Jérémie Langlois, University of Wisconsin-Madison & Marwa Daoudy, Georgetown University
When do preexisting environmental demands enter the discourse of wider episodes of mass mobilization? This memo revisits theory developed in the study of social movements in Latin America to assess one key variable that could answer to this question in the Middle East and North Africa. We argue that government discourse around water, waste, and disaster management can help account for cross-case variation in whether protesters elevate preexisting environmental grievances to the national level during episodes of mass mobilization. In doing so, we highlight the explanatory power of discursive battles between state and society over the “imbued meaning” of industrialized resources. By examining environmental movements in two cases from the “second wave” of 21st century Arab uprisings, we assess different policy discourses toward environmental concerns in past decades.
Lebanon and Jordan both experienced mass protests during the 2010-2013 Arab Spring and then again in a 2018-2019 “second wave.” In both cases, environmental frames featured as fringe elements in 2010-2013, if at all. Yet the two countries witnessed varying degrees of environmental mobilization between these two waves and, most importantly, saw a strong divergence in environmental demands and frames in the second wave of protests. In Jordan, demands of protests that began in December of 2018 focused largely on economic grievances, while environmental protests tended to remain hyperlocal. Lebanon’s more radical wave invoked a critique of the country’s political system and sectarian governance. Concerns around water, trash, and disaster management served as central symbols for the government’s illegitimacy.
While we limit our discussion to two cases and do not seek to control for every possible variable, comparisons between Jordan and Lebanon generate a multi-pronged comparative paradox with implications for trends in the region’s contentious politics. Why would Jordan’s severe water crisis yield such weak environmental mobilization when compared to Lebanon? Though Jordan remains an extreme case, this same question could be posed with reference to other counterfactual cases in the region. For example, Algeria and Morocco saw numerous rural protest movements that invoked environmental issues emerge in the 2010s. Yet as these movements grew into each country’s respective Hirak, these frames had to compete with other political and economic as these movement coalitions grew to include urban populations. This highlights the uniqueness of the Lebanese case, where environmental grievances seemed to resolve sectarian collective action issues and persisted as a prominent frame in the 2019 protests. This paradox has generalizable implications, as environmental precarity itself rarely predicts the emergence of successful environmental movements. We hope isolating one key variable can add nuance to debates on environmental mobilization, particularly within a region faced with a similar set of environmental challenges.
The Imbued Meaning of Industrialized Resources
We intend for this memo to serve as a heuristic for future work through two primary contributions. First, contemporary cases in MENA suggest that environmental grievances being framed within wider moments of contention rely on the imbued meaning of resources as shaped by government discourse. Erica Simmons developed this concept in a comparative study of protests in Bolivia and Mexico, where she argued that resources must be “artisanal” for community-generated meaning to matter. Drawing on Karen Bakker’s earlier work, Simmons defines an artisanal relationship with a resource as one where “people [interact] directly with cultivation and distribution—and often each other in the process” due to scarcity and service provision failure. Conversely, an “industrial” relationship with water suggests a degree of abstraction in how communities interact with the resource, namely, that acquiring water is a matter of turning on the tap. We suggest that a careful look at environmental contention in the Middle East implies that even industrialized manifestations of water supply, consumption, and infrastructure contain conflicts over meaning between communities and the state apparatus. Moreover, while Simmons deployed the concept of imbued meaning to understand the success and nature of protest around subsistence goods like water and corn, we contend that our cases show the concept can explain the emergence and escalation of environmental claims in the first place. In doing so, we seek to expand upon and refine emerging approaches in social movement theory that seek to explain scale-shifts and assess the nature of grievances as an independent variable.
We recognize that Jordan and Lebanon are not identical cases. A tempting answer to the question posed in this essay would be that the Jordanian state has a coercive apparatus capable of more directly dictating the terms on which citizens can mobilize. While this is true, we posit that state capacity only tells half the story and cannot explain why national protests do occur in Jordan but largely eschew environmental claims. Our definition of environmental activism is intentionally broad in scope. It consists of any contentious activity that invokes claims or grievances related to distribution and management of natural resource, pollution, and waste. We contend a definition any narrower that leans on evaluating the motivations of individual activists that could exclude movements whose goals, if realized, would directly reshape environmental politics.
The failure of environmental grievances to surface as a salient frame in the 2018-2019 protests in Jordan can be understood as a function of the government’s success in contesting the meaning of water in society. The government’s nimble securitization discourse around water ascribes responsibility to individual consumption habits and proved effective in preventing the emergence of water concerns as a main frame and demand in the 2018-2019 uprising.
This is not because of the absence of a water problem. The vast majority of the population encounters the most pronounced water crises in their homes on a daily basis. All but the most well-off Jordanians carefully plan their household water consumption around a government-mandated rationing program or face hefty fees for excess consumption. Moreover, like Lebanon and other cases in the region, environmental protests in Jordan proved salient at the local level in peripheral regions during the 2010s. Mafraq experienced “nearly daily water protests in the summer of 2013” to the point that eventually King Abdullah himself visited the city to respond to protester demands. Moreover, as Taraf Abu Hamdan writes in this collection, Jordan’s rural Badia communities have increasingly mobilized around environmental issues affecting land rights in recent years, yet these grievances remained largely local.
The regime’s construction of a securitized discourse around water in Jordan deftly invokes narratives that draw on the country’s prevailing domestic and international security concerns. As numerous scholars have noted in extensive empirical studies of water discourse in Jordan, the government has successfully pursued a two-prong strategy to deflect blame on water scarcity in the eyes of the population. First, awareness campaigns serve to convince citizens of their individual responsibility when it comes to water—effectively defining the issue as one of consumption, and therefore not a failure of the state. These efforts have taken a number of forms, not least of which has been the mobilization of religious authorities and mosque networks to educate the public on water consumption practices. As Benedict & Hussein note, “The intent of this program was to link the state’s legitimacy of water authority with the authority of citizens’ religious communities to strengthen appeals of personal water responsibility and hydraulic citizenship by entangling them with appeals to leading a pious life within Jordan’s religious communities.” They also note the equally important role of water education in schools in creating a society-wide consensus on hydro-citizenship. Science and geography curriculum feature water scarcity as a key subject, and list numerous controversial government projects, including the Disi aquifer, as key to maintaining the nation’s prosperity and sovereignty. A final prong of the government’s internal blame strategy rests on effectively controlling the narrative around environmental protests itself. As Helena Wisbach Frid argues, the sabotage campaign in the carried out by local communities against the Disi aquifer pipeline has been instrumentalized by the government to divide environmental activism in the southeast and discredit its motives in larger cities.
Second, the government has effectively depicted the source of water scarcity as being triggered by outside actors, whether directly blaming Israel’s diplomatic bullying around water deals or indirectly defining the large influx of refugees as a strain on the limited resource. This has served to largely localize and compartmentalize the question of water, while insulating it from direct political challenge. Jordan’s limited water protests between 2011-2019 appealed directly to local authorities or municipal water suppliers rather than invoking parliamentary leadership or the King. When water issues are occasionally evoked in protests directed at the central government, they are often lumped into wider grievances around price hikes of consumer commodities and goods. As such, the question of water in Jordan, rather than evolving to symbolize a rupture in the social contract between a government and its people, occupies a relatively minor role in contention despite being a strained feature of everyday life.
In Lebanon, concerns with waste and trash removal ultimately formed a catalyst through which a “post-sectarian” frame of contention emerged in 2019. This, combined with mobilization around water infrastructure like the World Bank supported Bisri Dam saw activists successfully use preexisting contention around regional identity and convert them into broader grievances about government corruption, incompetence, and failure. In essence, Lebanese activists framed a nexus between environmental concerns and the political economy of the state’s failed social contract, effectively redirecting contention away from local authorities and toward the regime. Lebanon’s particular history of environmental activism and the way in which elites sought to invoke environmental symbolism helps illustrate the “imbued meaning” within environmental issues in Lebanon.
There is a long history of such framing. As Nagel and Staeheli note, historically “nationalist elites in Lebanon wove themes of nature and landscape into their narratives of national origins and uniqueness.” Dating back to the 1960s, rural Shia communities consistently raised environmental issues of water and land access as key grievances in their marginalization from the state’s social contract. Yet by the 1970s, the environmental movement experienced an NGOization, catering to depoliticized issues dictated by the logic of the neoliberal international order. Environmental activism in the post-war era witnessed an “explosion” but became coopted to serve the interest of Lebanon’s various clientelist networks. At the same time, the maze-like coalitions and interest groups that form the Lebanese state, far less centralized than in Jordan, failed to develop cohesive discourse around mounting environmental challenges in the 21st century.
After the 2010-2013 Arab Spring, new modalities of environmental contention began to depart from these patterns. The “YouStink” (talaeat ryhatukum) movement emerged in late July in 2015 in response to the closure of the Naameh landfill that triggered a sanitary crisis in Lebanon, particularly in densely populated Beirut. While the movement would eventually evolve to encompass a wide array of issues, the initial grievances focused specifically on the health risks posed by the mismanagement of the landfill. For the rest of the summer and well into 2016, environmental activists staged sit-ins and protests demanding a resolution to the sanitary crisis that eventually escalated into calls for “the fall of the regime.” For Assaad Thebian, a leader of the YouStink movement, the moment represented a shift away from more localized forms of contention to discussions on taxation, governance, and public services. The movement also prompted political parties in subsequent elections to run on an anti-corruption platform, setting the stage for wider economic grievances when the new government failed to make good on said promises. While some scholars have drawn attention to the organizational woes that plagued the movement’s “neoliberal logic,” YouStink’s success in elevating environmental grievances to the national stage speaks to how resource management, even in its “industrialized” form—can hold imbued meaning in cases of service failure. As Dr. Sarah El-Richani noted:
“As the protest continued and grew larger and more powerful and then there was a fear also from government and also people realized that the garbage crisis is intrinsically connected to the political system and the corruption that exists on the political system and you cannot treat the garbage crisis without touching upon the corruption that exists on the level of the country.”
YouStink also birthed parallel movements like Beirut Madinati that sought to address wider environmental concerns surrounding “livability” and broader discussions on the use of public space. As such, while YouStink cannot be considered the direct progenitor of the 2019 protests, it successively created a diffusion of environmental grievances that eventually expanded to a new contentious discourse on corruption in Lebanon. It also laid the groundwork for reframing contention away from cross-sectarian critiques toward an anger with the corrupt ruling class. It proved able to mobilize a “typically quiescent cosmopolitan class” away from mobilization within “demographic lines” and toward a more cross-class, cross-identity movement.
Protests erupted in mid-October of 2019 in the wider context of an economic crisis that first began affecting the country in 2017. The crisis consisted largely of issues surrounding the government’s liquidity in the fallout of a bond downgrade, as Moody’s noted that, “government’s greater reliance on the (central bank’s) drawdown on foreign exchange reserves to meet upcoming foreign-currency bond maturities risks destabilizing the (central bank’s) ability to sustain the currency peg.” As a result, Lebanese citizens, who in certain areas relied largely on the U.S. dollar for daily commercial transactions, found themselves unable to access useable currency. This drove up the black market rate of dollars to record highs, making goods and services inaccessible for many working and middle class Lebanese.
The movement that emerged in response to these economic grievances came to be known as the Thawrat al-Tishrin. Members of YouStink and other environmental groups not only proved to be among the early risers of the Tishrin movement, but also provided key organizational support over the many months that would follow. Some scholars speculate that the group’s organizational capacity stemmed from their experience coordinating technical grassroots solutions to the garbage crisis several years prior. Existing groups also capitalized on the environmental grievances sparked by the state’s gross mismanagement of a series of over 100 wildfires earlier in August. These groups built a repertoire of activities that included cross-sect garbage pick-up efforts to maintain the logistical apparatus at the sites of protest required to sustain the medium-term occupation of public spaces. Clean-up efforts during the protests by environmental activists also helped smooth over tensions that could have arisen from graffiti inscribed on the walls of mosques and churches.
Meanwhile, activists in the #SaveBisri campaign began to deploy increasingly sophisticated tactics to invoke Lebanon’s nationalist frames around natural resources. According to Roland Nassour (2020, 61-62), one of the movement’s main architects, the group’s Facebook page sought to reveal “the valley’s rich natural and cultural heritage as opportunities for ecological tourism, inciting the interest of many nature lovers, and seeking to make the valley a coveted destination. For example, the video of the valley’s ‘secret waterfalls’ went viral on social media and was followed up by special TV reports. Hikers from distant regions came to discover the site.” Nassour also reported that these posts routinely reached over 1 million views and caught the attention of international Francophone media such as TV5Monde. Outside Beirut, in places like Bisri, other local environmental organization that had long been organizing against the ecological harm of potential infrastructure plans also played a key role in the geographical diffusion of protest. While the YouStink protests did not serve as a direct catalyst for the 2019 uprisings, it is difficult to imagine the emergence of the post-sectarian 2019 frames without the groundwork from prior movements.
When do preexisting environmental grievances feature in the discourse of more widespread subsequent social mobilization? In short, we suggest that the unevenness of environmental demands during the “second wave” of the Arab Spring is best understood as a function of discursive battles over the imbued meaning of resources. The Jordanian state’s relatively cohesive messaging around water and water-related infrastructure means that national-level protests rarely invoke environmental demands. Water’s meaning is imbued as part of the social contract, yet is constantly under threat from outside forces or seditious internal movements like rural populations already marginalized in mainstream politics. In Lebanon, larger processes of privatization prevented the state from ever developing an effective discourse that spoke to the imbued meaning of water infrastructure or waste management. Instead, state actors and elites alike used the very issues that would go on to mobilize national protests in 2019 as sites of rivalry and in-fighting. Ultimately, just as analysts drew parallels between the current COVID-19 crisis and the challenges governments will face with respect to climate change, understanding how and whether regimes can “get their story straight” when it comes to resource failure and environmental degradation will prove essential for future research. Some states like Jordan may be able to temporarily forestall environmental mobilization by successfully blaming exogenous forces. Others like Lebanon may witness curious coalitions arise that invoke environmentalism not for lofty “green” goals, but as a unifying and radicalizing force against the state more generally.
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