Hollow promises underpin protests in Iraq, Lebanon | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Hollow promises underpin protests in Iraq, Lebanon

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Demonstrators are seen during a protest over corruption, lack of jobs, and poor services, in Baghdad. Reuters

Mass demonstrations continue in Lebanon and Iraq with protesters demanding the fall of their governments, removal of and accountability for corrupt  politicians, and an end to the secular systems of governance imposed by Western powers.  In central Beirut, scuffles between protesters and pro-government Hizbollah backers were broken up by riot police while in Baghdad security forces and pro-Iranian militiamen killed 40 and wounded 2,000 demonstrators, raising the total number of fatalities to more than 200 since October 1st.

Lebanese are seeking the downfall of the government of Saad Hariri which has done nothing to provide water, electricity, public education, health care, and services to the populace. Instead, the government has initiated an austerity programme and piled a series of taxes on Lebanese with the aim of reducing its $85 billion debt in order to secure $11 billion in grants and soft loans from inter-national donors. Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world, after Japan and Greece. Lebanese accuse the political class of stealing $350 billion since 1992 when Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri took office, promising to rebuild central Beirut which had been devastated during the 1975-90 civil war. During five terms as premier, he increased his fortune from $1 to $16 billion; others have made at least as much.

Once corrupt politicians are removed, Lebanese want the return of the money they secured through graft and commissions on lucrative contracts as well as prosecutions.

The most important of their demands is the end of the sectarian political model imposed on Lebanon by the French before independence. This grants the presidency to a Maronite Christian, the post of prime minister to a Sunni Muslim, and the position of parliamentary speaker to a Shia Muslim.  Other  roles are distributed among the country’s 18 sects and the country’s political and economic life is dominated by the sectarian elite. Lebanese vote for deputies in parliament be-longing to their religious sects. Although both the constitution and the Taif Accord which ended the 15-year civil war provide means to move on from sectarianism, those who benefit have refused to implement these provisions.

For decades, Tehran provided financial aid to Hizbollah, which provided health care, welfare, and reconstruction for constituents and paid salaries and pensions to members of the movement’s armed wing. This injection of funds gave a boost to the Lebanese economy. Due to the re-imposition of economic sanctions by the US, Iran has had to adopt domestic  austerity and cut foreign expenditures and increased economic  pressures on members of the Shia community.

Iraq’s secular regime survived the 1980-88 war with Iran and the 1991 war waged on the country by the US,  but the country’s political system was transformed when the US invaded and occupied the country in 2003. Washington’s ignorant policy-makers decided to import Lebanon’s failed model which had produced not one but two civil wars (the first being in 1958). In Iraq, the president was to be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia, and the assembly speaker a Sunni. To make matters worse, the politicians the US installed in power were, and are, Shia fundamentalists largely loyal to Iran which had given many sanctuary while their Dawa movement was banned in Iraq.  The US added to this infamy by backing Nuri al-Maliki for the premiership. Corruption ballooned and persecution of Sunnis drove them into the arms of al-Qaeda and, ultimately, Daesh, precipitating still another war. The lack of electricity, water, public services, and jobs alienated the populace. It is estimated that 80 per cent of young urban Iraqi men seek employment. An Iraqi oil exporter remarked to The Gulf Today, “Iraq is a rich country, earning $17 billion a year from oil. There is no need for a crisis.”

Once oil production was restored revenues could have been used to rebuild the country but, instead, went into the pockets af politicians and their associates.  

Iraqis claim disappeared funds amount to $350 billion. Consequently, Iraqis want “regime change” to a secular system with checks and balances so that politicians can be regulated and held accountable. Although their ultimate aim is the same, the people in the streets in Lebanon and Iraq differ. Men, women and children who protest in central Beirut come from the entire society but are mainly middle class.  Those in Sidon, Tyre and the south are lower middle and working class; this is true also of protesters in Tripoli in the north. To the east, in the Bekaa most are poor and jobless.

Palestinians and Syrian refugees have joined in.  Protesters have been peaceful even when challenged by thugs from established parties. Politicians who have entered protests in a bid to ingratiate themselves with the populace have been told, “Leave!”  

Iraqi protesters are largely Shia men who are not protesting as Shias but as Arab Iraqis.  They are determined to bring down Shia fundamentalists and their allies. Killings and woundings have been carried out by snipers from pro-Iranian Shia militias determined to maintain the sectarian regime.  Protesters have told Iraqis of other faiths to stay out of the streets so that pressure is exerted on Shia politicians by their faith community.

Protests in Lebanon and Iraq began spontaneously and have no formal leadership. However, groups involved in Iraq’s protests called for a pause on Saturday to assess the response of the government but many demonstrators ignored the call.

In both countries regional rivals, the US and Iran are backing the governments against the people, 20 per cent of whom live below the poverty line.

In Lebanon, President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri have promised to  implement a package of reforms which the people reject as old hat. Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah argues if the government falls there will be a “vacuum,” chaos and even civil war.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi desperately promises services and reforms he cannot deliver. Iraqis hark back to the days of Saddam Hussein when they had water, electricity, free health care and education, and —  above all – security. Protesters demand an end to interference in Iraqi affairs by the US and Iran which are blamed for the situation.  On this issue they have the support of nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose followers are in the millions while pro-Iranian militiamen and political parties established by their leaders support the government and, of course, the sectarian system.

While Lebanon does not depend on Iran for trade or aid, Iraq cannot afford to alienate Iran which is a major trading partner, receives millions of Iranian pilgrims, and supplies electricity and natural gas to make up for Iraqi shortages.

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