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Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

#YouStink: A story of garbage, youth and cruel optimism?

When last July the garbage started piling up in Beirut, one could have been forgiven for thinking that it was a passing glitch that would be quickly resolved. A closer look at the background of the matter, however, would reveal that as with the provision of electricity and water, waste collection and processing crystallised many of the issues that mar infrastructure, government and service provision. The first mobilisations in late July barely gathered a few hundred protesters as Beirut’s streets were at their worst. It took over a month for the first large demonstration to be assembled and just one day of violence for the media and members of the public to call the campaigns ineffective, infiltrated, or, something worse, politicised”. Campaign leaders and protesters face a multiplicity of obstacles set by the political leadership and the ambient cynicism of the general public. So it wouldn’t take long for the movement to fragment and for criticism to be waged not at the corruption and political dynasties, but at the protesters.

Beirut Protest YouStink2 

What many qualify as incompetence actually masks the competence of a political class that has managed to perpetuate itself over decades of blatant corruption and poor governance. "This is one of the most revolution-proof regimes in the world” said 21 year old Bassel, adding that they are very successful in confusing people and keeping the commotion.” An AUB student and member of the Secular Club explained, "I think that we're assuming that they're weak, and we're assuming that we're strong, and we're assuming that the arrests and all that are a sign of weakness from the government, but I'm not sure that's true. They have a lot of experience, they've held this country for 40 years and their fathers for 40 years before that.” The garbage crisis, as other crises before has brought to the foreground the vacuity of polarized political alliances and the resilience of the consociational system by which Lebanon is governed, or as Tobias Schwerna calls it this "model of consociational conflict.”

Beirut WithandAgainst YouStink

In every debate, in every discussion, the question of "politicisation” keeps reemerging as the campaigns either try to tie the resolution of the garbage crisis to broader objectives or to decouple the question of the garbage crisis from wider systemic change.Politicisation" (تسييس) is often equated with the word factionalism” (تحزيب), where politics is understood as the domain of political parties and politics is seen as the domain of corruption and "dirt," rather than of emancipatory or dialectical processes. As one activist pointed out, when you go to the Parliament, they say you are attacking the Shi’a [the Speaker of the Parliament is Shi'a] and when you are protesting in front of the Serail [seat of the Sunni Prime Minister] they say you are attacking the Sunnis. […] Protesters are accused of receiving foreign funding or of fomenting violence, when in fact political parties in the government are receiving foreign funding while fighting in Syria: this is the way the system turns, shifts the question."

Beirut Martyrs Square YouStink

 This fear and mistrust of "politics" and its destabilizing effects is widespread. One often hears young and old say that they agree with the demands but either do not trust the movement or fear its methods might lead to chaos. The way the "Arab Spring” has unfolded has further restrained any revolutionary zeal and it is often used to explain why support for the mobilisations among the wider public is cautious. The position of some NGOs in this regard can seem ambiguous as they avoid openly supporting the campaigns although they agree with the broader aims of the mobilisation. Yara, a young volunteer with an NGO would distinguish between what she called legitimate citizenship” practiced through the NGO she volunteers with and other citizenship” that she practices when she participates in the protests. While one may infer that for various reasons, NGOs (particularly ones with European and US funding) find themselves bound to a cosmopolitan liberal approach to citizenship that leaves little room for the political,” Yara tells us, there is room for both approaches even if sometimes they contradict each other.

One often hears about the distinction between a demoralised and cynical generation of the war and a post-war youth eager to fight for its future, but what are the methods and discourses that youth (whom we all too quickly construct as a single actor) have at their disposal in this fight for their future? While some may say that young people have the choice between leaving Lebanon or accepting the status quo, the generation of the garbage crisis seems set on finding a third way by bringing about a series of changes through greater accountability, political engagement, environmental awareness, or active citizenship. Whether these offer the political horizon through which this generation can imagine a future and flourish in Lebanon remains to be seen, but when from listening to them since the start of the crisis they seem to be oscillating between cautious and cruel optimism. An optimist optimist will insist that this is part of a longer story still unfolding.

Beirut YouStink

Konstantin Kastrissianakis and Dima Smaira - Durham University
Beirut, Lebanon - 7 December 2013

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Durham University, Department of Geography
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