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Reflections on protests in sectarian system.

Summary: Last month Bassem Youssef did his first stand-up comedy in the Middle East.

Last month Bassem Youssef did his first stand-up comedy in the Middle East. His opening joke? Lebanon has outdone all its Arab counterparts. "By having no president, Lebanese have nothing to protest against. They took the streets last year to protest against the garbage!" Many of my activist friends at Bassem's show did not chuckle at this joke because to us the 2015 summer protests were spurred by the garbage crisis but the protesters carried deeper grievances than the garbage itself. It is precisely because the protesters framed the garbage crisis as a political crisis that the protest movement was doomed to begin with. One year later waste management in Lebanon has been returned to its status quo, or perhaps been worsened. Not only has Sukleen regained control at lower environmental standards and higher cost but most of the garbage that was piling up is now in our sea and mountains. So what can we learn from this other than that Lebanese political elite still stink even at providing the very basics of public services? Lebanon did not witness mass uprisings such as the ones experienced in Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt in 2010 and 2011. The Lebanese system instead appears to maintain a strong path of dependence on a century-old power-sharing formula that is based on sectarian representation. But the absence of mass uprisings should not be mistaken as the absence of mass grievances or political oppositions felt by citizens across sectarian communities. Grievances culminated a year ago amid a massive Syrian refugee crisis, electricity and water shortages, political deadlock and mounts of garbage piling up. A group of activists gathered under the slogan of "You Stink" initiated a series of sit-ins following the closing of the Naameh landfill. On July 25, a mere 1,000 citizens took part in a first march in Downtown Beirut. A handful of activists threw garbage bags at the Grand Serail while others chanted slogans against the sectarian system. The "You Stink" movement unleashed a series of protests and led to other movements including "We Want Accountability" and "To the Street" to express their discontent with the political class through a series of protests.

The Lebanese system reacted with violence and mass arrests of protest organizers. Tens of unarmed civilians were arrested over the course of the summer, hundreds were injured, and thousands were attacked with live bullets and water cannons. In response to violence on Aug. 23, police erected a concrete barrier in Downtown Beirut. The largest protest was on Aug. 20. Media reported more than 150,000 citizens for the first time in Lebanon's history took the streets. Protesters were explicitly non-partisan and insisted to claim this whenever being interviewed by media reporters. In fact, scores of citizens claimed they were either Muslim, Christian or Druze but that they were taking part as true Lebanese nationals who believe that the government has failed at the simplest task of picking up the trash.

Gradually demands for political change and a sustainable waste management solution dwindled. Why would demands as simple as finding a solution to waste trigger such oppressive and violent responses from the political class? To answer this question we need to consider the very essence of the relations between the protesters and the state in Lebanon. After the Civil War the same political elite agreed on an amnesty law that allowed them to enter Parliament and ministries as government executives and to gear state resources for partisan and sectarian interests. Because waste management is a lucrative sector the protesters threatened their interests. A reflection on the protest, one year later, allows us to capture how the political elite expressed their frustrations by deploying six mechanisms of co-optation and threat that politicians used to stifle the protest movements. The first three are:

Co-optation through discourse, which happens when politicians adopt the demands of protesters and make claims similar to the demands of protesters. For example following the largest protest on Aug. 29, the Free Patriotic Movement organized a mass rally in which the energy minister himself shared the complaint of protesters about electricity cuts.

Co-optation through infiltration also took place in 2015 when the protests that are overtly anti-political class attracted scores of partisan supporters raising diverging slogans or confusing the media about the demands of the protesters.

Co-optation through dialogue occurred when the National Dialogue table brought together yet again politicians without reaching any agreement. While politicians debated a new president, protesters tried to block the roads demanding immediate solutions to the garbage.

The remaining three are mechanisms of threat. The threat of violence occurred with security forces arrested more than 40 civilian protesters calling them by their names and rendering the movement almost leaderless. Although the arrests backfired briefly because more and more protesters empathized, on the long term it hurt the movement with imminent arrests lurking at every subsequent protest. The threat to co-existence took place in 2015 when politicians directly claimed that protests could shake the sectarian status quo. Lebanese politicians claimed Lebanon cannot afford a revolt and that protests were allowing hooligans to destroy Downtown Beirut. Threat to economic interests took place by signaling to their supporters not to join the protests. Given the clientelistic nature of Lebanese politics and absence of quality public services economic benefits are granted in return of support to political elite.

These six mechanisms should not deter further movements. They are a mere call for reflective analysis and future predictability about how the Lebanese system can and will react to mass protests that threaten the interests of political elite within the state. Polarization between March 8 and March 14 factions should not be mistaken as division among their ranks. In effect and on all public policy issues March 8 and March 14 factions converge. They shared the same stances of co-optation and threat only to end up by consensus selecting Sukleen again to manage the waste. In the 2016 municipal elections in Beirut, a new independent campaign called "Beirut Madinati" coincided with the coalescence of March 8 and March 14 factions to support a Hariri-backed list in Beirut. The protests of 2015 should be invested in a deep reflection on how a cross-sectarian movement can co-opt and threaten political elite in the future, rather than run the risk of being co-opted and threatened out of existence.

Carmen Geha is an assistant professor for Public Administration at the American University of Beirut, she is author of "Civil Society and Political Reform in Lebanon and Libya." Her research focuses on public reform in weak states and power-sharing systems. This article is part of publications on mobilization dynamics in Lebanon. She holds a doctorate in international relations from the University of St. Andrews.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Aug 22, 2016
Words:1149
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