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.”

Read the full article here

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