#youstink: The Lebanese challenge for change

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Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut, where some of the protests take place / Jenna Hage-Hassan

On April 13, 1975, a series of events were set in motion that would later be considered the start of the Lebanese Civil War.  This seventeen-year conflict would leave over 100,000 dead, and the devastation and destruction it wielded on the Lebanese and their society is still hard-felt to this day.  The de-facto “beginning of the end” of this war came in 1989 with the international Taif Agreement.  The main purpose of this agreement was to end the bloodshed, and it accomplished this to some extent.  The unforeseen consequences of what it achieved, however, have had a destabilizing effect on the country.

This agreement called for a great deal of things.  Among them, the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarmament of militias, but what most Lebanese take from it is the sectarian system of government it put in place.  Before I describe what the Taif Agreement did, I would like you to keep in mind that it is still in place today.  The agreement articulated the principle of “mutual coexistence” between Lebanon’s 18 different religious communities.  It accomplished this by restructuring the country’s electoral laws to allow for power sharing between said communities.  Practically, what this means is that all government positions, ministries, top military positions, and even parliamentary seats are divided and allocated on the basis of religion.  Lebanon’s president must be Maronite Catholic, prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, speaker of parliament, a Shia Muslim, and so on.  The Taif Agreement intended for this system to be temporary, although a time frame for its phasing out was not put into place.

In the decades since 1989, and even the cessation of violence associated with the civil war in 1992, Lebanon has teetered on the edge between conflict and stability.  Because of the country’s unique place in the region and the world, it is difficult to point to one specific cause for the chronic instability; what is clear is that the Lebanese government is simply unable to perform its basic functions.  I would go so far as to classify the country as a failed state.  The government does not provide basic daily necessities, most notably, electricity and water, and has not since the 1970s.  The government does not have a monopoly of the use of force.  Its ability to make decisions even comes into question, as the powerful parties that formed during and after the civil war exert more power than the state in certain areas.  The list goes on, and the situation in the country is really much more ominous than I can find the words to describe.

In August 2015, what seemed like an all too familiar scene began to unfold in Beirut.  Citizens, angry over a recent trash-collection crisis took to the streets to demand an immediate solution.  The government, for all intents and purposes, did nothing.  It is worth mentioning here that the country has been without a president for over a year, as its leaders have not been able to agree on a candidate.  Moreover, these very leaders, rather than hold an election, extended their own mandate until 2017.  The peaceful protests continued, now, not only calling for a solution to the waste crisis, but also calling for immediate parliamentary elections.  There have been reports and instances of violence towards protesters, and the prime minister and his government have not responded in any meaningful way.

The trash crisis was but a catalyst for a greater movement.  It was a very visible symptom of the failed state that Lebanon has become, and the youth of the country is fed up.  Peaceful protesters have been water cannoned, intimidated, kidnapped, and riddled with bullets on the streets of Beirut.  This must stop.

I have always been so very proud of my parent’s ancestral homeland.  I was traveling a few years ago with a friend in Jordan, and we were having lunch with her family.  As with all dining tables in the Middle East, politics came up, and I remember saying something critical of the Lebanese government.  My Jordanian friend pressed me on it, and I was puzzled by her objection.  In her view, regardless of whether or not your country is in the wrong, you absolutely never say anything critical of it.  Her father smiled, and said something to her that I will never forget.  He told her that she is forgetting where I come from.  “She is Lebanese-American.  The Americans invented civil liberties, and the Lebanese brought them to the Arab World.  She has no concept of what you are saying.”

I speak for myself, not any organization or movement when I say shame upon the Lebanese government and security forces, shame upon them.  This is not Lebanon, and not what the coming generation,my generation wants it to be.  With the protest movement that is now spreading around the world, I have seen young Lebanese from all religious and socioeconomic background united for a common purpose. I have seen Maronites standing with Sunnis, Shias with Druze, and everyone coordinating and connecting on a level that is truly moving.  Something must change—and now is the time.

It is time that this government resign; time for them to stand aside so future candidates can be elected on the basis of merit, not by family name or religion.  It is time for Lebanon join the rest of the world in the 21st century.