Lebanon: You stink! The Tol3et Rihetkom movement story.

This have been first published the 1st of August in “Voices of the Middle East Blog” here. A blog held by Mariam Tuma. (Twitter: @mariamjxde)

Changes from the initial post will be in Italic.

“We’re in the midst of a political, environmental and social crisis in Lebanon. Allow me to begin with the most obvious and explicit issue; the garbage or waste management.

The issue is actually quite simple; Sukleen, the “privatized” company that manages the garbage and waste of Beirut and the Mount Lebanon province (Jabal Lebnen) have been dumping rubbish in a landfill in the Naameh countryside, south of Beirut. The landfill was due to close many years ago, in 2004! But the government kept postponing the deadline and Sukleen continued to fill the landfill well over its initial capacity. Weeks ago, the Naameh residents, decided that it was enough and that the landfill should be closed for real, and not have its deadline postponed again. In fact, they stopped Sukleen trucks the day of the legally contracted deadline, so technically, nothing illegal was done. On the contrary, they were merely enforcing the law.

The government knew about this deadline, they’re the ones who made the contract with the private (not so private) Sukleen company, but they’ve done absolutely nothing to prevent the current crisis. So, logically, Sukleen stopped collecting the garbage because it had nowhere to dump it. As a result, the narrow streets of Beirut were quickly drowning in rubbish, suffocating the already nonexistent side walks (Lebanon is not very pedestrian friendly).

First week of the garbage crisis. 

Thursday, while Beirut citizens were breathing hazardous waste, smoke and fumes (due to the burning of rubbish by angry civilians), the government was arguing over another political and sectarian crisis. They basically discussed that issue for ten minutes at the end of their meeting and decided to postpone the discussion about the rubbish issue and its solution to Tuesday. The people living of Beirut had to wait another 5 days covered in rubbish. The government acted as though it was the least of their worries. Some citizens decided they had enough and were tired of this, so they accordingly organised a protest centered around the slogan “طلعت ريحتكم”, basically translating to “Your Stench is Revealed” or “You Stink” the upcoming Saturday.

The movement had no political backing, was non-partisan and was based solely on the needs of the people. It had one simple demand: that the government do its job. But we didn’t want any new landfills that were dangerous for the people, we wanted a real solution; a green and environmental solution, one that we could be proud of. It was an anti-government protest, combined with a pro-green and environment aspect. We don’t want our waste to simply be dumped in the poorer areas of Lebanon.
The protest wasn’t huge, but its existence was highly important, it was truly representative of those living in Lebanon; Lebanese and foreigners alike. It showed that we were tired of the sectarian government, and its passivity over the simplest of issues. The garbage on the streets was quite frankly representative of the government. Their uselessness were represented in our streets.

That day we expressed our anger and frustration, which we have every right to do. The organizers of the protest also brought a green advocate and NGO president of T.E.R.R.E Liban, Paul Abi Rached, to explain how the government overlooked the issue and the solution him and dozens of other activists brought upon the last government. He also stressed about how easy the solution was and how reparation of garbage at the source were important. We immediately threw our plastic bottles in a bag and tissues in another bag; we began separating our rubbish. A change was happening in regards to our bad environmental habits.

Shortly after, news came that the mayor of Beirut had “found” a “solution” regarding the garbage in Beirut, that it was ready to be taken out as soon as Sunday. We knew at the protest that it was a trap, we simply didn’t want any new landfills. Sukleen did remove the garbage the Sunday from some neighborhoods, but when they got near the new landfills, guess what? No body wanted Beirut’s garbage, and rightly so. The new landfills located near Jiyeh (between Saida and Beirut), were accepted by the mayor but not the people. The highway towards the Lebanese south was blocked for several hours Sunday and Monday to protest the matter. On Tuesday, well before dawn, Activists of “طلعت ريحتكم” followed Sukleen trucks and caught them dumping the garbage in the Beirut river! Landfills were suddenly appearing all over the country and people sent their pictures and videos to condemn the practice.

The government had unsurprisingly postponed the Tuesday meeting (mostly because they didn’t agree on their sectarian problems) but protesters were there, showing our non-partisanship, demanding again that the government do its job, we didn’t identify with the 8 March or the 14 March coalitions, in fact, we wanted them to leave. A lot of chants were present, chants that condemned Solidere, the company that killed Beirut heritage, tied to Hariri and therefore to Sukleen. Why were the upscale neighborhoods of Solidere clean when the other neighborhoods (with much more people) were still dirty?

We spontaneously blocked several roads toward the Martyrs Sqare and created a lot of congestion. Some people may criticize this and they have every right to do so, but the protests were peaceful, and it was to show the authorities that a few hundreds of people in Beirut can disturb the status quo. We don’t need a political “leader” behind us to block roads.

We decided to march towards Hamra after a lively debate among ourselves, yes, some shouted at others, but the majority, after a vote, decided that marching to Hamra, and other parts of Beirut, was better than staying in the Downtown area. This was especially due to the fact that  not many people lived (besides basically the 1%). We truly demonstrated that we were a democratic movement. More democratic, at least, than the parliament that decided to extend their mandate twice, without asking the Lebanese people if they liked the decision or not!

And then, with that, another episode was unfolding; one that reveals the true coercive status of the Lebanese politicians. When we were marching towards the interior ministry and the ministry of the environment some protesters dared to attack what looked like a politician’s car. It was the car of Minister Derbas, the social affairs minister. The media is reducing the affair to 4 people; Bilal, Ihab, Tarek and Firas, however many more were involved by blocking the car and throwing rubbish on it. We were harmless, just angry. Tarek was arrested as a result. I don’t remember if Tarek were arrested on the spot, but his name was already circulating in the media just after the protest and the long march that led us back to Riad el Soloh. I left before Firas, Ihab and Bilal were arrested, much later in the night.

Quickly news emerged about how Tarek Mallah had already a judicial history with Minister Derbas, and the stories of Ihab and Bilal demonstrated this. They were arrested not only because they dared to touch a minister car, but were interrogated on Tarek. The story of Tarek is simple, he is an orphan who spent more than 13 years of his life in Dar el Fatwa orphanage, a Muslim organization. There he was raped and reported this. Minister Derbas overlooked the case. So as a result Tarek Mallah sponsored a case against Derbas legally, with no outcome.

What followed were two days of pressure. Bilal and Ihab were released Wednesday, Firas and Tarek Friday. Bilal and Ihab described how they were psychologically harassed by the anti-terrorism forces. They were forced to strip down in front of each other and were put in black masks as if they were some IS members. They were also put under pressure to denounce Tarek Mallah, clearly from orders of Derbas. This just proves how easy it is for any minister to use coercive force. Derbas is officially “independent” in the government. But that doesn’t make him any better than other coalitions minister.

We decided to reorganize ourselves and to plan something bigger. Our goal is to stop the plan that says Sukleen must be divided between different industrialists in the basis of sects. We want the government to at least care about the environment. Our group is representative of a large spectrum of ideologies; Marxists, leftists, liberals etc. We don’t have a single ideology that represents us but we have the same goal, that the government does its job regarding the environment and that it should be held responsible and transparent over the current crisis. We’re not unambitious, we’re just focusing our energy in the first step, and I hope, towards bigger goals.”

Saturday 8th August, tol3et rihetkom is protesting at the Martyrs Square, Downtown Beirut, 6PM. If you care about living in a green Lebanon, bring all the people you can and demand that the government do a proper job.

I am photographing the protests and making short videos. See pictures here and videos here

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