Thousands of protestors from across Lebanon, angry at what they see as a corrupt political class incapable of providing citizens with everyday services, converged on downtown Beirut on Saturday. Amid tight security the demonstrators waved Lebanese flags and gathered at the city’s famous Martyr’s Square, which straddles the Muslim-Christian dividing line from the country’s 15-year civil war.
“Declare it a revolution!” one man shouted from a megaphone as armored cars were deployed outside Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s office.
Saturday’s event followed similar demonstrations last week which spiraled into violence when protestors clashed with police as part of the “You Stink” campaign to vent frustrations over mountains of uncollected garbage piling up in the city. Protest organisers blamed the violence on “infiltrators” linked to specific political interests.
A historical first
Uncharacteristic of previous mass protests in Lebanon, the new movement is not organised by a single political party.
“This mobilisation we see today is different. It is not politicised, it is not linked to any political movement,” said Jad Chaaban, an economics professor at the American University of Beirut. “This is important – the movement was able to unite people who are disgusted by politicians,” he added.
Families and people of all ages took part in Saturday’s rally, the biggest in Lebanon’s history without any political backing. Organisers used the demonstration to call for new parliamentary elections and the resignation of the country’s environment minister, Mohammed Machnouk, who has overseen the mismanagement of the garbage crisis.
The problem began in mid-July when the government shut down the country’s biggest landfill, which had already been filled to more than seven times its intended capacity. Lebanon’s health minister warned that the backup of garbage on the streets could contaminate the water supply – not to mention the toxic fumes created when fed up residents resort to burning garbage outside.
A spokeswoman for the “You Stink” group said they have given the government 72 hours to begin responding to their demands.