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HomeMiddle EastLebanon’s ‘You Stink’ Protesters Stage Sit-In, Demanding Minister’s Resignation

Lebanon’s ‘You Stink’ Protesters Stage Sit-In, Demanding Minister’s Resignation

Middle East
Video Protesters took over the office of Lebanon’s environment minister in the capital on Tuesday, calling on him to resign for failing to find a solution to the garbage crisis.
By ANNE BARNARD
September 1, 2015

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Demonstrators from the “You Stink” movement, protesting a garbage pileup and political dysfunction, occupied the offices of Lebanon’s environment minister in downtown Beirut on Tuesday, declaring that they would stay until he resigned.

On Tuesday evening, after an hourslong standoff, the riot police cleared them from the offices, with local news media reporting that some demonstrators were injured. Activists posted pictures on Twitter from inside the building of what they said were rough arrests; one man could be seen on the ground with his shirt pulled over his head to cover his face and uniformed officers brandishing truncheons.

Up until then, the occupation by the demonstrators had been peaceful. Interior Ministry security police officers stood outside the building and the environment minister, Mohammad Machnouk, said he would remain inside and in office. Videos the protesters posted online showed at least a dozen of them sitting along the sides of a hallway, grinning, singing, cheering and chanting: “Leave! Leave! Leave!” They called on the public to join them, and chanting crowds soon gathered on sidewalks outside as organizers called for a larger demonstration to begin at Riad al-Solh Square nearby.

The sit-in signaled a new phase of the movement, which drew its largest crowd yet to central Beirut on Saturday as thousands demonstrated peacefully in a rare show of unity from a public often divided along political and religious lines. Organizers had given officials three days — a deadline that expires Tuesday evening — to meet their demands, including Mr. Machnouk’s resignation, or face what they called escalation. The government, not used to this mode of protest, appeared not to have prepared a graceful way to react.

Inside the minister’s offices, the air-conditioning was turned off and the bathrooms were locked. The police gave the protesters half an hour to vacate, and as the minutes counted down to the deadline, they could be seen on videos fanning themselves with papers. Outside, Lebanese Army armored vehicles arrived and riot police officers gathered. While it is not unusual for the army, considered the least partisan of Lebanon’s security forces, to take part in keeping civic order, protesters said it seemed like overkill.

Lebanese news channels broadcast for a time from inside the ministry headquarters, as the demonstrators sought to provide a kind of national tutorial on nonviolent protest tactics.

“They don’t understand that we are doing civil disobedience,” one organizer, Imad Bazzi, told a reporter when asked what they would do if police officers entered. “We will not leave. And of course we will not confront them.”

The demonstrations began in July over the mountains of garbage that piled up after political disputes disrupted trash pickup, and expanded to include the general gridlock and corruption that paralyze government services and the economy.

But questions about whether and how the movement can sustain and broaden itself remain. It is unclear if it can win concrete results from a political class that has counted on inertia and division to deflect challenges to its rule.

“We want to have some small successes so we can fight more,” said Lucien Bourjeily, one of the small group of protesters that initially coined the name You Stink, a jab at political leaders on all sides.

“The challenge is to be able to be responsible for this historical moment that happened on Saturday,” he said in an interview hours before the sit-in began. “We want to make sure that the momentum continues and that we start winning one battle after the other.”

The focus on Mr. Machnouk reflected this pragmatic approach: He is the person most visibly responsible for the immediate sanitation crisis, since his ministry handles trash disposal. And he is closely identified with the centrist prime minister, Tammam Salam, making him a symbol of the government in general and allowing protesters to deflect concerns that they are serving either side in Lebanon’s main political divide between Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group, and its primary rival, the Future Movement.

Since the demands were issued, Mr. Machnouk has resigned from a committee created to manage the garbage problem — but not from the cabinet.

”Can you imagine, the minister of environment stepped down from the committee that deals with the garbage, but he is still a minister,” said Mr. Bourjeily, a theater director. “Who should deal with it then?”

You Stink is a loose-knit group that includes longtime good-government activists and political neophytes. The organizers say they are making decisions along with a committee of citizens from different sectors of society.

Existing labor, environmental and other organizations have been broadly supportive of the You Stink movement, joining protests even when they disagree on goals or tactics. But so far, there have been few concrete results; while garbage has been picked up in fits and starts, it has been dumped illegally and there is no long-term plan for collection and disposal.

Other You Stink demands so far include accountability for security forces’ attacks on protesters at earlier demonstrations, money for municipalities to handle their garbage collection, and parliamentary elections, which have been postponed twice amid a political impasse.

As supporters gathered outside the office building, which houses the ministry along with private businesses, riot police officers lined up in formation nearby.

The scene unfolded in the heart of downtown Beirut, just across from Roman ruins, the central clock tower and the pedestrian area of Nejmeh Square, and two of the city’s grandest houses of worship, a mosque and a church that stand side by side.

The protesters insisted that they did not want to talk to anyone but the minister himself and would not leave until he stepped down. But the prime minister was quoted in local news media as saying that he had “ruled out” the resignation of Mr. Machnouk.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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(via NY Times)