3. Tolaet Rihitkom (You Stink)
You Stink, perhaps the most prominent of all civil society groups campaigning against the garbage crisis, has been at the forefront of the protest movement since soon after the closure of the Naameh landfill on July 17. Assaad Thebian, one of the group’s cofounders, witnessed a surge of popular anger in late July with arrests of activists and continuing inaction from the government. “On July 21 we decided to go to the Grand Serail to do an action [against] what is happening,” says Thebian. “We took some garbage with us and started throwing it at the government offices. At the time, there was no You Stink movement. We went back home and a group of us decided then to start a movement.” Thebian, who formerly worked as a freelancer in advertising but is now a full-time activist, has echoed the sentiment of other groups by stressing the leaderless nature of the popular movement.
A core closed council of twelve, whose members include activists, bloggers, directors and a professor, forms the group. Although membership of the entire group is open, the number of council members does not change. “[We have] a fluid structure – decisions are made on agreement, [with] few decisions taken through voting.” Transparency is tantamount to the group. Lebanese are frustrated with always having to follow the same pattern of governance, and Assaad recognizes this. Real grievances lie with the corrupt and undemocratic system, which ultimately always replaces one figurehead with another. “For financial review, everything is recorded and uploaded to our website,” he says. Even if donations are made anonymously, a stringent record is kept of the amount and the date, and You Stink has published a detailed breakdown of all its donations and expenses to its website. Funding too, is strictly governed, with a cap of $500 donation per person “so no-one can claim to be funding it.” At the time of writing, the group’s page on Indiegogo, an online platform for crowdsourcing funds, had raised roughly $22,000, backed by nearly 300 people. However, the group places strict limitations on donors. “We don’t accept funding from politicians,” insists Thebian, nor do they accept money from institutions that are abroad, only from individuals who are part of the global Lebanese diaspora. Of course, there is no way of guaranteeing that anonymous donations made online do not come from undesired sources. Political support, however, is also a red line for You Stink, which claims to sever ties with individuals who have any links with political parties in Lebanon or abroad.
The stated demands on the Indiegogo page do not reflect all the current focus points of the group, which echoes the fluid nature of the entire campaign. For the time being, You Stink’s core demands are in line with those of other groups, but details are left to those in power. Thebian lists the core demands as follows: “Resignation of the Minister of Environment, holding accountable whoever shot at civilians, freeing the money of the municipalities [of Beirut and most of Mount Lebanon] and giving them the right to collect the garbage from their own areas, and parliamentary elections, without going into details about the electoral law – we thought this is something the system should answer for and it shouldn’t be our job to do so.” The anger leveled at authorities from the groups is also borne out of the violence they both witnessed and experienced during the rallies of August 22 and 23, which they insist was the final straw for the general public. “There was a spark, and this became the movement of the people. It is no longer the movement of You Stink or any other group; it is the movement belonging to the people,” he says.
You Stink has also acknowledged the importance of other groups in this movement and their support. “We knew there was something we had to work on, which was coordinating with other groups and trying to find a solution and a proper way of dealing with the demonstrations on the ground, as well as dealing with the politics of leading a movement that is becoming beyond our control,” says Thebian. Indeed, daily coordination meetings with members of other groups facilitate action on the ground. “There is a coordination committee but it has no name, no entity, and it has no right to call for things or to take action – it is a committee that represents each group and a few other advisers to the groups,” he says. However, Thebian acknowledges You Stink’s frustration at inconsistent representation, as well as the challenges and difficulties You Stink has experienced with “egos”, “hidden affiliations” and individuals present in groups who he claims wish to hijack the movement to enforce their own agendas. Members have previous issues with the government, which detracts from the efficacy of the civil society movement as a whole. Uniting all groups under one umbrella, it seems, is difficult and requires acceptance of inevitable personality and ideological conflict at times. This is apparent when discussing how little some groups follow consensual action predetermined at coordination meetings, both on the ground and when talking to the press, which Thebian admits has been a “total failure.”
Despite setbacks and frustration, You Stink’s commitment to overhauling Lebanese politics is evident. Thebian’s review of the groups’ future outlook acknowledges the garbage crisis as merely a symptom of a much larger political disease. “[Either] we announce a win, and move on to other demands, or we stick to our demands and see what happens. We always said the garbage crisis is a manifestation of the dysfunctional system. This political system needs to be changed; we will keep going,” states Thebian resolutely.