Protesters in Iraq and Lebanon Face Long Haul in Battle for Change

As the Middle East ushers in 2020, experts say a new kind of uprising, different from the 2011 Arab Spring protests, is unfolding

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Iraqi demonstrators gather as flames start consuming Iran's consulate in the city of Najaf on November 27, 2019.
Iraqi demonstrators gather as flames start consuming Iran's consulate in the city of Najaf on November 27, 2019.Credit: AFP

Abbas Ali spends most of his free time camped out in Tahrir Square – the epicenter of Iraq’s anti-government protests – going home only at 3 A.M. to catch a few hours of sleep, change his clothes and check on his family. He is determined to stay in the square until the end, whatever that may be.

Ali was only 13 when the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. He only vaguely remembers life under the dictator. What he knows clearly is that life in post-Saddam Iraq is a daily, often humiliating struggle for survival.

The 29-year-old considers himself lucky to have a job, although the pay barely covers medical bills for his ailing father and elderly mother. His two brothers and sister are unemployed. So are most of his friends. He says marriage is the furthest thing from his mind since he couldn’t possibly afford to start a family.

Supporters of Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups and security forces clash on December 17, 2019 in Beirut.Credit: AFP

Angry at factional, sectarian politicians and clerics he blames for stealing Iraq’s wealth, Ali embodies the young Iraqis in Baghdad who for more than two months have waged a revolt calling for the downfall of a hated political class.

A similar scene is taking place in tiny Lebanon, where for 62 days now, young people have protested the political elite in charge since the 1975-90 civil war, blaming them for pillaging the country to the point of bankruptcy.

The sustained, leaderless protests are unprecedented and have managed to bring down the governments of both countries. But they have been unable to topple their ruling systems: The same politicians have kept their hold, wrangling and stalling over forming new governments and ignoring the broader calls for radical reform.

An Iraqi demonstrator carries the national flag in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on December 1, 2019. Credit: AFP

The standoff gets more dangerous as it draws out, posing the most serious existential threat in years – in Iraq since Saddam’s 2003 ouster and in Lebanon since the civil war’s end. Iraq has been plunged into yet another cycle of violence with more than 450 protesters killed by security forces. Lebanon is on the verge of chaos, with a looming economic disaster.

The protests reflect a broader malaise playing out across much of the Arab world. As the Middle East ushers in 2020, experts say a new kind of uprising is unfolding. While the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that took place in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria were directed at long-ruling autocrats, the current economically driven uprisings are directed at an entire class of politicians and a system they say is broken and has failed to provide a decent life.

In Iran, economic discontent has worsened since President Donald Trump imposed crushing sanctions last year. The United Nations says more than 200 people were killed by security forces shooting at protesters in recent weeks after the government raised gasoline prices. In Egypt, there have been scattered outbursts of street protests despite draconian measures imposed under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. Jordan, Algeria and Sudan are all witnessing similar protests.

“The politicians’ corruption has stolen and ruined the future of our youth,” reads a huge banner in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. It’s a sentiment that sums up the feeling across Iraq and Lebanon.

Lebanese riot police react to fireworks thrown by supporters of Hezbollah and Amal during clashes on December 14, 2019 in Beirut.Credit: AFP

Both countries have a power-sharing agreement that allocates top posts according to religious sect and has turned former warlords into a permanent political class that trades favors for votes. The level of dysfunction and failing services in both countries is staggering, with garbage left uncollected, chronic cuts in electricity and systemic corruption and nepotism.

The two countries are also perpetually trapped in and paralyzed by the regional push-pull between Iran and the U.S. and their respective local pawns.

Meanwhile, poverty and joblessness continues to rise – in the case of Iraq, despite its great oil wealth.

Ali, the Baghdad protester, says he feels like a stranger in his own country, floating between jobs and unemployment. He says he feels sick every time he turns on the TV and sees Iraqi leaders speak.

“Mako watan,” he said, a colloquial expression for “this is not a country.”

Protesters set aflame dumpsters and tires in the Lebanese city of Sidon on December 17, 2019. Credit: AFP

Samar Maalouly, a 32-year-old Lebanese protester, calls her country’s politicians “monsters.”

“What I’d like to know is, don’t they ever have enough?” she said during a recent demonstration in downtown Beirut.

Paul Salem, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, summed up the painful standoff.

“On the one hand stands a young generation demanding good governance, an end to corruption, and socio-economic progress and justice; on the other sits a corrupt and sectarian political class – backed in key ways by Iran – that doesn’t want to give up any of its positions or riches,” he wrote in an analysis last week.

Demonstrators block a street during a protest in Isfahan, Iran, November 16, 2019. Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

The protests in Iraq and Lebanon are unique in that for the first time, people from all sects and social classes are transcending divisions to hold their leaders to account. They are desperate to hang on to this gain. Graffiti in Baghdad and Beirut urges an end to the sectarian power-sharing system. In conservative Iraq, women are for the first time openly taking part in the protests.

Politicians are betting on the passage of time and internal disputes to destroy the protest movement. In Iraq, a series of attacks by unknown assailants including stabbings, assassinations and kidnappings have fostered fear among demonstrators. Lebanon’s largely peaceful rallies are degenerating into violence.

Protesters face a conundrum: By persisting with street action, they risk angering those in the wider populace eager for stability and a return to normal life. Some say the demands are simply too radical to be implemented. But if they stop, they risk losing this moment of unity against their rulers.

Protesters insist what they’re planting now are the long-awaited seeds of change.

But analysts say it’s a long haul.

An Iraqi man drives through burning tires in the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Karbala, November 26, 2019. Credit: AFP

“Corruption is ingrained at every level, and it’s something that if you wanted to fix, you basically have to take the entire elite class and throw it out of the country. And while people may want to do that, how do you do that without just incredible violence?” said Trenton Schoenborn, an author with the International Review, an online publication dedicated to global analysis.

Ali, the Iraqi protester, says he and his comrades have come too far to stop now.

“This is a one-way street,” he said. “It’s either us or them. If they win this time, it’s over.”

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