Anti-trash protests reveal fragility of Lebanese state

Anti-trash protests reveal fragility of Lebanese state

Recent demonstrations in downtown Beirut turned violent last week after security forces used water cannons and tear gas against protesters who are calling for an end to the country’s trash crisis. Such security concerns are having a negative impact on Beirut’s tourism and services sectors.

Recent protests in downtown Beirut led by an informal group calling themselves Til’at Reehitkum (“You Stink”) have sent a ripple of uncertainty across Lebanon. The movement, formed as a result of the government’s failure to dispose of the city’s trash, is not only calling for an end to the infamous trash crisis, but also endemic corruption and lack of electricity and water for average citizens.

If the government fails to address the protesters’ concerns, demonstrations are likely to continue to grow stronger and more aggressive, threatening the already fragile stability of the Lebanese state.

An end to the trash crisis?

At the root of recent protests in Beirut is frustration over the government’s failure to effectively dispose of trash in Beirut. Starting in July, trash began piling up on the streets of the city after the country’s largest landfill, Naameh, grew over capacity. Trash bins were quickly filled to the brim, and people complained of the smell and the potential health hazards posed by the garbage pile up.

The “You Stink” movement started as a small, informal group of students who began protesting the trash crisis. The group has quickly grown, however, into a campaign opposed to general corruption within the country’s political class.

On Saturday, thousands gathered in Martyrs’ Square in solidarity against ineffective leadership. Some were chanting “thawra” (“revolution”) while others demanded “hooriya” (“freedom”).

Major grievances in addition to the trash crisis include poor electricity, dwindling freshwater supplies, rising commodity prices, few new jobs, a struggling public transport infrastructure, and the absence of government policy to address the economic and environmental effects of the 1.3 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon.

Such problems are exacerbated by Lebanon’s ineffective and deeply sectarian political system. Leaders often pursue the interests of their own political party or religious community rather than the common interest.

The most visible effect of these problems is that Lebanon has remained without a president for more than a year, as lawmakers are unable to agree on a candidate to lead the country. Parliamentary elections have also been postponed until 2017.

So far, protests have been mostly peaceful, with some reports of violence between a handful of protesters and security forces. If government leaders fail to meet the demands of the people, however, demonstrations could become more aggressive and wide-spread.

Protests are a threat to short-term economic growth

Recent protests have also had a profound impact on downtown Beirut’s tourism and services sectors.

Media mentions of clashes between protesters and security forces have forced many tourists to cancel hotel and restaurant reservations in the city for fears of unrest becoming more widespread.

Director of Sales and Marketing at Le Grey Hotel, Hilal Saade, says “around 20 percent of reservations at Le Grey Hotel were canceled following the protests staged outside the Grand Serail,” adding that “some tourists called to cancel their reservations, especially because our hotel appeared many times on television while broadcasting these protests on satellite channels.”

Restaurant attendance has also been down in central Beirut since protests began. The president of the syndicate of restaurant owners near Grand Serail is also quoted as saying “there has been absolutely no activity in restaurants and shops in this area for the past three days…People working in the tourism sector are desperate nowadays.”

The long run economic effects of the protests are more unclear. If the government continues to be deadlocked in a political impasse, as it has for the past year, economic growth will remain challenging to achieve. Real structural changes to the government will be necessary to spur investment and domestic growth.

Moving forward

On Saturday, the “You Stink” movement gave the government 72 hours to meet its demands, including having the Minister of Environment step down for failing to manage the trash crisis and holding those responsible for violence against civilians during protests. If the government fails to meet these needs, larger protests are expected to rock Beirut on Tuesday.

About Author

Madeleine Moreau

Madeleine Moreau is the GRI Senior Commissioning Editor and a Senior Analyst currently based in Beirut, Lebanon. She specializes in investment risk and opportunity in the Middle East and has previously lived in Jordan and Morocco. Her work and insight have appeared in several leading publications, including Business Insider, TechCrunch,, The Atlantic Council, Yahoo News and OZY. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Arabic from Middlebury College.