Analysis |

Lebanon Protesters May Topple the Government, but Not the Regime

Young Iraqis and Lebanese oppose the corruption of the ruling class and are tired of governments that operate on ethnic lines – but can they offer an alternative leadership?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Lebanese protester gestures at riot police guarding a road leading to parliament in central Beirut on January 19, 2020
A Lebanese protester gestures at riot police guarding a road leading to parliament in central Beirut, January 19, 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“We have four F-14s and four Sukhoi 25s, that’s enough to defend our airspace,” said the spokesman for the Iraqi army chief of staff, Abdel Karim Khalaf. To defend against whom? That he didn’t mention. It’s doubtful that the spokesman was expressing the opinion of the Iraqi government, which is continuing to negotiations with representatives of the U.S. administration over the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Apparently there won’t be a withdrawal in the near future. The U.S. administration made it very clear that it has no plans to withdraw its forces – at most, some of them will be moved to new sites. If the interim government in Iraq and the regime in Iran thought that the assassination of Iranian Quds force leader Qassem Soleimani would bring about the change, they realized in the meantime that their main problem is not the American presence – it’s the demonstrations that have resumed in full force in the streets of Baghdad and in southern cities such as Basra and Nasiriyah. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets over the weekend with the familiar calls demanding Iran’s exit from Iraq and the expulsion of American troops.

Security forces killed two demonstrators, hundreds were injured and many were arrested. The fire that had died down for a few days immediately following Soleimani’s assassination has been reignited, and with it, the ultimate demand to hold new elections and not to allow the head of the interim government, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, to return to power. Now, about two months after the resignation of the prime minister, the heads of the major parties have yet to agree on an alternative to him, or on their next political move.

An injured protester is rushed to a hospital during clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters in central Baghdad, January 20, 2020. Credit: Khalid Mohammed,AP

Lebanon also continues to burn. Hundreds of demonstrators in Beirut and Tripoli in the north took to the streets to demonstrate against the regime. They burned tires and threw stones, caused the closure of the Tripoli branch of the central bank and called for the establishment of a new government – which, as in Iraq, is not visible on the horizon.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned that without the formation of a new government, Lebanon will be destroyed; on the other hand, his opponents in the streets point to him as the main person – and perhaps the only one – to blame for destroying the country and preventing any political solution.

In both of these countries, the public is once again demonstrating its power to bring down governments but not regimes. About three months ago, people were already dubbing these demonstrations “the new Arab Spring,” describing the dead as shahids (martyrs) for democracy and calling the security forces “murderers.” But neither in Iraq nor in Lebanon, nor in Iran, where demonstrators are still taking to the streets, did the protests succeed in offering an alternative leadership.

The social network activists, those with the megaphones in the city squares, the stone throwers and those who are burning tires are not familiar to the general public. If and when elections are held, they won’t be members of the new governments as long as “the system” continues to run the government mechanisms.

The difference between Iraq and Lebanon is that the former has a potential economic infrastructure that is based on the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves. Lebanon has no real resource that could guarantee the payment of the huge debt of about $90 billion, about 155 percent of its GDP. But even with Iraq’s tremendous resources, it is mired in a huge debt, and like Lebanon, suffers from profound corruption that strengthens the ruling class.

Lebanon has to its credit about $11 billion promised to it by the donor nations, and theoretically this sum could help it pay part of its debts, or at least serve to rehabilitate part of the economic infrastructure. But not a single dollar will be seen from these commitments as long as there is no reliable government that can ensure that the money will be used for the right objectives.

In order to change “the system,” it’s not enough to remove Hezbollah from the center of its political power – Lebanon enjoyed economic prosperity for many years even when Hezbollah was part of the government and the parliament. As in Iraq, the ethnic composition of the regime, the division of the spoils among the large ethnic groups, and the belief that the country belongs to the oligarchs dictates legislation and the distribution of wealth among the power groups.

In both countries, the magic solution is “chnocrats but instead proposes a “techno-political” government, namely a government in which the ministers are politicians with “touches” of professional expertise.

Hezbollah has no desire to hear about experts. The group is demanding a government that will represent all the sectors – in other words, a government that is no different from its predecessor. Until recently, the designated Prime Minister Hassan Diab insisted on the appointment of a government of experts, but realized that he would be unable to convince those with vested interests who agreed to appoint him prime minister.

An anti-government protester in Beirut, January 19, 2020.Credit: Hassan Ammar,AP

In Lebanon and Iraq, ethnicity and tribalism have developed into political parties that are conducting their battle in formal arenas such as parliaments and governments. As opposed to more established countries like Egypt and Jordan, here the parliament is genuinely significant as a legislature and there is active opposition to the government – and more importantly, a public that is aware of its power and uses it. This is public opposition that is based mainly on the younger generation, which compromises at least half of the population. The question is whether this generation will succeed in translating its aspirations into a political victory.

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