Protests rattle post-war order in Lebanon and Iraq, threaten Iran’s grip

Protests against Iraq’s Shia-led government have spread to several, mainly Shia-populated, southern provinces.
Saturday 26/10/2019
An Iraqi protester, wearing a makeshift gas mask, flashes the victory-sign during an anti-government demonstration in Baghdad, October 25. (AFP)
Leaderless movement. An Iraqi protester, wearing a makeshift gas mask, flashes the victory-sign during an anti-government demonstration in Baghdad, October 25. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - Tens of thousands of people, many of them young and unemployed men, thronged public squares and blocked main streets October 25 in the capitals of Iraq and Lebanon in unprecedented, spontaneous anti-government revolts in two countries scarred by long conflicts.

Demonstrators in Iraq were held back by police firing live ammunition and tear gas. Officials said more than 40 people were killed in a fresh wave of unrest that has left at least 179 civilians dead. In Lebanon, scuffles between rival political groups broke out at a protest camp, threatening to undermine an otherwise united civil disobedience campaign in its ninth day.

The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that have kept both countries from relapsing into civil war but achieved little else. The most common rallying cry from the protesters in Iraq and Lebanon is “Thieves! Thieves!” — a reference to officials they accuse of stealing their money and amassing wealth for decades.

Iraq and Lebanon are considered to be firmly in Iran’s orbit and Tehran is loth to see protracted political turbulence that threatens the status quo, fearing it may lose influence at a time when it is under heavy pressure from the United States.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah in Beirut and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Baghdad said they want the governments in both countries to stay in power.

The protests against Iraq’s Shia-led government spread to several,

mainly Shia-populated, southern provinces. In Lebanon, demonstrations erupted in Shia communities, including in southern Lebanon for the first time.

Signs of a backlash against Tehran’s tight grip on both countries can be seen. Among protesters’ chants in Baghdad, one said: “Iran out, out! Baghdad free, free!”

The leaderless uprisings are unprecedented in uniting people against political leaders from their own religious communities but the revolutionary change they are calling for would dismantle power-sharing governments that have largely contained sectarian animosities and force out leaders who are close to Iran and its heavily armed local allies.

Their grievances are not new.

Three decades after the end of Lebanon’s civil war and 16 years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, the streets of their capitals echo with the roar of private generators that keep the lights on. Tap water is undrinkable and trash goes uncollected. Widespread unemployment forces the young to put off marriage and children.

Every few years there are elections and every time, it seems, the same people win.

The sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war distributed power and high offices among Christians, Shias and Sunnis. It has mostly kept the peace but has turned former warlords into a permanent political class that trades favours for votes. A planned tax on the WhatsApp messaging application amid a financial crisis was the last straw.

In Iraq, a similar arrangement among Shias and minority Sunnis and Kurds led to the same corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries so they can give jobs and aid to supporters while lining their own pockets. The devastating war against the Islamic State exacerbated decades-old economic problems in the oil-rich country.

In Iraq, a ferocious crackdown on protests that began October 1 resulted in the death of 149 civilians in less than a week, most of them shot in the head or chest, along with eight security forces killed. After a 3-week hiatus, the protests resumed October 25, with 30 people killed, the semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights said.

In both countries, which share a history of civil strife, the potential for sustained turmoil is real.

Protesters trying to reach the heavily fortified Green Zone were met with tear gas and live ammunition. Men in black plainclothes and masks stood in front of Iraqi soldiers, facing off with protesters and firing tear gas. Residents said they did not know who they were; some speculated they were Iranians.

In the south, headquarters of Iran-backed militias were set on fire.

In Beirut, Hezbollah supporters clashed with anti-government protesters. Supporters of the powerful group rejected the protesters equating its leader with other corrupt politicians. A popular refrain in the rallies has been: “All means all.”

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the protests, which had been largely peaceful, could lead to chaos and civil war. He said they were being hijacked by political rivals opposing the group.

After the violence October 25 in Iraq, a curfew was announced in several areas of the south. Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals, many suffering breathing problems because of the tear gas.

The protests have been endorsed by nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular base of support and holds the largest number of seats in parliament. He called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform programme.

However, powerful Shia militias backed by Iran have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were an outside “conspiracy.”

Iraq’s most senior Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed for protesters and security forces to avoid violence. In his Friday sermon, he criticised the government-appointed committee investigating the crackdown in previous protests, saying it did not achieve its goals or uncover who was behind the violence.

As in protests earlier in October, protesters, organised through social media, started from Tahrir Square. The demonstrators carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government slogans, demanding jobs and better public services like water and electricity.

“I want my country back, I want Iraq back,” said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an Education Ministry employee who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag “#We want a country” printed on it.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests. In an address to the nation October 25, he promised a government reshuffle and pledged reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protesters.

Similarly, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued an emergency reform package few days after the protests began October 17 — a document that has been dismissed by protesters as “empty promises.”