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An LBC camera crew has become the latest victim of violent Lebanese real estate companies seizing the country’s diminishing natural shores, destroying essential ecosystems for profit and assaulting anyone who tries to document their activities. The LBC crew was violently attacked on Wednesday while filming a new resort being built in the tiny village of Mansouri in South Lebanon, home to the country’s only untouched sand beach and rare sea turtle reserve.

The attack was recorded on the TV reporter’s cell phone and is now making the rounds on Facebook. As soon as the news camera pans toward the resort– built directly onto the public coastline, in what appears to be a clear violation of the constitution and international maritime conventions–a man comes charging toward the TV crew with his fist raised. He throws the cameraman to the floor and then yanks him up by his shirt, shouting in his face: “What are you doing you dick!

He then grabs a man helping the crew and holds him by the shirt: “Do you know who I am? If I want to shoot you I will shoot you, you dog!”

Get the hell out of here,” he repeats,  adding in the crudest terms: “kissikhtkoon bi aiiry (I’ll put my d*** in your sisters’ p****)!”

The man then approaches the woman being interviewed, Mona Khalil, who manages the turtle reserve and operates a small bed and breakfast nearby the new resort development, whose owners have not been revealed. The man rushes toward her and says. “I will burn tires in front of your house on orders of the Hezb (Hezbollah) and the Harke (Amal Movement).”

Watch the video here:

[ممنوع التصوير]

يوم تغيب الدولة.. يضرب الزعران..اوقفت شعبة المعلومات ح.ش (مواليد عام 1981) لإعتدائه على فريق LBCI اثناء اعدادهم تقرير حول محمية السلاحف البحرية في صور.(Source: LBCI)

Posted by STOP Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

 

The cell phone footage was used to open the LBC news bulletin, which condemned the destruction of Lebanon’s coast. It was also featured in the reporter’s news package and the broadcaster even ran a full in-studio interview with the reporter Sobhiya Najjar, for a first hand account on the attack she and her cameraman, Samir Baytamouni experienced.

بالتفاصيل – ماذا حصل مع فريق الـ LBCI في صور؟

بالتفاصيل – ماذا حصل مع فريق الـ LBCI في صور؟لمزيد من التفاصيل زوروا موقعنا https://goo.gl/8WESLg

Posted by LBCI Lebanon on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

 

Najjar said she was prompted to investigate the story after seeing a Facebook post by Khalil, who has been vigilantly documenting the resort development since construction began. She says the construction has been taking place slowly and secretively, and that the resort will put the turtle nesting project and the entire ecosystem at severe risk.

 

The attack began when the reporter was looking at the social impact side of the story by interviewing a young boy asking him what would happen if the beaches were privatized and closed to the local community. At that moment the man came out of nowhere swinging and punched the cameraman in the face.

Of course this developer must be afraid of our reporting because he just attacked us immediately, he didn’t even try to talk to us or ask who we were,” Najjar said.

Because the village of Mansouri is so small and has no mayor, Najjar said she requested and was granted permission from a local administrative official in Tyre before heading out to the site. But that same official curiously later accused her and the crew of breaking into the site and instigating violence against the assaulter.

The official also promised to provide the necessary permits proving that the resort was “legal” but then said the documents could only provided if Najjar handed over the attack footage. She simply told him he would see it on the evening news.

At this point, the interviewer also reminds viewers that according to a law recently passed by parliament, the media and the public have the right to access all government decisions and legislation.

Najjar ends by noting that this is not the first time her team has been attacked while reporting on a resort, with similar experiences in Adloun, an endangered coastal archeological site, as well as Ramlet El Baida, Beirut’s only public beach. Cameraman Baytamouni has also been attacked multiple times in the past.

LBC reported that the assailant was arrested and the crew waited at the turtle reserve until an army  escort arrived. But some worry the man could be bailed out of jail at any moment and that there will be no accountability for those further up the chain of command. It remains unclear who owns this resort.

It’s also important to note that not all journalists and citizen reporters carry the weight of LBC–one of the country’s largest and most influential media outlets– with its high level political and military contacts to get out of a jam. In May, an activist was attacked and his phone destroyed when trying to document the construction of Eden Bay resort in Beirut, which has also been built directly on the public sand coastline.

 

In February, straw huts used at the public beach nearby the Eden Bay resort were reportedly set on fire. Those who manage the area have frequently mobilized against the Eden Bay resort.

Arsonists apparently set fire to the straw huts at Beirut's only free public beach. This is the same beach that is being eyed by private developers. Will the police investigate?

Posted by Beirut Report on Tuesday, February 7, 2017

 

And in November of last year, an activist resisting the Eden Bay resort by pulling out its dredging hoses (reportedly installed illegally and subject to a constitutional lawsuit) was beaten and bloodied, as shown in this video:

Activist reportedly beaten after trying to sabotage dredging work at private high rise project (Eden Rock) on Beirut's…

Posted by Beirut Report on Tuesday, November 15, 2016

 

Finally I have personally been assaulted by developers when photographing ancient ruins discovered during the excavation of the massive District S project in downtown Beirut back in 2013. Site workers and supervisors locked me inside the project gates, tackled me and twisted my arms until I erased all photos I had taken of the ruins. The project is now going forward and all traces of the ancient history of Beirut on that spot have been erased. See previous post:

Getting physically assaulted today at District S site

 

The question begs asking: are real estate developers more powerful than the state itself? How exactly did we relinquish control over our country and its scarce natural resources to these violent, destructive and self-serving firms?

All of these attacks raise important questions about the lawless state of Lebanon’s multi-billion dollar real estate industry, its frequent destruction of public space and ecosystems and its intimate relationship with the country’s leading politicians, who have routinely bent or broken laws to make projects happen. Above all the real estate industry’s immense profitability is made possible by a shameful lack of environmental or labor regulations compounded by an utter lack of taxes paid into the system to cover the damages and drain on resources and infrastructure these mega projects cause.

In fact, as I have reported for the Guardian, there are over 1,000 illegal resorts built on Lebanon’s coast making immense profits and paying no taxes with many owned by politicians themselves. While police take pains to crack down on minor violations such as destroying tin fisherman shacks along the coast or possession of small amounts of cannabis among poor farmers, the police fail to take any action against multi-million dollar resorts and their wealthy and well-connected owners. And let’s remember these projects are not only local–many are financed, designed or executed by multinational corporations, regional, Western and global, seizing upon the opportunity to exploit a developing market with weak law enforcement and low to nonexistent tariffs or regulations to ensure public health, safety or sustainability. 

The only upside to this story is that exposure and shaming of these resorts and destructive projects is gaining ground with activist campaigns mushrooming over recent years and growing more sophisticated in their use of technology, visualizations, distribution channels as well as major lawsuits being launched. See this previous post for more details on the battle to save Lebanon’s coast:

Beirut’s stolen coast and the growing fight to get it back

 

Of course all this exposure is being made possible by advances in the breadth and reach of social media, but also by old school print and TV media, which is becoming increasingly bold.

At the end of her interview, Najjar is asked if she will continue to report on seafront projects despite the dangers posed to her and her crew.

“Of course. We are not here to do regular reporting. We are here today to play a role as the fourth estate. We are not here just to represent ourselves, we are here to represent the public interest. 

You know, no one dared even to speak to us on camera in Tyre. This shows you the kind of political backing this project has.”

Perhaps it is time responsible real estate developers also exercise some social and moral responsibility for the immense profits they are making. If there are ethical construction and real estate firms in Lebanon, will they condemn this activity and be transparent with the public? Or will they and the country’s politicians remain silent and complicit in their colleagues’ behavior?

 

Beirut activists are fighting hard to preserve two of the city’s key heritage sites and you can support them by attending a series of events they have prepared this week. The events are actually FREE (another endangered thing in Beirut) so all you have to do is show up. Scroll down for full schedule. 

Following several years of pro bono organizing, lobbying, researching and fundraising, volunteer urban activists have managed to put two Beirut sites on the list of 50 endangered sites worldwide as listed by the World Monument Fund’s Heritage Watch Day. To bring public and media attention to these rare surviving spaces, they have put together an impressive schedule of art exhibitions, films, music, food, cultural, environmental and educational events around Watch Day.  Follow the Heritage Watch Day Facebook page for updates.

The two endangered sites are Dalieh of Raouche peninsula, the only remaining natural headland in Beirut with a 7,000 year history; and Heneine Palace, one of the largest and only remaining buildings from the 1800s left in the city today.  Both sites are threatened by private developers. Both sites are part of vanishing historic neighborhoods. Both sites tell a story-a million stories- about us, our ancestors, our city, our country, our humanity. Both sites need your support, your pictures, your social media posts, your feet on the ground, to demonstrate that these places are important, valued and popular enough that demolishing them will cause a public uproar. 

A mega seafront project was planned for Dalieh,  but activist multi-pronged legal, design and research efforts have helped slow that. Meanwhile Heneine Palace is located in the heart of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Zokak el Blatt, which is rapidly being erased by glass towers, gentrification and real estate barons. Neither site is safe however, and activists need all the volunteers, voices, shares and feet they can get.

It all starts with an opening this Thursday at 4PM at Antwork (located on Spears road across from Future TV just before BarBar on the left) where you can pick up fliers and more info. It is followed by an exhibition at the ministry of tourism hamra exhibition space (yes activists are taking over the ministry, peacefully this time).  Other events will be taking place in Mansion (take a right after Bar Bar spears and head up the street with old mansions falling apart– it’s the yellow old mansion still in one piece. )

Here’s the full schedule below the map. Tell your friends, your cousins. Bring your mother. Scroll down to the end of post for event posters and GIFs at the end. Share, share, share.

Thursday, May 18th

  • Official Watch Day Launch and press conference for Dalieh and Heneine
    4:00pm, Antwork
  • Dalieh Exhibition launch
    6:00 pm, Glass Hall, Ministry of Tourism. The exhibition will continue until the 27th of May
    The work of the winners of 2015’s Dalieh Ideas Competition “Revisiting Dalieh: Calling for Alternative Visions along Beirut’s Coast” will be displayed alongside the work of universities, students and artists engaged with the coast.

In Zokak el-Blat

  • Screening of Jocelyne Saab’s movie, “A Suspended Life”
    7:00pm, Orient Institut

Friday, May 19th 

In Dalieh

  • Revealing of site-specific art interventions in collaboration with Temporary Art Platform. On view until Sunday May 21st.
    All day, Dalieh
    Thin White Line (Ieva Saudargaitė Douaihi), Dalieh’s Infinity Pool (Raymond Gemayel), The Flag (Omar Fakhoury), 4’50 (Omar Fakhoury)  Partially Occupy Darkness (Ghassan Maasri), The Invisible Soundtrack (Nadim Mishlawi), On the Same Wavelength (Pascal Hachem and Rana Haddad), Washzone (Mustapha Jundi), Kunsthalle 3000 (Thomas Geiger). 

In Zokak el-Blat

  • Exhibition launch: Zokak el-Blat Experiments – Heneine Palace and Other Possibilities
    Mansion, 9:00am to 9:00pm daily, until the 21st of May – Launch at 7:00pm
    Includes a virtual tour of the Heneine Palace – Models produced by school students during heritage workshops – Architecture projects produced by university students from USEK – Screening of film “Mapping Place Narratives: Beyhum Street” – Heritage situation overview by Save Beirut Heritage

Saturday, May 20th

In Zokak el-Blat
Celebrating Heritage: Heneine Palace and Zokak el-Blat (12:00pm – 8:00pm)

  • Souk el-Tayeb in Zokak el-Blat
    12:00am to 7:00pm, Hussein Beyhum Street
  • Guided Tours of Zokak el-Blat
    First departure at 3:00pm, last departure at 6:00pm.
    A tour takes around 1:30
    Meeting points: Grand Sérail, Al-Hout Mosque, National Evangelical Church
    A fewer number of tours could be provided on Sunday 21st
  • Readings, organized by the International Writers’ House in Beirut
    6:30pm to 8:00pm, Mansion
    Readings by Fadi Tofeili and Mounzer Baalbaki, followed by a debate
  • Exhibition: Zokak el-Blat Experiments – Heneine Palace and Other Possibilities
    Mansion, 9:00am to 7:30pm, until the 21st of May

In Dalieh

  • Candle-lit night vigil from Ramlet El Baida to Dalieh
    Meeting point at 6:30pm in front of the ‘Eden Rock’ project in Ramlet Baida
  • Open Air Film Screening of “Children of Beirut” by Sarah Srage
    8:30pm, Dalieh

Sunday, May 21st 

In Dalieh
Dalieh Festival (11:00am – 8:00pm)

  • Site-specific Interventions / Music and dance performances / Food Market by Souk el-Tayeb
    All day
  • Boat Tours with Dalieh’s Fishermen
    Every hour and a half, First departure at 11:00am., last departure at 5:00pm., from Dalieh’s port. Reservations and name registration on the day at the Dalieh info booth
  • On site Tours by members of the Dalieh Campaign
    Every two hours, First tour at 11:00 am, last tour at 5:00pm
    Meeting point and registration on the day at the Dalieh info booth
  • Speakers Corner
    12:00 am / 2:00pm / 4:00pm
    In several locations on Dalieh
  • Music & Spoken Words
    6:00pm-8:00pm
    With Ziad Itani, Jebebara, Zeid Hamdan, Tarek Bashasha & Zakaria Al Omar, Saseen Kawzally, Michelle and Noel, and many others

In Zokak el-Blat

  • Literary tour, organized by the International Writers’ House in Beirut
    10:30am to 12:30pm, in Zokak el-Blat, meeting point at the Bachoura Cemetery
    A walk of the neighborhood during which Fadi Tofeili will comment, from passages of his books, the places that he mentions in his writings.
  • Guided Tours of Zokak el-Blat (To be confirmed)
    First departure at 3:00pm. A tour takes around 1h30
    To be confirmed – Number of tours to be determined according to attendance

Feel free to share. Hashtags are #WatchDalieh #WatchHeneine

Use of Dalieh is believed to date back to the copper age (5,000BCE) and the site is also reportedly mentioned in ancient Greek myths.

Animated GIF  - Find & Share on GIPHY

 

 

 

Activists have put together this great new video looking at how Beirut’s natural rocky coastline has basically been stolen from the public, destroyed and turned into concrete marinas for private resorts.

 

What’s particularly interesting about the video is that it uses maps to illustrate the radical transformation of the shoreline and brazen transgressions of laws that were aimed at protecting it.

Take for example this map of the Beirut coast before real estate exploitation:

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And after:

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The video, which was produced by the lawyers’ collective Legal Agenda and the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh is based on investigative research that exposed the dubious decree 169 of 1989, which allowed the building of the Movenpick Hotel in contravention of coastal protection laws that preceded it. This set into motion a precedent that allowed more seizure of public coastal properties and the mushrooming of more resorts, as seen above.

Before the Movenpick:

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After:

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The good news is that decree 169 never went through official channels and was never published publicly, lawyers have found, creating grounds for the launching of a lawsuit against the state, which is currently pending.

In the meantime, more resorts are being planned, threatening to repeat the destruction caused by decree 169 and obliterate the last remaining stretch of public coast.

After a multi-pronged campaign of three years, activists have already challenged a major project planned for the coast of Dalieh and Raouche, and lobbied the Environment Ministry to issue a draft decree to protect the area. But it has yet to pass in Parliament and Dalieh may still may be threatened.

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The coast of Dalieh, source: Cedric Ghoussoub

Other projects are already underway including the massive Eden Rock marina and towers project, being built just a few feet from the waterline.

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Excavation for Eden Rock resort on Ramlet El Baida beach, source: Firas BouZeineddine
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Eden Rock excavation, source: Iffat Edriss Chatila

Last week activists made it down to the construction site and attempted to disrupt this public property seizure by yanking out the hoses being used to dredge the area to lay concrete foundations on the beach.

One activist involved in the action was assaulted by an employee of the real estate company and others have been questioned by police or threatened with lawsuits. Interestingly, the police have not asked to question the developers of the resort about the destruction of the public coastline and the billions of dollars that will be made at the public’s expense.

Instead of investigating the project’s destruction of the natural environment, seizure of public lands and dubious legal foundation, local broadcaster Future TV,  chose instead to produce an entire music video-like report lavishing praise on the developers and congratulating them for their achievements.  Activists have come up with this clever montage that mixes the propagandistic report with the situation on the ground:

 

If all of this sounds crazy and unjust to you, you can join over a dozen civil rights and environmental organizations this Saturday (Nov. 26) for “El Shat La Kil El Nes” (The Coast For All The People) in what promises to be a massive march calling for accountability from the billionaire class that runs this country, and approves such projects.

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The march begins at 4PM near the gate of the public beach at Ramlet El Baida. Here is the event page

For more on how the coast has been privatized and destroyed across Beirut and the rest of the country, you can see my piece in the Guardian last year “A City Without a Shore: The Paving of Beirut’s Coast”

The Beirut Madinati political collective also launched an online protest to the disappearing coast:

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Artists have been chipping in as well, such as this illustration by Omar Saliba Abdel Samad:

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Caption: “Beirut with no coast?!”

A couple of weeks ago activists also confronted Beirut’s governor on how construction was approved on the coast and why other countries have managed to keep hotels off the sand, which should remain public. He didn’t seem to have a lot of answers when confronted with historic maps and laws that cast doubt on the legality of such construction. Watch the live recording provided by the NGO Nahnoo, which hosted the event, here:

 

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Beit Beirut, Lebanon’s first memory museum, is finally getting ready to open its doors. After at least a decade in delays, restoration work on the war-ravaged early 1900s apartment building (which became a notorious sniper’s nest during the civil war), is now completed.

You may recognize it from the outside as the swiss-cheese looking building in Sodeco formerly known as the Barakat Building:

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Late last month, a few officials and architects were invited to see the completed work, which contains four levels of exhibition space, two auditoriums and a gorgeous panoramic rooftop terrace.

The old building seen above is now complimented by a new glass structure on the backside and the two are joined by a central open-air atrium, which now takes the place of the old inner courtyard:

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At the bottom of the atrium, a glass skylight lets light into the ground floor lobby, via a circular ceiling window:

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Here is a shot of the lobby from the opposite perspective, revealing the spiral staircase that runs throughout the museum:

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At the center of the lobby floor, another circular window allows the atrium light to run continuously down through to the basement:

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… which is home to the large auditorium:

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The chairs are arranged in near concentric circles around the podium, where officials from the Beirut municipality gave self-congratulatory speeches:

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But the real star of the show was architect and activist Mona El Hallak, who has been lobbying to save the building since the 1990s when it was days away from demolition.

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For nearly two decades, El Hallak has researched and archived the Barakat building’s storied history and fought against real estate interests to preserve it as a cultural space–a tireless effort that earned her a medal of honor from the French government, which helped fund the project.

The architect, Youssef Haidar, thanked Mona prominently at the outset of his remarks. Oddly enough, outgoing municipal council members failed to make any reference to her work, although alluding vaguely to the contributions of “civil society.”

Following the remarks, we were allowed to roam the space freely. Although it retains thousands of bullet holes, graffiti and blown out walls–a testament to the militias and snipers that once operated here– Beit Beirut has been upgraded with refurbished floors, windows, concealed AC ducts, state of the art security and lighting.

Here are some photos of the interior, and at the bottom of this post, you’ll find a video walking tour of the building I did on Periscope.

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Original floors from the Barakat apartment building are retained in some places

 

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Graffiti: “The Sniper”

 

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Militias that left their marks on the walls now serve as major parties in Lebanese parliament, often using the same insignias.

 

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Located on the separation line between East and West Beirut, nearly every window in the Barakat building had a commanding view of the neighborhoods around it, making it popular with snipers.

 

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Several snipers’ nests like the one in this photo are set back from the arched windows.

 

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The atrium opens up at the center of the rooftop, revealing the joint between the old and new buildings

 

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Stunning views from the rooftop underscore the buildings strategic importance to militias

 

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Lebanese and French officials took plenty of selfies

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Beit Beirut contains a smaller screening room on the ground floor

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The screening room was also a sniper’s nest, seen here from the back wall, which looks onto the chairs below.

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Is the audience being sniped or doing the sniping?

 

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The Beit Beirut entrance retains both the war scars and original deco-esque sculpting. The museum is lit up by a giant projector across the street.

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Despite the clear accomplishments, some complained of discrepancies in the design, such as the treatment applied to the outer walls, which seems to have altered the shape of the bullet and shrapnel holes into neater, bubble shapes.

 

Even though the work is completed, Beit Beirut may not open for some time until the management can be appointed and a cultural program is designed. Hopefully this process will not take several years as has been the case with Beirut’s National Library, a sprawling multi-million dollar cultural space largely completed over a year ago, which remains empty and off limits to the public.

For now, here’s a walking tour of Beit Beirut that I shot on Periscope. Stay tuned for updates.

 

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The eight-month old battle between the Lebanese state and anti-corruption activists has taken many forms: from street protests and occupying government buildings–met with tear gas and water cannons– to music videos, egging official motorcades, even rolling out a medieval catapult to hurl trash bags at the prime minister’s office. But now it has become a war of drones.

Responding to a Ministry of Tourism drone video that highlights Lebanon’s natural beauty, activists with the #YouStink movement released a more realistic drone video revealing the state of garbage mountains across the country, an environmental and public health disaster–and massive political failure– the Lebanese state would rather hide.

You can read more about the crisis, and the very creative forms of activism it has sparked, in my latest piece for The Guardian, here.

The Ministry of Tourism has threatened to sue the activists for using their logo and “harming Lebanon’s image”.

What do you think?

Here is the ministry video:

 

Here is the YouStink video:

 

And here’s a comparative video made by the skilled editors at The Guardian to go with my piece:

 

On Saturday at 4PM (tomorrow) YouStink have announced a major protest march from Sassine Square to Riad Al Solh, near Parliament. In their latest press release, delivered on national television using surgical masks, activists are upping the ante by handing the state a “final ultimatum:” “We will not yield to your extortion and remain silent on your failure… You have until Saturday to find a solution for this disaster.”

It is not clear how or if the ministry and activists will come through on their latest threats. Over 250 protesters have been jailed or detained since protests began but lawyers representing the activists say all have been released, and many shown in videos of celebrations held outside police stations, also posted on Facebook.

***
UPDATE:

Hours ahead of tomorrow’s protest, the government has just made an emergency announcement:

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Has the pressure of activism and the worldwide circulation of their garbage drone videos (now nearing one million views) motivated the government to action? Is this a tactic to reduce the crowds at tomorrow’s protest? Activists have already warned that the dumps mentioned above are substandard or overcapacity. Will this latest government decision have any impact on the protestors’ demands and the environmental disaster?

UPDATE 2 (13/3/16)

After a long day of demonstrations filling the streets downtown, activists have called on citizens to boycott work and school beginning on Monday until the sanitation crisis is resolved. As of early Sunday, some were camped out in front of police lines facing the prime minister’s office. Follow the Beirut Report Facebook page for the latest updates, images and videos from the protests.

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After several weeks of organizing and documentation by activists, the minister of environment has called for a halt to a port project that threatens to destroy the natural coast in Adloun (South Lebanon) believed to be the location of an ancient civilization.

However, in this report by LBC, there appears to be a tug-of-war going on between the Ministry of Public Works, which is carrying out excavation works, and the Environment and Culture Ministries who say work must stop until studies have taken place and a joint committee is allowed to examine the project, dubbed “Nabih Berri Port.” The Ministry of Public Works says the other ministries have failed to come up with any proposals for over 15 days, giving them the defacto right to carry on with the project. So in the meantime the destruction of the rocky coast, which is claimed to be a Phoenician port town, is continuing and LBC says the ancient ruins may be lost before a joint-committee is formed to investigate the matter.

One interesting aspect left out of the LBC report is that the Public Works Ministry, which is adamant on pushing forward with the project, is being led by a political subordinate of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, whom the new port is being named after.

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According to a report by Al Akhbar, the “Nabih Berri Port” project is worth around $26.6 million and encompasses an area of 164,000 square meters. While the ministry says the project will create jobs and serve the surrounding fishing community, Al Akhbar and local activists say the port is being designed to accommodate 400 luxury yachts, that will cause massive environmental damage to the village, which does not have the infrastructure to accommodate such traffic. Al Akhbar alleges that destruction continues despite cessation requests from the other ministries and in the absence of an environmental impact study,  a claim also carried in a report by the Lebanese lawyers’ collective Legal Agenda.  Al Akhbar further reports that the awarding of the excavation contract to “Khoury Contracting Company” came under an irregular bid and with little input from or discussion with the local community.

In a report by Al Jadeed TV, the head of a south Lebanon preservation group says Adloun is a known Phoenician port site that has not been properly excavated. She says that it is preservation and celebration of Adloun’s heritage that will bring economic benefits to the local community, not converting the site into yet another playground for the wealthy.

Much of the outcry and media coverage over what is happening to the site was sparked by the work of local activist group Green Southerns who have been documenting the destruction on a daily basis with a series of amateur videos like this one, which have in turn been carried by mainstream media:

As well as reports on the site’s archeological significance:

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The Green Southern group has also documented Adloun’s ecological and marine life significance as an increasingly rare sea turtle nesting ground:

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It’s hard to say what the precise archeological history of the current excavation site is from pictures alone and the reporting thus far, although it is clear that the Adloun area has been the site of numerous archeological expeditions dating back to the the late 1800s with evidence uncovered suggesting both Phoenician as well as pre-historic remains dating back to 70,000 BCE.

What’s also disconcerting about the rush to build over Adloun is how the state and it’s crony capital partners have once again managed to seize public coastal property for what could be luxury, exclusive development under the guise of ‘public good’.

As I reported for The Guardian last year, the Lebanese coast has largely been colonized by illegal or vaguely legal projects that have fenced off much of the coast from the public, denying the constitutional right to beach access. According to the government’s own studies, there are approximately five illegal resorts usurping public maritime property for every one kilometer stretch of Lebanon’s 220 kilometer coastline.

A lot of these infractions took place during the last three decades, well before the inception of social media and the subsequent enhancement of activism bolstered by popular blog posts as well as increased mainstream media attention. Will this make a difference in the case of projects planned for Adloun, Dalieh, Byblos and other planned–and now fiercely opposed–projects? In some respects, it already has, but will be the long term impacts?

You can follow more of Green Southerns work on their Facebook page where they have recently launched on online petition to preserve the site. They’ve also recently staged a demonstration at the National Museum to get the press’s attention:

 

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As 2015 comes to a close, it’s important to look back at the ways the Lebanese press behaved unexpectedly this year, confronting state power like never before, and at times, almost giving an equal voice to those who challenge it. I look at these developments in detail and ask if this trend will continue in my column last month for Bold Magazine. Photo: Activists hold an impromptu press conference in downtown Beirut on Sept. 16, 2015.

 

A New Era For Lebanese Journalism?

// Bold Magazine, November 2015

 

The myth of press freedom in Lebanon is often hailed by Middle East analysts, but ask locals and many will answer with a cynical shrug, pointing out that much of the media is owned by politicians. Of course this is largely accurate as dozens of publications, websites and television stations are indeed managed by self-appointed sectarian chieftains, militias-turned political parties or the powerful businessmen that bankroll them, often literally with their own banks.  

For years I have written and lectured on the topic of Lebanese journalism or the lack thereof, chronicling the nauseating pandering to politicians and business that dominates our airwaves. In many cases, what is broadcast is utter propaganda– music and sound effects included. And in the newspapers it is often sourceless material with few quotations, expert sources or analysts interviewed. Some Lebanese papers even publish what can only be described as political horoscope sections, where all names are anonymous–identified only as a “high-ranking official” or “foreign envoy”–allowing readers to fill in the blanks with whatever their imaginations can conjure.

But even more dangerous than the outright lies sold to the public, is the subtle manipulation of storytelling and abdication of reporting responsibilities in favor of the practice of near-constant political stenography. This means our media largely acts as a virtual audio and sound recorders simply attending all of the pseudo events (i.e. press conferences and speeches) created by politicians and serving their purpose entirely by reporting strictly what has been said without question. As a result, newscasts and newspaper pages are filled with the voices of the powerful, leaving little room for exploring citizen concerns, or any time for research to hold elite chiefs and warlords accountable for the bombastic, contradictory and patronizing things they are usually saying.

Evidence of this utter Lebanese press failure can be found in the litany of dysfunctional, basic state services, such as the daily shortages of water and electricity which are virtually never investigated in any depth. The same is true of unregulated public works contracting and private real estate development, with corruption and illegal seizure of public properties rampantly destroying the coast, heritage sites and the few remaining public spaces in the city with near zero accountability in the press.

But with so much damage done during the first two decades of postwar Lebanon, could this negligence possibly continue in the years ahead? Or will the current atmosphere of political revolt and technological change make business as usual no longer tenable both for Lebanese elites and their sycophantic media organizations?

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Al Jadeed reporter Nawal Berry interviews activists on Sept. 9th, reporting live from the protests for hours

In a rather sudden departure from their previously tepid reporting, a handful of media outlets have begun to challenge Lebanese state power simply by devoting more time to those who protest it than to the armed elites who sustain it. Leading local broadcaster LBC for example has for years has been known for a flagship talk show where war-criminals-turned-politicians are given a platform to speak at length with few questions asked about their bloody track record. And despite the fact that such men should be tried before the courts, the host frequently visits their mansions and makes jokes with them with his trademark outlandish laughing bouts, thus humanizing authoritarian figures and reinforcing a system of vague respectability despite their failed leadership. Yet since the anti-corruption #youstink protests began this summer, LBC has virtually thrown its hat into the battle by sending reporters to cover the demonstrations live for hours on end. Not only were reporters interviewing protesters denouncing politicians, they were literally living the experience of police brutality by physically being subjected to tear gas and baton violence themselves, live on camera, and sharing the trauma with audiences nationwide, instantaneously.

LBC reporter Foutan Raad displayed particular boldness when police demanded she cease reporting at the environment ministry, where several activists had staged a 9 hour sit-in in September. But even after her cameraman’s broadcast was forcefully ended, Raad continued reporting live to the LBC studio over her cell phone. She refused to give in and riot police eventually physically picked her up by her arms and legs, removing her from the building. Raad’s dogged reporting continued nonetheless in the weeks that followed as she has been a near constant presence at demonstrations, keeping a watchful eye on police action and propaganda efforts. During the major demonstration in October, Raad debunked an ominously-sounding police tweet that accused activists of setting a fire near the Martyr’s Square statue, making it clear that the protestors were merely drying their clothes after police had fired water cannons at them all night.

In addition to Raad and LBC, Al Jadeed TV, which over recent years has become one of the rare local news organizations to conduct investigative and hidden camera work, has also provided near constant coverage giving voice to the protesters outspoken critiques of ministers and powerful institutions. Last month Al Jadeed aired an impromptu press conference where a recently freed female activist gave a long and detailed testimony of being beaten and threatened with rape while in police custody. In fact both Al Jadeed and LBC have repeatedly aired compilation promo pieces showcasing police brutality, even using an on-screen graphic with the hashtag #youstink. The mere fact that these networks are live from the protests, often with the lens trained on riot police, is significant in itself. One wonders what may have happened had the cameras not been rolling? Would the police have calmly stood aside in between violent crackdowns as protesters took over streets in front of important ministries and courts for hours at a time? Would they have released so many activists so quickly if the faces of the detained and protests demanding their release were not in the media every day?

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Satellite trucks line up during a demonstration outside the environment ministry Sept. 1 2015

Students of journalism are taught a quintessential parable about the trade early on: “News is what people don’t want you to know. The rest is advertising.” In Lebanon however, the uncharacteristically brave work of those reporters confronting power has been vilified by several establishment Lebanese media organizations who are virtually stumbling over themselves to support the state.

Despite her uncompromising reporting, the popular newsite “Lebanon Debate” dubbed Ms. Raad as “lacking any experience” in an unsourced three paragraph article. Meanwhile the news station, NBN, dismissed Al Jadeed TV as “spreading sectarianism” and headed by a “shady businessman” after it aired an interview with a protestor that criticized NBN’s backer, the speaker of Parliament. Meanwhile both OTV and Al Anbaa newspaper have called the protesters “an international conspiracy” in shoddily contrived reports that offer no evidence to back their fantastical claims. Finally, Al Joumhouria newspaper, which has also peddled sourceless conspiracy articles, printed a front page image of a protester giving the finger to the police with a large font headline that screams “Thugs occupy Beirut.” Yet the paper paid little attention to the actual armed party operatives that have attacked journalists and activists in plain sight of security forces. At the same time, the Hariri’s family’s Future Television or Hezbollah’s Al Manar have simply ignored protests or attacks on them and often aired soap operas as activists held press conferences covered live by sympathetic channels.

It may come as no surprise that nearly all of the news organizations attacking those journalists willing to confront power are either owned or closely tied to incumbent politicians. Will those few reporters and outlets be able continue their defiant subversion in the face of such delegitimization? Will the public see through the smear campaigns or have they also be conditioned by the ruling powers in Lebanon, and the conspiratorial fear mongering they employ to draw supporters closer?

What is clear in the short term is that many citizens are increasingly creating their own press: online comedians such as Pierre Hachach, who was arrested for 11 days, or the many Facebook and Youtube pages of activist movements now have hundreds of thousands of followers, exceeding the audience of many mainstream media programs. With their increasingly sophisticated videos, parodies and corruption reports, these citizens and grassroots groups are providing regular updates on the situation even before the mainstream media shows up. The question is thus increasingly shifting from concern over the Lebanese press doing a better job for the public to concerns over their ability to simply catch up.

 

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Abu Rakhousa + Oum Rakhousa = Rakhousa (source) One of several memes mocking a prominent businessman after his attacks on protestors for ‘cheapening’ Beirut .

 

I’m hearing a lot of people say street protests are dying out in Beirut, though there are more demonstrations planned this week. Whatever the case and with so much going on, it’s easy to forget that street action is not the only contribution activist movements make. They also produce new avenues for expressing opinion and new opportunities for asking questions and discussing problems in personalized ways that can become amplified with technology. For example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement is largely seen as defunct, but some argue that the language it employed such as “the 99 percent” helped introduce new questions, accessible vocabulary and increased consciousness about financial power that may have an impact for years to come. In Lebanon over recent months, we have seen a number of memes and events that also question power in innovative ways. I look at one of these instances in my column for last month’s issue of Bold Magazine.  

 

 

Abou Rakhousa and the politics of poverty

Bold Magazine, October 2015

By Habib Battah

 

Like many young men from his town, my father felt compelled to leave his family behind and board a ship bound for South America. He was 18 years old, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had only three dollars in his pocket. It was all the money his father, an electrician, could afford to give his son, although he helped build the first national power grid to serve North Lebanon. The family of seven slept on the floor in a one-room apartment in Tripoli. They rarely ate meat and owned no refrigerator or oven so my grandmother would send her dough to the local baker, who took one out of every five baked loaves as a commission. Their story is not unique.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese fled their country in the 1950s and the decades that followed just to survive. The Western media fantasy of Lebanon as “The Paris of the Middle East” with high rollers in casinos and European models waterskiing on the Bay of Saint Georges was not shared by most living outside of the capital or even within it. Most Lebanese then and today live poorly with an unemployment rates of 24 percent and a minimum wage of less than $500. Meanwhile bank assets owned largely by elite businessmen and their political cronies are soaring past $200 billion or around four times Lebanon’s negligible GDP.

It was within this context that one of the country’s elite businessman criticized anti-corruption demonstrators for holding rallies in downtown. Nicolas Chammas, Channel distributor and head of the Beirut Traders’ Association, complained in a press conference that the rallies occupying public squares were hurting posh businesses in the central district. He said downtown, which hosted the country’s ‘finest and most respectable’ banks, hotels and shops should not be a place for “Abu Rakhousa,” a colloquial term implying cheap or discount stores. Chammas was reacting perhaps to the sandwich carts usually banned by police, but that have sprouted up at rallies to serve protesters. Chammas also took aim at what he described as the “Communist and Marxist” elements among the crowd whose ideas he said were “more dangerous” than violent rioters. “They are trying to start a class war and this is rejected” he exclaimed to a few claps from a small audience of businessmen. “We are the ones that have held the liberal Lebanese economy on our shoulders for 100 years and we won’t let anyone destroy that!”

 

But what about all hundreds of thousands of Lebanese that have fled their homes over the same century? Are they not victims of a type of class war where the rich get richer and the poor have to find work in other countries? Today, less than 0.3 percent of Lebanese control half the country’s wealth, according to an Executive magazine analysis of a 2013 Credit Suisse study, which noted that Lebanon was one of the world’s most unequal countries in terms of wealth distribution.

With many of the same families and businesses in power for generations, that wealth also doesn’t seem to change hands very much. A study produced last month by AUB professor Jad Chaaban showed that individuals tied to politicians control 43 percent of bank assets and 18 out of 20 banks have major shareholders linked to political elites. Is this the type of free and “liberal economy” Mr. Chammas was talking about? One in which there are few jobs and very little upward mobility? An economy where citizens pay exorbitant amounts for basic public services that barely function with virtually no efforts to improve them? According to Professor Chaaban, 36 percent of the government’s earnings are sucked back into paying the national debt, which in turn goes back into the pocket of bankers and politicians who have loaned the money.

Much of the debt was incurred during post war spending sprees on “reconstruction” projects compounded by related revenue losses such as the selling of the entire downtown Beirut for a bargain to a private company known as Solidere. Founded by the late billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri and a group of high wealth associates, Solidere was given generous tax breaks and incentives to transform the once gritty city center into a shiny luxury district inhabitable only by those few that could afford its newly-laid cobblestone streets and multi-million dollar apartments. At the same time, many citizens across the rest of the city and country lacked water, electricity and garbage collection–the same problems that plague Lebanon 20 years later.

Of course questions about spending priorities and who profits from them often go unanswered because the country’s business and political elite are largely not answerable or accountable to anyone. But that could be changing.

Hours after Mr. Chammas’s accusations, #abourakhousa began trending on Twitter and memes and cartoons mocking the powerful businessman’s claims went viral on Facebook. Days later, activists had organized an entire #abourakhousa flea market in the heart of downtown Beirut, in defiance of its elite zoning laws and Mr. Chammas’s warnings. There were pop-up dollar shops, juice stands, even a barber stand offering haircuts for 60 cents. One table sold a pile of discount books about Marxism and Communism, just to spite the elite businessmen’s worst fears of “dangerous ideas.”

By evening, hundreds had entered the square and the TV crews were ubiquitous. There was free music, singing, dancing and reminiscing about old Beirut, which had been a melting pot of all income levels. Some old shopkeepers told cameras that their modest shops had been stolen by the state, a claim heard often from the thousands that were given small payouts for their properties to make way for luxury buildings. Many were overjoyed at the atmosphere and cheap eats, noting that today a falafel sandwich or any traditional affordable food can barely be found among the gilded streets. Activists claimed a victory in reclaiming the city center, even if only for a day, from the most powerful real estate interests in the country, who largely stood back and watched.

 

 

Sparked by a garbage crisis, the protests that have been gaining steam over the last few weeks have expanded to challenge the dynastic economic system that has underpinned political power in Lebanon for decades. Whether it is in the form of #abourakhousa market or sit-ins at government offices, there is a new air of defiance in how citizens are reacting to authority.

Millions of Lebanese living in the diaspora will be watching closely. Many are excited by a glimmer of accountability that may help prevent future generations from facing the same self-exile that they did. Not only did that exodus tear apart families, but it also drained the country of its human resources, innovative minds and potential leaders, alleviating any challenge to a system which allows a few to live comfortably at the expense of the majority.

 

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Here are a few of the many AbuRakhousa memes and videos that circulated across social media:

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source

 

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Photo: Sandra Rishani

Following resistance to a municipal plan to create a highway that would bulldoze a historic part of Beirut, architects and urban professionals are now reclaiming that space as one for public intervention and exploration. This Saturday, you can join architect and former AUB professor Sandra Rishani for a sort of “scavenger hunt” across the path of the proposed (now stalled) highway project.  Participants will visit three installations prepared by Rishani and her partner Nada Borgi from [hatch] architecture studio, under the title: “Popping Spaces: A Workshop On Playful Urban Internvetion”

Participants will be given an urban toolkit “to intervene on the spine (Boutros pathway) or within their own neighborhoods to highlight or raise an issue, reuse a ‘public’ space, occupy a ‘public’ space…”

This will also encompass “a case study on how with some reused and recycled items we can intervene in the public to raise awareness, campaign for a different future of space, highlight a loss, or create an actual usable space in the present. What is interesting for us about this site is that a very big part of it is expropriated by the government. So many of the empty plots and houses may in the present time be used by the public as it is owned by the public. A unique situation we think for squatting and starting to use this space as a linear pedestrian green park.”

The campaign to fight the $75 million Boutros Road project was one of the major activism case studies I discussed during a TEDx talk I gave in Beirut last year.

Basically activists and urban professionals were able to produce a multifaceted and multidisciplinary campaign to highlight how the overpriced project would lead to more problems than it proposed to solve on technical level, while also destroying one of the city’s biggest green spaces and most historic neighborhoods. In response, architects and urban professionals proposed a park project. However the municipality of Beirut rejected those suggestions with little consideration, and yet due to public pressure, the project has been stalled for the past two years.

I think it’s really interesting to see efforts to continue to pursue this project and engage citizens in the process of developing their city, a process which is too often dominated by non-transparent elite decision-makers and powerful real estate companies.

Rishani, who is the author of Beirut The Fantastic Blog, has produced some very thought-provoking interventions in past, including a fascinating tour of inaccessible city spaces I was able to attend a couple of years ago in collaboration with AUB, Carole Lévesque and Rana Haddad. See this previous post for details on that event known as “The Welcoming City Vertical Design Studio”. Judging by how great that was, I would highly recommend this upcoming event.

Click here to register for Saturday’s event and also check out the Facebook event page.  And for more on the Boutros road project, be sure to check out the impressive website, including research, maps, images as well as a petition produced by the civil coalition that opposed it.

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Popping Spaces: event image

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The passing away of Zahle MP Elias Skaff last week after a “long (unspecified) illness” has opened an unexpected window into the workings of the Lebanese state structure and its deepest fears. In this video broadcast on live TV last week, dozens of armed men loyal to Skaff are seen brazenly opening fire during his funeral procession with little concern for public safety.

 

But rather than condemn this act of potentially deadly and unbridled violence, which defies the very notion of a state–in that it holds a monopoly on guns– the country’s top police official, Minister of Interior Nouhad Machnouk, is actually seen attending the MP’s funeral as barrages of indiscriminate gunfire are unleashed outside:

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Source: Youstink Facebook page
A senior police officer is even seen marching near the armed vigilantes, who have sophisticated gear fit for a war zone:

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Source: Youstink Facebook page

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Screen shot: Al Jadeed TV
 

Does this mean the state has lost control?

That doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to the police reaction to the unarmed #youstink movement. Compare the silence, if not complicity, with Zahle gunmen to the swift and violent police action that occurs when unarmed protestors push only a few meters toward police lines:

 

Or how protestors holding only Lebanese flags were violently housed and dispersed by riot police:

 

Police are also accused of violating basic human rights protocols in firing tear gas canister directly at protestors, rather than in the air:

 

In fact, the police were so overzealous in their attacks on #youstink protestors in recent weeks that they even shot tear canisters at themselves, drawing laughter from the crowd, but also illustrating their unprepared and perhaps desperate scramble to regain control:

 

On their social media accounts, Minister Machnouk’s Internal Security Forces argue that their tactics were justified because some had thrown rocks toward their barricades breaking a few panes of glass of nearby luxury hotels as well as lightly injuring some officers, a move many in the non-violent movement disavowed. However, this reaction also comes on the back of dozens of protestors being wounded or beaten by police over recent weeks, as well as dozens detained arbitrarily with no access to lawyers for weeks at a time.

Many protestors will also remember when police stood idly by last month as party loyalists savagely attacked activists. I witnessed two of the men briefly arrested (activists say they were quickly released) but police did not seek mass arrests as the gang of violent men walked brazenly in front of riot officers.

 

Ironically the same riot police had hunted down, beat and interrogated some 40 unarmed activists earlier that day as seen in the previous videos in this post. The majority were released without charge yet some now face military tribunals from offenses ranging from insulting officers to pushing over barricades.

Similarly, how many of the gunmen in Zahle were arrested or face military trials for barbarically making the sky rain bullets from their machine guns? If the minister of interior is interested in upholding the state, shouldn’t he launch an investigation into these potentially dangerous armed men in full military gear on his streets or the ones who attacked protestors with impunity in Beirut and then marched nonchalantly past his cops? Will these men be allowed to use their guns and fists however they please, intimidating neighbors and anyone who has a problem with them or what they are doing? If the police do not care, does that mean such men or anyone carrying a gun can also commit crimes and simply get away with it?

Of course these questions go to the root of what we consider Lebanon’s ‘political system’ in which armed parties run the country as they please with no fear of accountability because police would not dare interfere in their business. It is this environment of impunity and intimidation that has allowed militias and their leaders to hand out contracts to unqualified or unregulated private companies that they or their friends own with little concern for efficiency or transparency, in other words “running the country like a corner store” as the Arabic saying goes. And it is exactly these issues that the #youstink movement has galvanized around:

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Graffiti in downtown Beirut following recent protests
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But instead of empathizing with activists demands for a less violent state where militias rule, the interior minister has actually threatened anyone who harms the image of those who have run the country during the post war period, namely the late prime minister Rafik Hariri. In what seems to be a response to allegations that demonstrations are hurting business in the downtown area (where protestors called for accountability in the massive real estate project Hariri established there) Minister Machnouk threatens to use the law to “cut the hands” of anyone of harms Hariri’s legacy:

 

So if armed violence does not bother the interior minister, than why is he so worried about unarmed protestors? What is it that he and “the state” he represents are afraid of exactly?

Do the ruling powers actually fear their jobs could be threatened?

In fact, here are the same “dangerous” protestors this week actually cleaning up garbage on the streets, basically doing the state’s work:

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And despite tear gas and mass arrests, protestors continue to be released by the courts. Yesterday, the last two to be held, online comedian Pierre Hachach and activist Waref Sleiman, were released after 11 days in detention. They emerged as defiant as ever:

 

One online activist and commentator actually thanked “the state” for adding several hundred new likes to both Pierre and Waref’s Facebook pages, leading people to learn more about their work and that of others involved in the anti-corruption movement:

 

Emilie is just one of many activists and average citizens now making their voices heard on social media, using humor or political commentary, unfazed by all the threats of the state, which seem increasingly ineffective. She ends her video by noting that in addition to the government and its corrupt daily operations, the additional challenge the movement faces is that of those still siting at home or sitting on the fence, accepting that corruption as if it were normal.

Emilie closes by cleverly using all the movements major hashtags in a sentence, addressing those who still stand with the state: “To you we say “you stink” “we will continue” “we want accountability” “for the sake of the Republic”, “All of them means all of them.”