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Lebanon’s You Stink movement, spurred by trash crisis, is targeting government ineptitude, not seeking an overthrow.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

By 10 p.m., the official protest was over, but hundreds remained. Crowds cheered as young hooded men threw water bottles and sticks at riot police standing beyond a wall of razor wire separating the people from the parliament building.

Young and old draped with the Lebanese flag carried banners that read, "It's not raining, we are spitting on you – You Stink!" and "My father voted for you, and I am here to bring you down." Voices thundered through loudspeakers calling for an end to cronyism and corruption. Thousands cheered.

Away from the protest, a group of young people watched the events unfold on TV in a café. "What will they call it?" one asked. "The garbage revolution?" another suggested.

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Still in its embryonic stages, the You Stink campaign began in July as a grassroots undertaking with the narrow aim of solving Beirut's disastrous waste crisis. At its core, the movement opposes the inability of Lebanon's weak and corrupt government to meet the basic needs of its citizens.

Lebanese were reminded this summer of how deeply their government had failed them as they watched mountains of trash accumulate on the streets of the capital's main thoroughfares. Frustrated citizens burned trash piles on the streets, congesting Beirut's already feeble infrastructure. Windows were shut to keep the stench out of homes. Fatefully, the growing mounds of uncollected trash coincided with electricity cuts during the hottest days. No one, rich or poor, was unaffected.

"When the government gets to a point where it can't prevent a catastrophe like this from happening tells you about the extent to which the system is no longer functioning," said Maha Yahya, a researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Center.

On Tuesday, there was an escalation of the situation, when dozens of You Stink activists stormed the premises of the Environment Ministry in downtown Beirut, demanding the resignation of the minister, Mohammed Machnouk, for failing to find a solution to the garbage crisis.

Riot police were dispatched to forcibly clear protesters from the building and journalists were asked to leave. An alarmed Mr. Machnouk remained ensconced inside.

The engine driving You Stink and its resounding cries for political accountability are 15 like-minded members coming from diverse backgrounds. Among them are lawyers, bloggers and artists active in Lebanese civil society for years and accustomed to expecting only a few hundred protesters show up to their events. They were surprised when nearly 20,000 people answered their call to take to the streets last week to protest against the country's laissez-faire political class and its disregard for democratic process.

Lebanon has seen many civic movements taper off with time. You Stink is unprecedented because it transcends traditional fault lines between the country's two dominant political coalitions, known as March 8 and March 14, respectively led by rival parties Hezbollah and the Future Movement. The competition between the two alliances is a product of regional patronage networks that levy substantial influence over political parties. The anti-Syrian regime, Sunni-based Future Movement is backed by Saudi Arabia, while the mostly Shia Hezbollah is supported by Iran. But experts and activists agree it is still unclear whether the array of activists who form the backbone of the You Stink movement can break the political monopoly of the old guard and translate street demands into change.

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The popular crowd-sourced movement is still underfunded and has yet to build up the organizational skills required to function as one unit. But already progress has been made: On Aug. 25, the cabinet met one of You Stink's demands by rejecting the winners of a waste-management tender announced by the Environment Minister and ordered a new round of bidding. Activists had questioned the transparency of the original round.

But the road to complete reform is long and, as Ms. Yahya described, heavily mined.

"We are in the learning phase now," said Wadih al-Asmar, a member of the core group of activists at the heart of You Stink and the director of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, a local non-governmental organization. "If we solve the garbage crisis, we will set a precedent for other changes."

As is the case with most popular movements for change, finding unity among the cacophony of disenchanted voices is a challenge. "There are many associations and NGOs involved. Finding one vision among different mentalities is hard," said Josephine Zgheib, a member of Lebanon Eco Movement.

Premature calls for regime change and the resignation of Prime Minister Tammam Salam that were voiced by some activists also provoked criticism that they lacked direction and feasible alternatives.

"The movement is not up to raising up major political demands," said Imad Salamey, a professor of political science at Lebanese American University. "It cannot bring about the demise of a current government without instituting an alternative in its place. It has to be constructive as well as destructive, or else it will only defeat its political purpose."

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To learn from others, You Stink activists looked to the wisdom of their counterparts in Egypt. Ten of the group's core members had participated in the 2011 revolution that saw then-president Hosni Mubarak step down. Mr. Asmar said, through individual correspondence, that Egyptian activists advised them on how to communicate during a live demonstration and how to mitigate the effects of tear gas.

He acknowledged there were parties interested in "hijacking" the nascent movement. Hundreds were wounded when protesters clashed with police on Aug. 22 and Aug. 23. You Stink maintains that members outside the campaign instigated the fighting.

Many ask where the movement is going. For now, You Stink members say they have no interest in forming an opposition movement within the government. "You can't fight corruption from within the system," Mr. Asmar said. "Today in Lebanon, having a political party is useless.

"Our objective, and what we have been successful in doing, is to open a platform for people to say what they want, to bring people back to the public debate. We are building with the people."

The government is crippled with paralysis and unable to reach consensus on various key issues, including waste management, electoral reform and the election of a president. To bide time, parliament extended its own mandate twice and has not convened since November because of a lack of a quorum. The deluge of more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees has only highlighted existing infrastructure and economic woes.

Despite this, not all Lebanese want change. There are many outside the political class who benefit from preserving the sectarian system, especially in urban areas, where livelihoods are intricately connected with political patronage networks.

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"You can't knock [down] the Lebanese system, which has been in power for years, with one match," said Randa Slim, director of the Track II Dialogue Initiative. "It is important to focus on the issue of trash. If this movement can succeed in forcing the government to come up with a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution to the trash crisis, this a very important win. But it won't change the political system."

The activists seem to agree. After postponing protests for a week, they streamlined demands to find a sustainable and transparent solution to the garbage crisis, calling for the resignation of Mr. Machnouk, whom they blame for failing to find solutions to the waste problem, and holding the police officers who responded violently during the protests of Aug. 22 and Aug. 23 to be held accountable.

If You Stink is able to find a solution to the garbage crisis, then it will move on to tackle more complex issues, activist Lucien Bourjeily explained. "Tomorrow, we want a solution to the garbage problem. Next thing will be to call for parliamentary elections."

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