you wonder?

First of all, if you’re planning on volunteering, as opposed to taking a non-government organisation job that comes with a wage that puts you somewhere near the 1% while you live in a developing country, then congratulations! You’re already on the right path – feel free to tick the box that says you are someone who is motivated by genuine compassion, rather than a pay cheque.

But not everyone gets it right. Here in Nepal, there are plenty of ‘volunteers’ getting around who probably only have a few snaps of the damaged Durbar Square and have been no further out of Kathmandu. These people assume a few different guises.

There’s the lost soul who is looking for a raison d’etre, but who most often finds their existential rationale in the pub: these people are often ultimately well-meaning, but they just can’t get it together enough to actually do something. This person closely resembles the strung-out wanderer, who has been bouncing from developing country to natural disaster for decades: they give a hand here and there, but mostly they’re looking for ways to live on a shoestring while eating lots of shrooms. And there’s the vocal do-gooder who walks around the city (which is notably nowhere near the disaster zone) in a t-shirt proclaiming they are a VOLUNTEER, but who is just after bragging rights for when they get back home: these people will usually have a picture of themselves and a cute little brown kid as their profile picture.

Sadly, volunteering is fraught with potential potholes. Shady characters know that people’s good natures are easy to take advantage of. But, there are a few simple things you can do in order to avoid falling into one of the above categories of faux-volunteer, and to avoid being used for evil instead of good.

1. Do your research

It’s a sad, sad fact that there are some seriously shitty human beings out there. Orphanages are a favourite for volunteers in Nepal. All those sweet little nanys (the Nepali word that applies to anyone below thigh-height) who just need someone to care for them. But beware!

Aforementioned shitty human beings have been known to kidnap children and force them to live in squalid conditions to arouse the sympathy of well-meaning visitors and volunteers, who donate cash that goes directly into the pockets of the shitheads operating the ‘orphanages’. But don’t despair! There are some truly wonderful organisations, like Umbrella, who really are working to make people’s lives better, and these groups will always need justice fighters on their sides. Team up with the right mob, and you really will be able to make a difference.

Equally, if you’re paying to volunteer, get your detective on and find out as much as you can about who you’re paying, why, and where the money goes. If children are involved, be especially cautious!

2. Go micro

Not all large NGOs or charities are soulless, corporate entities that do little more than provide jobs to privileged foreigners who make a living ‘helping’. But they can be. Often their overheads are high (owing to the exorbitant wages said privileged foreigners are paid) and their output low – many Nepalis are fully aware that a limited amount of aid money actually made it to the Haitian people after their devastating earthquake, and they’re worried the same thing will happen in their country.

The aid industry is a murky one, so if you’re not sure about one of the big NGOs, why not look for a grassroots or local organisation? It’s still important to do background research, but their intentions are often clearer – they won’t be driving brand-new jeeps, for example, or staying in five-star hotels.

The aid industry is a murky one, so if you’re not sure about one of the big NGOs, why not look for a grassroots or local organisation?

3. Go your own way

I met an Irishman called Patrick who took four weeks’ leave from his job teaching deaf children to see what he could do in post-quake Nepal. He knew another Irishman who had set up a small NGO teaching kids English, so Patrick decided to see if he wanted a hand. On spotting a school next to his guesthouse, Patrick wandered in out of curiosity to see what the Nepali teaching style was. Next thing he knew, he was lined up to ‘freelance’ at schools across Nepal, and with this he was very pleased.

A volunteer doctor told a friend (who I coerced into visiting me in Nepal) that she met a photojournalist who decided he could best help by highlighting all the parts of the country that were open for business and as stunningly beautiful as ever. Taxi drivers, hotel owners, food and beverage purveyors and retailers who rely on tourism – a large part of Nepal’s economy – are lamenting their lack of business, as visitors are yet to return. “We want people to come, there has been no one here since the earthquake,” a Kathmandu hotelier, Keshab, said.

The ‘turn up and see what needs doing’ route can be problematic – an influx of volunteers immediately following a disaster puts a strain on limited resources and can cause unnecessary pressure on relief co-ordinators. Many people issued pleas to volunteers to hold off arriving until the worst of the aftermath was dealt with. But even now, many Nepalis are without homes or proper shelters three months after the earthquakes.

The ‘turn up and see what needs doing’ route can be problematic

There are plenty of people just doing what they can to help out – clearing rubble, or organising deliveries of corrugated iron to villages to build shelters. When the drama of a natural disaster wears off and its repercussions slip from the front pages, it’s easy to forget people will continue to need help into the future. In Nepal, at least, there is still plenty of work to be done. The trick is simply in finding the best way to help out.

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The Prophet effect

This article was published by Going Down Swinging on August 10, 2015.

I picked up my first copy of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet in Beirut in June last year, but I was too busy having a good time roaming about the country to read it – despite visiting Gibran’s village of birth, Becharre.

I felt The Prophet was one of those books that deserved my due attention, and I wasn’t in a frame of mind to give it.

Baha’i philosophy holds that, throughout the course of humanity, Messengers of God will reveal spiritual truths when the time is right for us to receive their wisdom. These progressive revelations will come to us, the Baha’i say, when we’ve forsaken previous teachings and need to be returned to the right path.

The time for Khalil Gibran to write his masterpiece was as World War One came to an end. Thanks to the imperial powers’ prolonged conflict, suffering was widespread. In Gibran’s homeland Lebanon, under the hand of the Ottomans, an estimated one third to one half of the population starved to death or succumbed to disease.

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