Police Management of Demonstrations in Beirut: Garbage Crisis in 2015
Postdoctoral Fellow

(European University Institute - Postdoctoral Max Weber Program)

For quite some time, social movements have been a minor topic of studies on Lebanon, a country analysed at times through a regional lens, and at others through the sectarian and communitarian aspects of its institutions1. It is only since the 1990s that players of the non-profit landscape appeared as potential tools for analysing the political system2. This renewal of topics for social sciences is not unrelated to the context of the end of the civil war, which inaugurated new modes of public action at the margins of the traditional sectarian and community divides. Tens of associations have been founded, based on civic assumptions and mobilising themes related to the defence of human rights, ecological protection and respect for the environment. However, defended by players who are not easily identifiable and who operate in an environment of withdrawal as regards the community, these have not been successful in fostering the construction of a true Lebanese “civil society”.

Without ever leaving the preoccupations of the associative sector, environmental issues resurfaced in the summer of 2015, during the triggering of an unprecedented rubbish crisis. Following the closure on July 17thof the garbage dump in the municipality of Naameh, which until then was the main refusecollection point for Beirut, several groups began to mobilise and organise the first demonstrations. Beginning with environmental claims, the movement very swiftly acquired a political coloration demanding, in the wake of the Arab Springs, the “downfall of the sectarian regime” (isqat al nizam al ta’ifi). As from the end of August, gatherings brought together several tens of thousands of people in the centre of the capital. During these demonstrations, the Homeland Security Forces (ISF or Internal Security Forces) resorted to a disproportionate use of force, notably during the mobilisation of August 22nd in front of the seat of government, on Riad Solh Square, and in front of Parliament (Place de l’Étoile). Faced with a majority of peaceful demonstrators, police reacted by shooting live ammunitionin the air, by using water canons, and sometimes by throwing stones and striking the demonstrators with batons and rifle butts3

This is the testimony of Assaad Thebian, a member of the collective group ‘You Stink’, who had attempted to approach the seat of government: “They hit me in the face with rifle butts. They were more than ten around me. One of them was kicking me, the other was holding my hands behind my back”4. The September 1st intervention carried out by the anti-riot brigades with the aim of evacuating demonstrators who had occupied the premises of the Environment Ministry, and who were demanding the resignation of the minister Mohammed Machnouk, revealed an additional level of violence. Lucien Bourjeily has described how the evacuation took place: “They were kicking us, they were attempting to break the human chain we had formed. As soon as an activist was letting go ofhis comrade’s hand, he was being dragged away by policemen. If he tried to resist, he was beaten once more”5. To denounce police repression, demonstrators associated the ISF to the Shabbiha, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s militia of thugs. Accusations of unjustified violence spread by demonstrators contradict the police narrative of legitimate resort to violence. Within a chronology which goes from August to October, some moments have to be underlined: the demonstrations of August 22nd and 23rd in front of the seatof government and in front of Parliamentwhich brought together between 10 000 and 20 000 people; the demonstration of August 29th which gathered more than 50 000 people; the occupation of the Environment Ministry on September the first; the demonstrations of September 16th and October 8th when militias belonging to the Amal movement6 have participated in the repression. Three main groups have participated to these episodes: the demonstrators including the hooligans coming from the southern suburbs considered as “infiltrators”, the police and the militias pro-Nabih Berri which were also coming from the southern suburbs but which have to be distinguished from the hooligans.

This contribution focuses on police management of demonstrations in Beirut and can be included in theoretical debates related to the ‘policing of crowds’7. If its goal is not directly to measure the importance of repression to understand the success or the failure of the mobilisation, this article is part of the sociology of the police and of the literature dedicated to the policing protest. There is a consensus within this literature: the police as an institution benefits from a large range of means to control collective mobilisations. Nevertheless differences remain between the authors concerning the use of violence. How can we explain why in some situations the police will use coercive measures whereas in others it will privilege pacific ones? Some academics stress the importance of organisational resources within the police, others consider the police to be falsely neutral, remaining a repressive tool in the hands of the ruling classes. Some others insist on a conjectural and changing environment and on the role of the media to understand the practices of the police. Between a volatile structure of opportunities and organisational and institutional factors the debate remains open. If it is true that police action has to be understood from direct observations of the situation, the police as an organisation and the nature of the political regime are also relevant in order to interpret police action. The aim is here to show that both orientations can be grasped as complementary, rather than as contradicting one another. Without considering Lebanon as exceptional, our case demonstrates the validity of the argument in which the level of force is seen as the result of the perception of a threat and the level of fear felt by the elites. 

This analysis is based on a fieldwork conducted in Beirut in summer 2015. Alongside the observation during the demonstrations I have conducted interviews both with some leaders of the social movement and with some police agents. The methodological approach has varied because some of the interviews have been conducted after the end of the demonstrations and the failure of the social movement. Articles, TV shows as well as social networks appeared to be major sources for the analysis.

The social movement: its nature, claims, and internal divisions

A movement that transcends traditional partisan divisions

The murder of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14th, 2005 and the ‘Cedar Revolution’ it entailed, were at times perceived as a turning point heralding the ‘democratisation’ of Lebanon. The huge 14th of March demonstration in Beirut against the Syrian presence appeared to illustrate an unheard-of and unshakable consensus. This vision was nevertheless contradicted by facts. Parliamentary elections held during the same year brought to a grinding halt the unanimous feeling expressed during demonstrations, and even exposed an exacerbated return to sectarianism, to the confessional divide and to a bipolarisation of the Lebanese political scene; the latter became divided between the camp of March 8th, uniting in particular Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Current (FPC or CPL, Courant Patriotique Libre) favourable to Syria, and that of March 14th joining the Future Current of the Hariri family and the Lebanese Forces both opposed to the Assad regime.

The social movement born of the garbage crisis of summer 2015 appears for the first time to have transcended those partisan political divides8. Without going as far as speaking of ‘civil mobilisation’, this movement projects a heterogeneous structure that does not exclusively belong to one camp or another. Militants of the two main groups, i.e. ‘You Stink’ (Talaat Rihatkoum) and ‘We want accountability’ (Bedna Nouhasseb), do indeed share links with these political formations, and in the past could have been able to mobilise together with March 8th and 14th, but their militancy takes place now without any organisational relationship with these parties9.

The demand for a State and the reclaiming of public space 

The mobilisations of the 1990s, which expressed themselves around themes linked to the environment, were already criticising the incapacity of the state to handle the most elementary public services, notably access to water and electricity10. These demands appeared once more quite clearly in the mobilising actions occurring during summer 2015. It is also and above all the appropriation of public space that has crystallised discontent. After being entirely rebuilt by the private business Solidere following the civil war of 1975-1990, the centre of Beirut (the ‘Downtown’) has been occupied by business banks and luxury retailers, a process that has led to the expulsion and exodus of the city’s lower social categories. ‘You Stink’ and ‘We want accountability’ regularly congregate on the seafront to emphasise that the latter belongs to all Lebanese, and not just to private businesses. The expression of ‘economic neo-Lebanonisation’ is in fact sarcastically used to stigmatise these economic policies of complete laissez-faire and privatisation11.

Several Lebanese businessmen have actually taken stands against these demonstrations, perceived as an obstacle to individual entrepreneurship. They have denounced the alarming decline of the economic situation in the city centre and the closing of many shops and restaurants, since military police is preventing everybody from entering the perimeter of Parliament from Martyr’s Square. This is the case notably of Nicolas Shammas, the President of the Association of Beirut retailers who, mentioning the hidden agenda of Moscow, has spoken of the nefarious consequences of these militant actions on the city and all of Lebanon’s economic activity. Camouflaging obvious class racism, his allusions to a ‘cheap’ city centre market (souk al-rakhoussa) have provoked the activists’ anger. Militants, as a reaction to his words, began organising a real popular market in the very heart of Downtown Beirut12.

Internal divisions

If for members of ‘You Stink’, claims must concentrate on the environment, ‘We want accountability’ sees an opportunity to shift to other issues, particularly that of regime downfall. Often with a past of militancy in left-wing trade unions – Charbel Nahas is a case in point – these activists have accused ‘You Stink’ of deliberately avoiding the inclusion of the working classes in their mobilisations. Their base is seen as being limited to the educated middle ‘bourgeois’ class of wealthy Beirut neighbourhoods13. This conclusion is shared by Elias al-Khoury, who proclaims that this social movement’s failure is to be found among the ‘liberals’, who think they can found a democratic state without developing a social welfare program.

Another line of disruption is Hezbollah. If demonstrations target the entire Lebanese political class, some consider that Hassan Nasrallah is himself a red line, since he is an icon of the resistance to Israel. This is particularly the case with several militants belonging to ‘We want accountability’, who sympathise with the Shi’a movement, for instance Najh Wakim, Charbel Nahhas or Anouar Yassine, who have condemned the presence of pictures of Hassan Nasrallah in parades and demonstrationsAn analyst close to Hezbollah has emphasised that “the party does not belong to the hard core of the system like the Berry, Jumblatt and Hariri families. And even when it plays a part in government and passes legislation, it cannot be compared to other corrupt political forces in power since the early 1990s”14. There is however no consensus on this issue inside ‘We want accountability’, some supporting Nasrallah while others criticise his disengagement from social matters or his interventionism in Syria. It is another grouping with less popular support, called ‘On the street’ ('al share'), that has made its opposition to Hezbollah a core issue of its militancy15.

During the demonstrations the police used a large range of actions to control the movement, both violent and peaceful. Interactions between police and demonstrators depended first on a conjectural and changing environment.

Demonstrators and police forces in Beirut streets in 2015

A volatile structure of opportunities

‘Hooligans’ or ‘infiltrators’?: Divisions amongst demonstrators and the legitimation of police violence  

The punctual presence inside demonstrations of violent youth, sometimes assimilated to ‘hooligans’, at other times to ‘infiltrators’, provokes both internal dissent in demonstrators’ ranks, and makes the resort to force by police legitimate. 

This different outlook on the inclusion of working classes was illustrated during some of the demonstrations when, outnumbered and sidelined by gangs of youth from the southern suburbs, the militants of ‘You Stink’ chose to disavow the latter by calling for the moving of the demonstration to Martyrs Square. As early on as the August demonstrations, several dozens of youth from Beirut’s southern suburbs suddenly entered Riad Solh Square and began throwing projectiles at security forces. This is what happened during the August 29th mobilisation, when they tried to go through the barbed wire erected by the FSI in front of the Grand Sérail. The participation of these youth is a divisive factor among demonstrators. ‘You stink’, which actually was responsible for describing them as “infiltrators”, consider these actions as illegitimate, accusing the ‘power structure’ of trying to “transform their movement of dissent by giving it sectarian connotations”. They postponed the demonstration planned for August 29th and have denounced the violence on various occasions. During the August 29th demonstration, during which these youth once more confronted police, ‘You stink’ put an end to the gathering on Martyrs Square and invited demonstrators to go home. The other group ‘We want accountability’ denounced this ‘bohemian-bourgeois’ attitude of Beirut militants and, quite the opposite, blamed the FSI for the deterioration of the situation. According to ‘We want accountability’, the youth of the southern suburbs have accounts to settle with police, and this explains why they can show themselves to be more violent. It is not because these youth haven’t acquired the same culture of demonstration that they have to be rejected, the best strategy consisting in integrating them, rather than containing or expelling them.

Apart from dividing the demonstrators, the participation of these youth has permitted the police to justify their own use of force and to reinforce their repression. The accusations of “infiltrators” have been relayed by the Interior Minister, who distinguished ‘good’ and ‘bad’ demonstrators: “These infiltrators arrive at a precise moment, in precise numbers, riding motorbikes to accomplish the mission they have been given, which is that of attacking police to make the latter violently react”. Donatella Della Porta has shown the importance of these small groups, insisting on the difficulty for the police to let the peaceful demonstrators express themselves and control the radicals at the same time. Many of the activists claim not only to have been subjected to violence by police forces but also to have witnessed some incitement to hatred. Waddih al-Asmar, President of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights and member of ‘You stink’ confess: “We were put under an extraordinary pressure. The police haven’t played its role, which is to protect citizens. Instead they went after us through surveillance, arrests and permanent harassment. I have assisted to many scenes where they were five beating a man on the ground. Instead of protecting us they were actually provoking us and pushing us to violence16”. The presence of the hooligans permitted the ISF to attack the peaceful demonstrators by presenting the uncontrollable dimension of the social movement as a whole.

Media: pacification and partisanship 

In works focusing on the role of media in the dynamics of collective protests, police has been the topic of particular attention17. A large fraction of the literature on the matter agrees on one principle: the presence of journalists inside a demonstration contributes to civilising the protest, since demonstrators do not want to appear as agents provocateurs, and policemen as brutal repressors. Focusing on the role of media allows us to analyse both the demonstrators and the police strategies.

The episode of the Environment Ministry is emblematic of these strategies from both sides. Media presence first determined the strategies of the demonstrators who were hidden in the building shouting slogans similar to the ones we heard during the “Arab Spring”: “Salmiyyeh, salmiyyeh” (“peaceful, peaceful”). Waddih al-Asmar told us what was the plan: “We knew that they were not going to act friendly and we did it on purpose. It was our objective to push them into violence. We invested the last floor on the building and I sat on the floor. My decision was not to move but two policemen took me downstairs and I was not strong enough to resist18. Nevertheless the results of this strategy have to be nuanced19.When Lucien Bourjeily, a young Lebanese director injured in the head, left the building on a stretcher in front of the cameras, its evacuation provoked a certain emotion: “they were given us kicks and tried to brake the human chain we had built20.

This episode also helps us to understand the practices of the police. Taking into account the demonstrators’ strategies and the challenge imposed by the presence of journalists outside the ministry, ISF have expressly paid attention not to use force: “They understood very well what was our plan. So when they took us out of the building, they were protecting us from the anti-riot units that were trying to beat us. For them it was absolutely necessary to avoid blood”21.  This has to be read in relation with ISF’s decision to prohibit the presence of journalists inside the ministry.

Demonstrators in Beirut streets in 2015

Beyond this observation on the pacifying of demonstrations one must note the existence of unequal empathy of journalists towards one of the two groups (i.e. police or demonstrators). The development of tolerant or pacified managed forms of demonstration can also be explained by public opinion pressure and by media that increasingly disapprove of repression. When police action is perceived as excessively violent, a process of solidarity is set in motion in favour of the direct targets of repression. Two television channels (Al-Jadid and LBC) have in particular shown unconditional support for the demonstrators, suggesting that they are merely citizens exercising a legitimate right of expression, a right trampled by brutal police intervention22. The police corps then most often denounces this media stand that, according to them, would describe reductively their activity as mere coercive management. Police have often alluded to the fact that the second of the channels is financed by Qatar to object to the legitimacy of its media coverage23. The Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk dismissed the information relayed by the media, which mentioned that bullets were shot in the direction of demonstrators, and he denounced the demonisation of the ISF: “Security forces are part of the people, and those who see otherwise are blind. How much can they stand, the ISF? Perhaps a little more than human beings because they are soldiers. The demonisation of security forces is a crime towards the country. If indeed there were mistakes at a given moment, to generalise from them is unacceptable”24. General Basbous, as for him, requested from the media that they “preserve the objectivity in the diffusion of information and not distort the image of the Interior Security Forces”25.

The media, however, can also be apologists choosing the side of the police or changing their preference in favour of the police. The Lebanese example perfectly illustrates this sudden transformation of media opinion, at first favourable to the social movement, then tilting gradually in favour of the ISF. Media coverage was gradually leaning in favour of the ISF, these media becoming the promoters of a return to order, describing young hooligans and louts as “infiltrators”. According to Elias al-Khoury, the media campaign has turned against the movement, which then became deprived of any sympathetic echo, not even within student unions. He moreover tempers the support of LBC and al-Jadid, two news networks with conflicting voices in their midst. Several historic examples show that hard line reactions can be set in motion by police as a response to public demand. The media then participate in this by supporting the coalition favourable to a return to order, and by presenting actions of protest as an attempt to assail the political order, assimilating demonstrators to hooligans. Violence is increasingly stigmatised26.

Beirut 2015

A mutual learning process for two organisations lacking experience 

Demonstrators as well as policemen are disorganised coalitions, whose disorganisation participates to explain both violent and peaceful interactions. In many interviews protestors confessed they were not enough prepared to this type of mobilisation. Two major elements surprised them: the massive demonstration on August 29th which have gathered more than 50000 people and the absence of coordination between the different activist groups: “we didn’t expect such a large popular support. We were not prepared and not capable to unify the ranks of the activists”27. This lack of preparation suggests not only the conflicting views between ‘You stink’ and ‘We want accountability’ but also their differences in terms of strategy: the former considers that the claim must concern only the rubbish issue while the latter considers on the contrary that the garbage crisis is a unique occasion to contest the regime’s legitimacy: “We had one major goal: the garbage. Garbage, garbage, garbage and the resignation of the minister of environment Mohammad Machnouk. But the traditional activists were asking for more. They were focusing on so many issues: the electricity, the prisoners etc.… we imposed too many challenges to the agenda.”28.

Lebanese police appears as disorganised as the activists. More familiar with sectarian demonstrations and not used to this type of protest actions, the ISF showed particular difficulty to manage the demonstration of August 22nd. Amnesty international confirms the excessive use of force by the police on this specific day: facing a peaceful demonstration they reacted by shooting live ammunition in the air and tear gas on the crowd29Despite years of training delivered by international actors, the ISF have failed to produce a coherent and systematic approach of policing: “Although the police is supposed to protect the population and to manage the protest they were shooting everywhere and targeted us as rabbits. They got crazy even Machnouk recognize it”30.

This disorganisation explains some of the regulation attempts. On the side of demonstrators, the confrontation with the ISF also led to self-criticism of sorts and to attempts to organise. So as to avoid that acts of violence occurring during the first demonstrations and attributed to ‘infiltrators’ happen once more, they have created their own protection and order service made up of five hundred members. Many of those among demonstrators who denounce the actions of fouhoud31 without accusing the police corps as a whole do quite the opposite, stressing common demands, for they are all mobilised against endemic corruption. During their press conferences, ‘You stink’ demanded the launching of an independent enquiry to determine the identity of rioters who assaulted police, and published a communiqué announcing the “transition to a stage of non-confrontation with the ISF, and to one of partnership with them”. In a declaration to LBCI, Assaad Zebiane claimed that “Our struggle is not targeted against commercial premises, nor against public or private property, nor even against police forces. Our struggle is targeted against political power”. On the police side it led to forms of pacification. Victims themselves of the anarchy which prevailed in the police ranks, some agents also injured by tear gas accepted the help of the demonstrators: “Those who were protecting Hariri’s tomb had their eyes burnt. We gave them onions to help them to overcome the pain”32.

The conjectural environment however is not sufficient to satisfy entirely the analysis. Beyond this approach we must also stress the importance of organisational as well as structural factors deriving from the nature of the Lebanese political regime to understand policing protest.  

Institutional and organisational factors 

The need to justify its action 

During these three months of public protests, the ISF put in place a genuine communication strategy. Overwhelmed after initial demonstrations, the ISF attempted, on August 29th, to obtain the demonstrators’ approval by displaying a large banner above Martyrs Square, with a significant slogan written on it: “For you, with you, to protect you” (LakumMa’a-kum, li-Himayatikum), or even “We are not there to repress demonstrators” and “We are at the service of the people”. On their Twitter account, they have published testimonies of sympathy to demonstrators on a daily basis: “We respect freedom of expression and the right to citizens’ peaceful demonstration”33. Twitter also enables them to deny certain accusations, for instance the one emphasising that demonstrator Rida Taleb would have died from his wounds after being hit in the head. A video grasping the attention of thousands of viewers was in particular praised by the institution; it shows an old man heckling a young ISF agent and crying: “They are stealing both of us! Where is our water, where is electricity? From you as much as from myself, they are looting both of us!” He continues shouting for a few seconds, on the verge of breaking into tears, ending with “You, you could have been my son!” Facing him, one can see the haggard reaction of the young ISF, who has been taken by surprise. These images have been scrutinised, corrected, cut and broadcast like a Hollywood soap opera production, with tearful music, and the smiles of the young jeering ISF, who is happy to be the hero of a fantasised national reconciliation. In the final scene, the ISF agent slowly lifts the visor of his helmet, answering: “At your service, you are like my father”, with the old man hugging him.

Negotiating procedures have indeed gradually emerged. As from the second day of demonstrations (on August 23rd), orders were apparently given to police agents to not repress demonstrators. While he was outside the country, the Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk asked police forces to stop firing. He recognised that force was being used excessively, and announced that those who had shot at demonstrators would face legal charges. As soon as he returned to Beirut, he placed on ISF inspector Joseph Kallas the responsibility of conducting an enquiry on this gunfire. He then decided to defer two soldiers to a disciplinary council and to sanction six other ones for adopting a ‘spontaneous’ behaviour without referring to their commanding officers; a mea culpa or apology accompanied with an expression of solidarity as regards the dissenters’ demands. Largely symbolic, these sanctions indicate nevertheless a form of democratisation of the ISF. This widely confirms the various typologies of police sociology indicating that, beyond policemen as mere agents of coercion, policemen can just as well be clad in the mantle of mediators and of Street Corner Politicians34.

Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moussalem, the man responsible for communication for the ISF, regularly congratulates himself for doing a great job:

If the activists were very good in using social networks, we went further. They failed into violence. I told Imad Bazzi from ‘You stink’ that he shouldn’t attack the police but he didn’t listen to me. I am not protecting the political regime and I am protecting the democracy. A Canadian journalist told me recently that they should learn from us because we did a great job35.

Putting aside his sense of exaggeration we must say that Moussalem avoided mentioning some of the episodes when social networks were particularly badly used by the police. The most significant episode occurred when the Interior Minister broadcast the video of a wounded police agent, sitting on the ground alone. The Minister chided the demonstrators’ indifference. The Minister then declared: “You see this agent, alone, nobody is helping him, and yet he is the son of a same country, a same people, a same homeland”36.

This was said in total ignorance of the widespread use of technological tools, and particularly that of smartphones capable of recording sequences with violence or confrontation. A few minutes later, the militants of the civil movement managed to find the real version of the footage, showing the policeman surrounded by many citizens standing together with him, in order to assist him. They then spread a video portraying protesters being assaulted by Amal’s militias under the emotionless gaze of policeman; the activists then announced that they would use this footage as evidence.

The importance of Parliament: division of forces and the confessional trap

For the militants belonging to the different above-mentioned groups, the police is the only embodiment of government whose excessive use of force is always the result of a decision of the administrative authorities. They accuse the Prime Minister Tammam Salam and the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry of giving the order to repress demonstrations. The division of the Lebanese state makes things somewhat more elusive and complex. The state is by no means a homogeneous block that, in a concerted manner, has engineered repression. In Lebanon, there is no hierarchical submission to the political system on behalf of the entire set of security forces. The excessive use of force can be explained by the existence of several units in charge of controlling a same perimeter: anti-riot forces; the army unit in charge of the protection of the Grand Sérail (the Parliament Building), and the Black Berets, the ISF unit of the Parliamentary Guard: “whereas in France you would just have the CRS and the mobile guard, here you have a division and dilution of units and a superimposition of competences and responsibilities”37. Several forces have indeed been responsible for gunshots on August 22nd, these forces not being under the jurisdiction of the same institution. Apart from mobile police forces present in particular to protect the seat of government, and who remain under the authority of the Beirut chief of police, two specific units protect Parliament: an army unit and the Police of the Chamber, that does not obey to instructions of the police hierarchy, but that remains under the authority of the speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry. It is moreover when demonstrators attempted to get through the walls of the MP’s Chamber that repression affected them. The Beirut chief of Police Mohammed al-Ayyoubi recalls it is not in a position to control the entire set of forces present in the perimeter, particularly those monitoring the Parliament Building. He certifies that on August 22nd, he had warned Imad Bazzi and two other members of the group ‘You Stink’ that Parliament was a red line, and that they could not approach this area; in case of the contrary, he would not be in a position to protect them: “They refused to pay attention. They answered that they would go to Place de l’Étoile no matter what happened”38.

The importance of Parliament as a place reinforcing violence can be explain both by the division of forces on the ground and by the particular status of Nabhi Berri perceived more as the chief of its confessional community rather than as the president of Parliament. Weakened by some slogans directed against him he decided to use its own militias to repress the social movement. It is when militias from the southern suburbs of Beirut entered the scene that the movement suffered a severe blow. During a gathering on September 16th, organized to protest against the staging of a dialogue conference of MPs on Place de l'Étoile, a group of civilians armed with sticks and stones suddenly appeared to attack demonstrators who were reacting to certain slogans and catchphrases of the Speaker of the Chamber Nabih Berry; hence the idea that this group was a militia doing the bidding of the Amal movement,whose leader is none other than Nabih Berry himself39. Another intervention by militiamen occurred on October 8th, when peaceful demonstrations held on Martyrs Square degenerated into a riot. During these attacks, police inaction was a noteworthy feature, and exacerbated the antagonism between this institution and demonstrators.

The Beirut chief of police regretted that demonstrators perceived the ISF as indirectly responsible for these attacks when, according to him, police forces did actually attempt to be mediators: “When Amal militias were there, we nevertheless tried to place ourselves between them and demonstrators so as to protect the latter”40. For demonstrators, however, the ISF’s wait-and-see attitude was itself proof that political power was trying to crush their mobilising actions. By reactivating the scarecrow of civil war, these events contributed to themobilisation’s failure. They posit the question of state violence and coercion without a legitimate use of violence, but which delegates violent repression to certain groups. This is an echo to other instances in non-democratic countries, where the state resorts to managerial or mafia militias, to avoid appearing as the immediate instigator of repressive violence. This is for instance the case in Romania or in Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party sent in the past groups of louts (the Porros) in order to provoke demonstrators41. This was also the case more recently with the demonstrations that took place in Kiev, where militias occupied Maïdan to break the protest movement.

A unique trans-confessional movement

Without ever leaving the preoccupations of the associative sector, environmental issues resurfaced in the summer of 2015, during the triggering of an unprecedented rubbish crisis. As we already said, the social movement which was born in the summer of 2015 has to be seen both in the continuity of a longer history of social movements and as a shortage. Indeed, if it has replaced the previous environmental issues as a priority in the political agenda, it has temporarily succeeded in mobilising across sectarian cleavages42Its multi-confessional structure has been noticed by scholars and analysts: “Although March 8th and March 14th coalitions were based on sectarian solidarity networks, ‘You stink’ doesn’t rely on those traditional and existing confessional networks”43. It is under this unique form that the movement was perceived by the political power facing for the first time a real challenge.

This jamming seems to be a real trial for the entire set of political factions that are threatened with erosion from within their own social base. Reactions of the political class are testimonies to this. The Prime Minister Tammam Salam made calls to denounce ‘political garbage’. The Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry stressed that the claims of demonstrators were in reality those of the Shi’a Amal Party since the 1990s, a party that according to him has called for the dismantling of the confessional state in Lebanon. The head of the Free Patriotic Current (CPL) Michel Aoun denounced corruption and began organising his own mobilising actions. As for Hezbollah, if indeed it also maintains to share the movement’s claims, it finds itself in the impossibility to show its support, essentially for two reasons: first of all due to the fear of wronging it by altering it, and then because it is sufficiently absorbed by other frontlines such as Israel and Syria to be able to fully focus on the interior front.

Demonstrators in Beirut streets in 2015

For the demonstrators, there is actually a direct link between the resort to force and the threat that looms over a political establishment facing for the first time a non-political mobilisation. During a press conference, they denounced the terror sown in the rows of political figures when they were looking at a unified crowd driven by a model of citizenship44. According to organisers, it is this ‘terror’ that could explain the violence they have been subjected to. This is also Elias al-Khoury’s opinion: according to him, the resort to force is proportional to the threat felt by political power brokers. This thesis confirms a major part of the literature which stresses the importance of the “level of threat” to explain the use of violence. If demonstrated, this hypothesis would confirm the “level of threat” theoretical concept according to which repression is always a political choice made by governments to reduce domestic threats. The perception of a threat by political actors would explain the level of repression45.

The relationship between police and demonstrators in Beirut is in itself a confirmation of the utility of discussing the relevance of theoretical proposals brought to the fore by research on police sociology. The volatile conjecture explains in part police management of public protests. The presence of ‘hooligans’ allowed the ISF to give legitimacy to their resort to force. Media presence undeniably had effects on police in terms of de-escalation. It is known that the ISF took care not to apply violence on demonstrators in front of cameras. This was especially the case during the evacuation of the Environment Ministry, when the ISF expelled journalists from inside the ministry’s premises.The police itself never missed an opportunity to denounce the partisanship of media coverage, which according to them plays a part in widening the gap between police and demonstrators. Both the ISF and demonstrators finally appear as two organisations lacking experience; they seem to always seek to respectively adapt their actions, as a result of the evolution on the ground. Interactions between police and the Lebanese bear witness to a multiplicity of arrangements. However, the volatile conjecture is not in itself sufficient. It is crucial to take into account institutional and organisational factors to explain police management of public protests. The management of crowds in Beirut demonstrates that, like other instances from both democratic and undemocratic countries, repression never eliminates the possibility for negotiation and compromise, a concomitance that proves that no police can ignore the search for approval for its actions. Related to both the nature of the political regime and to its bureaucratic ramifications, the increase of police units creates structures of opportunity allowing the institution to become violent. Considered as a form of organisation, this centrifugal increase of security forces adds an element of complexity to the classic view of an administrative authority that would have ordered repression from above. The part played by Amal’s ‘militias’ is proof of a transfer, of the legitimate force of the state, to para-state groups, the only ones capable of putting an end to activist mobilisation. If the “level of threat” explains largely the high level of repression, one should also points out the failure to mobilise beyond the sectarian cleavages46.

Déplier la liste des notes et références
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Concerning the position of Lebanon in the regional great game, see the works of Ghassan Salamé. For those focusing on institutions, see Élizabeth Picard or even Yves Schemeil.

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Agnès Favier has dealt with the students’ movement of dissent against the political order in the 1960s; these were the expression of a space transcending communities. See A. Favier, Logiques de l’engagement et modes de contestation au Liban, genèse et éclatement d’une génération de militants intellectuels (1958-1975), thèse de doctorat sous la direction d’Yves Schemeil, Aix-Marseille 3, 2004. As for Karam Karam, he has analysed the emergence of associations bearing civic watchwords, in order to reflect on the ways of reporting rationales that do not directly respond to sectarian patterns. See K. Karam, Le mouvement civil au Liban : revendications, protestations et mobilisations associatives dans l’après-guerre, Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Karthala, IREMAM, 2006.

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Amnesty International report, on August 29th, 2015.

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Interview with Assad Thebian, Beirut, January 23rd, 2016.

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L’Orient-Le Jour, September 2nd, 2015.

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Coming from the military branch of the “dispossessed movement” founded by Moussa Sadr during the civil war, Amal has become after the 1990s a political party led by Nabih Berri who is also president of Parliament.

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In France, the management of demonstrations is considered as being a form of ‘maintaining order’. However, as emphasized by Fabien Jobard, the use of this term is problematic, since in the Anglo-Saxon world, order maintenance designates the management of petty offenses. It is therefore preferable to favour the expression of ‘crowd policing’ over that of ‘order maintenance’ to describe police strategies in the case of collective mobilisations, be they either recreational or violent. See F. Jobard, J. de Maillard, Sociologie de la police : politiques, organisations, réformes, Paris, A. Colin, 2015.

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Maha Yahya, “The Summer of our Discontent, Sects and Citizens in Lebanon and Iraq”, [online], Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2017, (accessed February, 14, 2019). See also Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, « Une “ révolution des ordures ” au Liban ? Un mouvement social contre le régime confessionnel », [online], Orient XXI, September 2nd 2015, (accessed February, 14, 2019).

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During the various mobilisations of March 14th 2005, the militant Imad Bazzi, a member of ‘You Stink’ was demanding the evacuation of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The activists of ‘We want accountability’, as for them, are closer to the Lebanese Communist Party and of the Syrian Social National Party (Qawmiyin), and therefore not far from the opinions of March 8th.

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Beyond Reform and Development, “Mapping civil society organizations in Lebanon”, [online], Beirut, BRD Group, April 2015, p. 44, (accessed Feb, 14, 2019).

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Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, « Une « révolution des ordures » au Liban ? Un mouvement social contre le régime confessionnel », [online], Orient XXI, September 2nd 2015, (accessed Feb, 14, 2019).

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L’Orient-Le Jour, September 21st, 2015.

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Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, « Une “ révolution des ordures ” au Liban ? Un mouvement social contre le régime confessionnel », [online], Orient XXI, September 2nd 2015, (accessed Feb, 14, 2019).

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Interview with the author, Beirut, January 8th2016.

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This is the case of Hanin Ghadar, for instance, a member of the group Now Lebanon, close to the Hariri family.

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Interview with the author, Beirut, July 26th2017. 

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As emphasised by Erik Neveu, the police contribute to the definition of categories of perception and the constraint it exercises on demonstrators is also symbolic. See Erik Neveu, « Médias et protestation collective », in O. Fillieule, I. Sommier, E. Agrikolianski, Penser les mouvements sociaux : conflits sociaux et contestations dans les sociétés contemporainesParis, La Découverte, 2010.

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Interview with the author, Beirut, July 26th2017.

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The organisation of the episode of the Environment Ministry had been decided the members of “You Stink” without unanimous support. See: https://www.voanews.com/a/reu-lebanon-protesters-environment-ministry/2940595.html, [online], (accessed Feb,14, 2019).

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L’Orient-Le Jour, September 2nd 2015. 

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Interview with Waddih al-Asmar, Beirut, July 26th 2017.

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Donatella Della Porta, “ Protest, Protesters, and Protest Policing: Public Discourses in Italy and Germany from the 1960s to the 1980s ”, in M. Giugni, D. McAdam, C. Tilly, How Movement Matters, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

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This is not so clear, however, since there are contradictions inside the channel – for instance Marcel Ghanim is not sympathetic to the social movement. 

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L’Orient-Le jour, « Les FSI aux manifestants : “ ne diabolisez pas les forces de l’ordre ” », October 10th 2015.

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L’Orient-Le Jour, September 6th2015.

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Concerning stigmatisation of violence in societies, see A. Silver, “The Demand for Order in Civil Society: A review of some themes in the history of urban crime, police and riot” in D. J. Bordua, The Police: Six Sociological Essays, Wiley, 1967.

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See Maha Yahya, “The Summer of our Discontent, Sects and Citizens in Lebanon and Iraq”, [online], Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2017. (accessed Feb, 14, 2019).

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Interview with Waddih al-Asmar, Beirut, July 26th 2017.

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Interview with Waddih al-Asmar, Beirut, July 26th 2017. 

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Part of the ISF, the fouhoud(tigers) are special forces used to counter particularly strong mobilisations.

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Interview with Waddih al-Asmar, Beirut, July 26th 2017. 

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If in Bayley’s mind the policeman is an agent of coercion, William Ker Muir sees him in a different light, i.e. as the bearer of a more conciliatory role. William Ker Muir, Police: Street corner politicians, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

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Interview with the author, Beirut, January 16th2016.

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The video is no longer available since it has been removed from the internet. 

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Conversation with Renaud Detalle, the official responsible for the UN High Commission of Human Rights, January 20th 2016.

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Conversation with Mohamed Al-Ayyoubi, the Beirut chief of police, February 15th 2016. 

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Amal’s bureau has published a communiqué in which it denies that rioters originated from their ranks.

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Conversation with Mohamed Al-Ayyoubi, the Beirut chief of police, February 15th 2016.

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See Hélène Combes, « Gestion des manifestations dans le Mexique des années 1990 », in O. Fillieule, D. Della Porta, Police et manifestants, maintien de l’ordre et gestion des conflits, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 2006. 

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Charles Tilly, From Mobilisation To Revolution, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978; D. G. Bromley, A. D. Shupe, “Repression and the Decline of Social Movements: the Case of New Religions”, in J. Freeman (ed.), Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, New York: Longman, 1983, p. 335-47.

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Maha Yahya, “The Summer of our Discontent, Sects and Citizens in Lebanon and Iraq”, [online], Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2017, (accessed Feb, 14, 2019). See also Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, « Une « révolution des ordures » au Liban ? Un mouvement social contre le régime confessionnel », [online], Orient XXI, September 2nd 2015, (accessed Feb, 14, 2019).

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This perception is shared by all the members of the collective movements I met in 2015.

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For Charles Tilly the bigger a demonstration is, the harder the repression will be. Cf. Charles Tilly, From mobilisation to revolution, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978. Others have shown that the level of repression depends on the demonstrators’ objectives. Cf. D. G. Bromley and A. D. Shupe, “Repression and the Decline of Social Movements: the Case of New Religions”, in J. Freeman (ed.) Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, New York: Longman, 1983, p. 335-47; C. Davenport, “Multi-Dimensional Threat Perception and State Repression: An inquiry into why states apply negative sanctions?”, American journal of political science 39, n° 3 (1995b): 683-713; C. Davenport (ed.), Paths to State Repression, Human Rights Violations and Contentious Politics, Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Pub, 2000.

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Ce travail a été réalisé dans le cadre du laboratoire d’excellence Tepsis, portant la référence ANR-11-LABX-0067 et a bénéficié d’une aide au titre du Programme Investissements d’Avenir.

D. G. Bromley, A. D. Shupe, “Repression and the Decline of Social Movements: the Case of New Religions”, in J. Freeman (éd.), Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies, New York: Longman, 1983, p. 335-47.

 Hélène Combes, « Gestion des manifestations dans le Mexique des années 1990 », in O. Fillieule, D. Della Porta, Police et manifestants, maintien de l’ordre et gestion des conflits, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2006.

Christian Davenport, “Multi-dimensional threat perception and state repression: an inquiry into why states apply negative sanctions?”, American journal of political science 39, n° 3, 1995, p. 683-713.

Donatella Della Porta, “Protest, Protesters, and Protest Policing: Public Discourses in Italy and Germany from the 1960s to the 1980s”, in M. Giugni, D. McAdam, C. Tilly, How Movement Matters, Minneapolis, London, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.


Nicolas Dot-Pouillard, « Une révolution des ordures au Liban ? Un mouvement social contre le régime confessionnel », [online] Orient XXI, 2 septembre 2015.

Agnès Favier, Logiques de l’engagement et modes de contestation au Liban, genèse et éclatement d’une génération de militants intellectuels (1958-1975), thèse de doctorat sous la direction d’Yves Schemeil, Aix-Marseille 3, 2004.

Fabien Jobard, Jacques de Maillard, Sociologie de la police : politiques, organisations, réformes, Paris, A. Colin, 2015.

Karam Karam, Le mouvement civil au Liban : revendications, protestations et mobilisations associatives dans l’après-guerre, Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Karthala - IREMAM, 2006.


Erik Neveu, « Médias et protestation collective », in O. Fillieule, I. Sommier, E. Agrikoliansky, Penser les mouvements sociaux : conflits sociaux et contestations dans les sociétés contemporaines, Paris, La Découverte, 2010.

Allan Silver, “The Demand for Order in Civil Society: A review of some themes in the history of urban crime, police and riot” in D. J. Bordua, The Police: Six Sociological Essays, Wiley, 1967.

Charles Tilly, From mobilization to revolution, Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978. 

Maha Yahya, “The Summer of Our Discontent, Sects and Citizens in Lebanon and Iraq”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2017.