Could ‘YouStink’ be the instigator of true change in Lebanon?
LAU political science experts reflect on the path that led to the civic movement and on its future prospects.
What began as demonstrations demanding the collection of garbage piled up on Beirut’s streets has evolved — since its onset in August — into a wider show of discontent with Lebanon’s political class. The kind of mass mobilization that Lebanon has witnessed in the past months has been, in many aspects, unprecedented both in the country and in the region.
“This movement has both created new fault lines within the Lebanese society and moved us away from sectarian mobilization,” says LAU Associate Professor of Political Science Bassel Salloukh, co-author of The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, published by Pluto Press. While previous uprisings — such as the Cedar Revolution in 2005 — had seen the involvement of external parties, according to Salloukh, the present movement is endogenous and encompasses a cross-section of Lebanese society.
In Salloukh’s view, the desirable evolution — and indeed, the only viable option — would be the creation of a minority that would slowly bring about change within the current political system. “This is a very powerful sectarian system as it has many people benefitting from it,” he says. “Violence is therefore a lost battle. What is really needed is a change of the electoral law.”
The merger between sectarian affiliations and politics is, however, precisely the characteristic that has set Lebanon apart from other Arab states. In his book, Salloukh describes the developments that brought sectarian identities to be institutionalized into the political system at a very early stage after Lebanon’s independence in the form of a power-sharing agreement, something that did not happen in other Arab countries.
Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Makram Ouaiss argues that “Lebanon differs in that its parties can rally thousands of people at the snap of a finger.” This makes it hard to think that the new movement could actually topple the system. A more likely scenario would be one of gradual progress, where the judiciary, the media and the civil society all play a part in promoting transparency and accountability.
YouStink has already achieved more than previous movements have done in the past. As part of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), Ouaiss has closely observed the development of the the movement, whose members were also active within LADE. In his estimation, the past several years have been characterized by advocacy on some key political themes, however the failure to conduct new elections in 2013 shifted the attention of the population to the political system.
“Even though 80 percent of the people wanted elections, there was no willingness to take civil action,” he says. “When the Naameh landfill was closed and no plan B had been studied by the government beforehand, this galvanized people’s anger.”
According to Ouaiss, the disconnect between the political class and the voters is increasingly evident to the Lebanese, who are becoming more vocal in requesting a response to their needs and demands. He does not, however, consider the evolution of the YouStink movement into an institutionalized political force to be a priority. “Resolving real problems is the first aim,” he says, citing among the main requests the resolution of the trash problem, the creation of consultation committees, the release of arrested protesters and the release of municipal funds.
“For the first time all parties feel in the same corner,” says Ouaiss. “What has begun is a gradual process aimed at the good of a country, not of a community.”
Photos: Youssef Naiim.