The Arab World’s Revolution Against Sectarianism

Lebanon and Iraq are rising up against constitutions that have empowered religious factions—and enabled their corruption.

Lebanese demonstrators burn tires and wave their national flag during a protest against dire economic conditions on a highway between Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on Oct. 18.
Lebanese demonstrators burn tires and wave their national flag during a protest against dire economic conditions on a highway between Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on Oct. 18. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images

The recent mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq seem at first glance to differ greatly from each other. In Iraq, the protesters mostly consisted of angry young working-class men, and they were quickly confronted with violence. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the protests have been marked by that country’s unmistakable sense of style and festive spirit, and the initiators have mostly been from the upper social classes. In downtown Beirut this past weekend, the sea of protesters included a woman in white-rimmed retro sunglasses with her dog named Pucci and a young man waving a Lebanese flag while lying in an inflatable kiddie pool.

Yet despite the stark contrast between the protests, the rebels in both countries are in fact very similar. They are confronting many of the same political problems and are making essentially the same demand. They want the downfall of their countries’ existing self-serving elites, and big changes to the sectarian constitutional systems that enabled them. The message was summed up by the thousands of Lebanese who have been facing parliament, clapping in sync while chanting: “Thieves … Thieves … Thieves …”

The recent spate of protests in Lebanon began last December. At the time, the country had lacked a national government since elections the previous May, and daily life was getting palpably worse for most residents. Early protesters took to the streets to complain about the chronic shortage of electricity, lack of jobs, and mounting national debt, the third-largest in the world as a proportion of gross domestic product, which was hobbling the government.

The cynics among them argued that nothing would change under the next government—and they were right. Since taking office in January, the new cabinet has been unable to reduce the deficit enough to trigger an $11 billion loan package from European countries. Saad Hariri, the pro-Western prime minister, has made various attempts to balance the books by cutting benefits for public-sector employees and army veterans, only to run up against mass strikes and other opposition. In a final, desperate measure, the government suggested a tax on tobacco and a daily charge for WhatsApp calls. That’s what finally brought the masses onto the streets.

But if austerity measures were a trigger, the protesters now have much bigger complaints on their minds. Amani Sheaito, an accountant at a school in Beirut, earns $700 a month and pays all but $100 to rent and groceries. She said the politicians had failed to generate employment but had created business empires for themselves. “We won’t leave until we achieve our demands, until we have a transitional government which calls for elections,” she said. “And the new government’s first job should be to take our stolen money from the corrupt politicians.”

Iraqi protesters share the Lebanese view of their ruling elite as corrupt and inefficient (although they have also learned their government is quicker to resort to violence to restore order). Akram Azab, a 31-year-old father of one in Baghdad who began protesting on October 2, expressed similar sentiments to Sheaito’s. He said despite his country holding the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, generating revenue of billions of dollars a year, he remained dependent for his livelihood on the paltry earnings of his vegetable stall. He said the politicians pocketed the national wealth. “They even took my cart from me,” he said. “I was divorced because I was jobless. Politicians give whatever work there is to their henchmen, not to us.”

Sheaito and Azab’s anger is not unfounded. Many of the politicians in Lebanon and Iraq are the direct material beneficiaries of sectarian systems instituted after conflicts in both countries. In Lebanon, the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended that country’s civil war brought peace by dividing power among the warring factions. Under the agreement, the president is Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker Shiite, ensuring that power stayed in the hands of essentially sectarian leaders and warlords, whatever the result of ensuing elections. Wealth and national resources were carved up along sectarian lines, with no party having an interest in upsetting the status quo.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq borrowed from Lebanon to build its own muhasasa taifa, or balanced sectarianism. Power is likewise shared between the ruling elite of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. As a result, while elections can shift the balance of power, they do little to change the faces of those who wield it, from whichever sect or faction. As a result, critics say, there is no real change for the public—elites have little incentive to enforce policies or ethical standards that will improve living standards for the broader public.

Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, says such division of power has reduced sectarian conflict but failed at making government efficient or transparent. Nader highlighted another similarity between the protests in the two Arab nations. “What is striking or the key feature of it is that it doesn’t carry any religious or sectarian or even political dimension to it,” he said. “On the contrary, one side of the protests is that they are against any political parties that are religious or ideologically charged.”

At least two generations of Iraqis have been scarred by sectarianism, beginning with Saddam Hussein’s killings of Shiites in Iraq, the subsequent revenge by the Shiite militias on Sunnis, and then the formation of the Islamic State. They are not just exhausted from the chaos unleashed by sectarian rivalries, but also disdainful of them. The most recent Iraqi protests were held mainly in Shiite cities and against a Shiite-dominated government.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, the protests comprise different sects, ages, sexes, and ideologies. However, perhaps most notable were the protests by Shiites in the south of the country against the Amal Movement, historically the dominant Shiite political party. The streets of Tyre resonated with curses aimed at Nabih Berri—Amal’s leader, the Shiite speaker of the parliament, and a Hezbollah ally.

Nor did they stop at that. “All of you, all of you, Nasrallah is among you,” was one of the slogans—a rare attack on Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite militia Hezbollah.

In both countries, Shiite militias backed by Iran have come to play a dominant role in government in recent years: Hezbollah in Lebanon, and groups that belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces, the irregular army raised to fight the Islamic State, in Iraq. “Iran has been stealing the powers of our country. We all know that the orders to kill the protesters were given by the Iranian regime and passed on to the militias,” said Azab, the Iraqi protester. Sheaito, the accountant protesting in Beirut, said: “I love Nasrallah, but his speech made a lot of people very angry. It is sad—it was all about him and his team refusing to seek a surrender from the government and saying they can’t do anything about it. After his speech, we gathered again on the street.”

On the third day of the protests, Nasrallah issued a statement demanding the government stay put, despite the protests. In reality, Hezbollah had little choice: It’s a major part of the government itself, with seats in cabinet and control over the all-important health ministry. But as a result, many Lebanese feel that Hezbollah can no longer claim the moral ground it once claimed for itself as a political outsider, now that it’s clearly a part of the faulty system.

After a fortnight of violence and agitation, the protests in Iraq have begun to subside, but in Lebanon they are only picking up. Some Lebanese believe that this long after the civil war, it is time to move on from the old system and take the risk to invest in something different. In last year’s elections, a new movement of independent, nonsectarian “civil society” candidates stepped up, and though only one succeeded in winning a seat, amid claims they are too disparate and divided to succeed, they are still determined to try again. “There is leadership but an unconventional one,” said Gilbert Doumit, one of the losing candidates. “The argument we have no leadership is to create a fear of the void.” He attributed the defeat more to a lack of funds and campaign laws that favor the existing ruling elite.

Protesters in both Lebanon and Iraq hope that a new breed of politicians will eventually emerge. For now, however, the very act of protest offers a sense of possibility. “It’s very beautiful,” said Azab, “when you feel that you managed to defeat all your fears and say what you want out loud.”

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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