Iraqi and Lebanese protesters confront elites and their foreign backers
Mainly peaceful rallies in Lebanon contrast with violence and fatalities in Iraq
Demonstrators take part in anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, on October 31st, 2019. Photograph: Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters
Protesters who have taken to the streets and squares of both Lebanon and Iraq are united in their demands for the fall of their governments, the removal of ruling elites, and an end to sectarian regimes imposed and protected by external powers.
Demonstrators, who number in their hundreds of thousands in each country, rail against years of mismanagement and corruption that have left them without potable water, electricity, schools, hospitals, jobs and futures for their children.
Lebanese have compelled premier Saad Hariri and his ministers to resign but they remain in office as caretakers until a candidate is chosen to form a new government. Hariri is the likely choice of the very politicians that the protesters seek to oust. Iraqis continue to rage against prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has promised to reshuffle his cabinet as his key allies seek a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
Lebanese protesters confront a deeply entrenched, patriarchal political class empowered by a system of communal patronage affecting all aspects of life.
Dependency on patronage
Lebanese go to communal leaders to obtain preferment for jobs, medical treatment, admission to schools and universities and bank loans. Iraqis face a less well-established political elite as it has been in power for 16 instead of 76 years, but its members have also fostered dependency on patronage as well as used brute force to assert mastery.
Under Lebanon’s sectarian system of governance, imposed by France before it granted the country independence in 1943, the president must be a Maronite Catholic, the prime minister a Sunni, and speaker of parliament a Shia. Other posts are allocated to Lebanon’s 18 sects.
Although sectarianism has led to two civil wars and instability in Lebanon, the US installed the Lebanese model in Iraq in 2003 after occupying the country. There, the president must be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia, and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. Iraq has suffered constant violence since the US toppled the secular Baathist government.
In Lebanon, a poor country blessed by the Mediterranean climate and civilisation, protesters have been joyful and the atmosphere at rallies festive, generating national unity. Massive gatherings of men, women and children from all sects and backgrounds have remained peaceful despite occasional interventions from the security forces and provocations from pro-government Shia sectarian elements from the Hizbullah and Amal movements.
Tempered by a harsh climate, a violent modern history and economic desperation in a country earning $17 billion a year from oil revenues, Iraqis have tried but failed to mount peaceful protests. More than 250 have died in attacks mounted by Shia sectarian militiamen since October 1st.
Protests were initially dominated by Shia men, but men, women and school boys and girls from all communities have joined recently, defying sectarianism and forging a united front.
Lebanese and Iraqis seeking change must not only overcome existential opposition from local political elites but also their external backers, the US and its regional rival Iran, which seek to maintain the status quo in both countries.