How Photomontage Ended the Lebanese Civil War (1975-2016)
Officially, the Lebanese Civil War ended when the Taif Agreement was ratified (November 1989), the Lebanese parliament voted to adopt an Amnesty Law (March 1991), and militias were dissolved (May 1991). The Amnesty Law pardoned all political crimes committed prior to its enactment. I, for myself, cannot recall a specific moment or event when the war ended. The transition from the state of war to a state of non-war is blurred in my memory. It was gradual, and even though the country felt relatively safer, tension pervaded the atmosphere and the looming threat of the conflict reigniting remained. The actors of the Civil War—those still alive, as well as the ghosts—transformed from warlords to political leaders, populating the legislative and executive bodies of governance. It was as if we were all handed a new, additional script, and we, mutatis mutandis, all slipped into new roles. The militias became political parties with an overt agenda to strictly serve their sectarian constituencies, even as the militants upheld the claim that they were constitutive protagonists of a republic. And we, perpetrators and victims, everyday folks, claimed to be citizens of this republic. The longest serial ever performed: for the past twenty-five years, we have been voting for these very same leaders to govern our destinies—to ensure our safety, well-being, and prosperity. It has not been smooth sailing; the “old script” surges every once in a while, in relative degrees of intensity. It was and remains necessary to believe that the war is over, and that we all wanted it to end. In the span of twenty-five years, the theatricality deployed to that end has been superlative and tireless, with public showcases of redemption, songs, music videos, and speeches to cheer our resolve to end the war.
I, too, believed it was over. I intently referred to the present as the postwar and believed the fight for a life of dignity in this “new” version of the republic was real and worthwhile. In reality, we learned to speak two languages: the language of the Civil War and the language of the postwar; even though the vocabulary of the former was discarded—declared obsolete—it haunted the latter. Persistently. When we took to the streets to protest our government’s systematic destruction of social safety nets and civility, as well as the obstruction of justice and freedom, we unknowingly spoke that same perfidious double language. In 2005, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the country witnessed a spontaneous popular uprising that demanded the end of the Syrian regime’s control over our postwar and the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanese territory. The Assad regime was (and remains) the prime suspect behind Hariri’s assassination. The uprising galvanized almost half of the country’s population, especially after Saatchi & Saatchi became openly involved, but it was countered by another mobilization, drawing on the other half of the country’s population, which demanded that the Syrian military remain in Lebanon and that its political tutelage persist. When, under international pressure, the Syrian military withdrew, the first “front” claimed the Civil War had finally ended then, and we were finally sovereign. I attended a conference where a psychologist explained that between 1991 and 2005, the entire country suffered a form of Stockholm Syndrome. That is why, he said, we had accepted to live our postwar under the terms of our Civil War. In fact, the Assad regime’s control over Lebanese politics did not end and endures to this day.
Since the popular uprising to unseat the Assad regime in Syria has erupted and devolved into a violent war, Lebanon has been in the news headlines again, because it is a proxy territory where the Syrian conflict has expanded, with Hezbollah actively involved in the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, with machines of war unleashed so woefully, the double language has been coming undone and the ghosts of unsettled conflicts have awakened. The Lebanese political class has been petrified in a tetanic paralysis, treading the overwhelming regional conflicts in survivalist, day-by-day, damage control mode. When a grass-roots movement staged a mobilization to protest the government’s inability to solve an untenable and ongoing national crisis regarding the disposal of waste in August of 2015, the political class fell into total befuddlement. Known as “You Stink,” the grass-roots movement emerged in outrage after a few weeks of garbage amassed on the streets of the country’s cities, towns and villages. In August, there were only forty people in the movement; by November, it claimed more than a hundred thousand.
The trouble started in a small coastal town in the south of Lebanon, Na‘ameh, when its residents blocked access to waste trucks on their way to the dump sites. The contract for the company enlisted to collect and dispose of waste for the entire country had lapsed and its nearly automatic renewal was being stalled because political groups had their own cronies bidding for one of the highest rates of waste disposal per ton, per capita, in the entire world. Moreover, the government does not mandate any form of recycling, nor does it even abide by the most common international health or environmental safety standards. Rather, a few towns (some on the coast, others inland but dangerously close to underground water reservoirs) have been designated as “dumping” sites for burial and incineration. In exchange for accepting the poisoning of their land, water, and air, the parliamentary representatives of these towns received large financial rewards. With the contract for continuing their services ending—and political representatives bickering in the cabinet—the company stopped collecting trash the month of July, one of the hottest seasons in Lebanon.
The calls for protests started on social media and swelled almost like a tidal wave. The problem of waste affected everyone directly across religious, political, and class affiliations. It was like opening a set of Russian nesting dolls: from the urgency of trash rotting in the heat everywhere, the outrage quickly grew to denounce cronyism, clientelism, nepotism, corruption, and the forces running the country aground with sectarian enmities. Almost immediately, the protestors escalated their demands for sweeping fundamental change across the country, including the outdated and toxic sectarian “balance” regime that rules the constitution. Between August of 2015 and March 12, 2016, there have been several marches staged in downtown Beirut, in proximity to the seats of the legislative and executive, respectively, as well as protests throughout the territory. And unlike 2005, neither Saatchi & Saatchi nor Hezbollah have been involved in producing slogans, banners, and posters. In fact, the movements have transgressed the “terms of engagement”, so to speak, entirely. They speak a language that I have not heard before. It is not the one we used as activists in our so-called postwar. It’s not only a matter of vocabulary, but more of strategy, practice, and incarnation. These activists are systematically a step or two ahead of the government and they have steadfastly resisted cooptation and serious intimidation by internal and military security. Their political positions are non-violent, anti-patriarchal, feminist, and secular. Artists, comedians, musicians, and dancers have joined and voluntarily produced stencils, graffiti, songs, and performances. On March 8, in the run-up to the calls for a massive mobilization planned on March 12, You Stink released a spoof video on their Facebook page, which ridicules a hyperbolic promotional film commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism—celebrating Lebanon’s “natural beauty”—that was produced by an international film production outfit known for its use of drone technology. Using photomontage and digital effects, the You Stink spoof shows rivers of garbage bags. The Ministry’s reply was the threat of a lawsuit on several grounds.
Violence is the only language this present ruling political class knows when it faces dissent and disobedience. Core members of the movement have been arrested on arbitrary charges and others have had their passports confiscated, as have bloggers, lawyers, and journalists associated with You Stink. The website YouStink.org has been repeatedly shut down. Yet even if the waste and garbage crisis remains, there is something undeniably changed in the consciousness of the people of this republic. As the country seems to teeter more towards a collapse or breakdown, the “us vs. them” has shifted, from a multiplicity of sectarian configurations of “us”-Sunnis vs. “them”-Shiites, or “us”-Christians vs. “them”-Muslims, to an “us”-everyday people vs. “them”-politicians and their cronies. There are other signs of change. Within a couple of months, Lebanese society underwent a crash course in recycling, and people have begun to separate their trash spontaneously. And a group of activists has announced they will run for Beirut’s municipal council seats in the forthcoming elections. A Spring for Lebanon? Likely not, but perhaps the herald of the real postwar. This current political class is presently on life support because of the conflict in Syria. How it will survive is now understood as a question of waste management rather than of international diplomacy.
RASHA SALTI is a researcher, writer, and curator of art and film. She lives in Beirut.