Big Risks in Baghdad, Beirut Protests

The ongoing antigovernment protests in both Lebanon and Iraq are generally seen as largely spontaneous demonstrations carried out by young people who cut across traditional social, sectarian and political divides. From this perspective, the protests are a genuine reflection of a broad-based rejection of entrenched political orders in both countries, which are widely seen as corrupt and inefficient, making the protests a logical continuation of the social upheaval in the Middle East that began with the Arab Spring of 2010-11. But their situations now are also very different. Neither of these countries participated in the Arab Spring uprisings, and they are also complex mutliethnic, mixed-sect states with close ties to Iran. In addition, the systems of governance that these protests seek to dismantle are viewed by the US as being too favorable to Iran and its influence. Regardless of the root cause of the demonstrations, the US and its allies in the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran support the protests as a way to undermine Tehran. However, this is a risky strategy that increases the chances that one or both of these countries may become ungovernable, leading to civil war that could further destabilize the region.

The Iraqi demonstrations that began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 were not in and of themselves spontaneous acts of protest, but rather the result of a months-long social media campaign motivated by frustration over rampant corruption and governmental inefficiencies. The demonstrations soon took a decidedly anti-Iranian stance, protesting the level of influence Iran was perceived to have over the Iraqi government. On its face, the demonstrations, and their anti-Iran message, would seem to be a logical target for US support, given the overall goal of the US to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. However, the US seemed to have been caught flat-footed by the intensity of the demonstrations, and the source and reasoning behind the anti-Iranian sentiment exhibited.

The demonstrators in Iraq are young. Most were just small children when the current system of government was formed following the 2005 elections that marked the transition from a US occupation government to democratically elected Iraqi representatives. The demonstrators have no vested interest in the complex sectarian and ethnic power-sharing arrangement that was enshrined in the 2005 Constitution, which allocated the position of prime minister to a Shiite, president to a Kurd and speaker of parliament to a Sunni. Nor were they politically active during a decade of conflict that saw the consolidation of political power into the hands of the prime minister, and the increasing subordination of that position to Iranian interests.

What the Iraqi demonstrators do know is the reality of life under the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, which has failed to deliver on their expectations for basic services. For the demonstrators, most of whom are Shiite, the continued consolidation of political power among the Shiite ruling elite does not motivate them the way it did their parents, who experienced the tumultuous post-Saddam Hussein transition. The regional power struggle between the US and Iran, and the role played by Iraq in that struggle, is likewise not a priority. Quality of life, high levels of corruption and governmental inefficiency make Abdul Mahdi and his Iranian backers a prime target for their anger.

Lebanon’s Turn

Unlike the situation in Iraq, with its social media origins, the demonstrations that have gripped Lebanon are direct and spontaneous. They reflect growing frustration with a sectarian system of government, which, as in Iraq, shares power and specific functions of government, in perpetuity, among sectarian elite without regard to the actual will of the people. This system has turned normal functions of Lebanese government into sources of income, power and influence. Traditionally, the president has always been a Maronite Christian, the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Unlike Iraq, where the prime minister is the dominant political authority, the Lebanese president holds primacy over the entire government, including the prime minister and his cabinet work. The sectarian division of power that exists in Lebanon requires the president to make significant compromises with Parliament, granting the prime minister considerable leverage.

The current sectarian power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon came into being in 1989, with the Taif Agreement, which ended nearly 15 years of civil war. Derived from a similar power-sharing structure imposed by the French during colonial times, the Taif Agreement was modified to give more political power to the Muslim population by evenly allocating parliamentary representation between Christians and Muslims. As in Iraq, the division of power led to each party securing their share of government, usually in the form of a ministry, and then using that position to empower and enrich themselves and their constituents. While the Taif Agreement was tolerated by the generations of Lebanese who lived through the civil war, and who empowered and enriched themselves by exploiting its arrangements, two generations of Lebanese have come to maturity since. As in Iraq, these Lebanese, most of whom are in their early 20s, care less about sectarian power and more about basic governance. On October 17, when the Lebanese government sought to impose taxes on WhatsApp, a popular social media platform, the Lebanese youth took to the streets in protest.

Unlike the Iraqi protests, the Lebanese demonstrations were universally nonviolent, with more than a quarter of the total population of Lebanon participating in demonstrations that extended across Lebanon — including the south, where Hezbollah and its Shiite political competitor, Amal, hold sway. While supporting the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, was initially sympathetic with the demonstrators. This support, however, disappeared two weeks into the protests, when Nasrallah instructed his followers, who had been actively participating in the largely peaceful demonstrations, to pull back, citing foreign involvement in a movement that was beginning to target both Hezbollah and the level of Iranian influence in Lebanon.

The demonstrations in both countries have succeeded in generating significant political change. In Beirut, the Hariri government resigned on October 29 after being unable to produce adequate reforms. In Baghdad two days later, Iraqi President Barham Salih announced that Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi had agreed to resign. However, neither of these resignations have produced fundamental systemic change in the power-sharing schemes at the heart of the corruption and inefficiencies in both Iraq and Lebanon. The protests in both countries continue unabated.

The US-Iran Dimension

For its part, the US remained relatively silent as protests took root in Iraq and Lebanon, mainly because the Trump administration had been taken by surprise by the intensity of the demonstrations. This changed on Nov. 5, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted “The Iraqi and Lebanese people want their countries back. They are discovering that the Iranian regime’s top export is corruption, badly disguised as revolution. Iraq and Lebanon deserve to set their own courses free from @khamenei_ir’s [Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] meddling.” Pompeo’s messaging is consistent with long-standing US policy objectives in both Iraq and Lebanon to roll back Iranian influence. Although the US originally supported the power-sharing systems in both Lebanon and Iraq, it is Iran, and not the US that successfully exploited the political realities in these nations to emerge as the dominant regional influence. The grassroots protests that have gripped Iraq and Lebanon, targeting as they do constitutionally enshrined sectarian and ethnic power-sharing structures have created a window of opportunity for the US to use the protests to reduce Iranian influence in the region.

From the US perspective, the Iraqi government of Abdul Mahdi has been a less-than-ideal partner, resisting the “maximum pressure” campaign being exerted by the US against Iran and empowering Iranian-backed militias to serve as proxies opposing US influence in Iraq. With the US committed to the military occupation of Syria, Iraq has emerged as a critical logistical hub to support and sustain that operation. For its part, the Abdul Mahdi government has been under pressure from Iranian-backed domestic parties to evict all US forces from Iraq. The call for structural changes in the Iraqi government by the demonstrators would support US policy objectives that seek to significantly reduce Iranian influence, and it is therefore in the US interest to sustain the demonstrations in Iraq until that objective is met.

The demand on the part of the Lebanese demonstrators to end the current power-sharing arrangement directly threatens the power base of Iran’s ally Hezbollah, which has exploited the power-sharing arrangement to exert control over the Lebanese government and legitimize its status as a political party, and not just a resistance militia. For the US, the ongoing demonstrations in Lebanon provide a unique opportunity to break the political back of Hezbollah.

But the US position contains a huge inherent risk. As it seeks to roll back Iranian influence, the US is tinkering with systems of governance born of conflict-ending political compromise. While the youth behind the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon may not value the political structures behind these compromises, the power and wealth that these interests have accumulated through decades of constitutionally mandated rule will not disappear overnight. Should the US effort to exploit the current demonstrations succeed, and the power-sharing arrangements dissolve, Iran will not be the only loser. There is a real danger from the chaos and anarchy that would come from an unplanned termination of political power-sharing in both Lebanon and Iraq. This disruption could unleash the very sectarian and ethnic forces these political systems were designed to constrain, creating the conditions for civil wars that could rival Syria for duration and violence.

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