Protests in Lebanon and Iraq:
The Legacy of Iran
by Nikola Zukalová
Over the past few weeks Lebanon and Iraq have been swept by popular protests, stemming from years of governments’ disregard for peoples’ grievances, poor governance and Iranian meddling. Although, the domestic situation and reasons for the protests in the two countries differ in many aspects, there are some similarities that connect them, and their outcomes have the ability to reshape the established regional power balance. For long, Iran has entrenched its support of the local Shia constituencies within respective state institutions. In Lebanon the current protests represent a rare but significant domestic challenge to Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran, which are usually left out of the country’s protests. Strained by the costly involvement in the Syrian war and US sanctions, Hezbollah is unable to meet its constituency’s socio-economic needs, causing people in its traditional strongholds, such as Nabatieh, to turn against it and even attack its leaders’ offices. Similarly, in Iraq, where the local Shia community is rising against its Iranian-backed leaders, demanding their accountability, while being met with a harsh crackdown from the Iraqi security forces and Tehran-backed militias. Eyes now turn to the protests in Iraq and Lebanon as a litmus paper for Iran’s enduring influence in the Middle East.
Breaking the Sectarian Shackles in Lebanon
Over the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have united under the Lebanese flag to protest chronic government corruption, economic mismanagement, lack of basic services, such as electricity and water, piling waste, growing inequalities and a failing economy, that leaves many of the country’s large young generation unemployed and the country enormously indebted. From north to south, people chant against the political establishment that failed them, demanding resignations. The ‘everyone means everyone’ slogan is ever-present, highlighting that the Lebanese see the entire ruling political elite, Sunni, Shi’a, Maronite, as one collective failure, stepping out from the established sectarian boxes, that have for so long determined the country’s political life. Although still powerful militarily, Hezbollah is no longer perceived as the proponent of the fight against injustice. The measures proposed by Sa’ad Hariri’s government to calm down the protests are not considered to provide feasible solutions to the deep rooted crisis and only exacerbated peoples’ frustration. Having lost the people’s trust, the current Lebanese government finds itself in a difficult position and struggles to justify its hold on to power. While Hariri’s resignation prompted many, domestically and internationally, to voice concern about the descent into further violent instability, the reality on the streets is that the protests have, so far, been held in a peaceful and largely festive atmosphere, except for some attacks by Hezbollah and Amal members. The country’s security forces have not yet intervened against the Lebanese protestors. That said, Hariri’s resignation represented a symbolic first step rather than causing the protests to disperse. The Lebanese public will not settle for any-thing less than reshaping the country’s political system that favours old faces and nepotism, and hinders the country’s progress.
Violent Protests in Iraq
Similar grievances as in Lebanon—corruption, poor governance, power outages, worsening economic situation and overall disenchantment with the government’s performance—brought Iraqis to the streets since early October. There, the protests quickly turned violent due to the harsh crackdown by the Iraqi security forces, the Iran-backed militias’ snipers and mysterious, black-clad men, who routinely attack protesters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands wounded. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who was selected as a compromise candidate between the two largest parliamentary blocs—the Fatah Alliance, representing the Iran-backed militias, and the Saairun Alliance, promoting Iraqi nationalism—promised reforms and a Cabinet reshuffle to appease the protestors, but, as in Lebanon, this was largely seen as an insufficient cosmetic change by the protestors. Angered Iraqis have continued to burn Iranian flags and target offices of Iran-allied militias and political parties, which they blame for creating a back-up economic empire for Iran to help it during the US sanctions, while disregarding peoples’ needs. Influential Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr called for early elections under United Nations’ oversight earlier this week. The government’s response to the protests prompted the Saairun Alliance, led by Al-Sadr, to move to the opposition in support of the reforms. However, Mahdi is determined to avoid early elections and promised to resign if the two rival Alliances’ leaders agree to form a new government.
Iran: Losing the Fight for Popular Legitimacy?
Threading through the protests in both Lebanon and Iraq is the popular resentment toward Iranian interference in the domestic affairs. The substantial Shia communities in both Lebanon and Iraqi have been instrumental for Iranian power projection in the Middle East as part of the ‘Axis of Resistance’. The power-bases in both countries seemed solid for a long time, reinforced with electoral victories of Hezbollah in the 2018 Lebanese parliamentary elections and the Tehran-allied parties in the Iraqi elections that same year. Iran’s strategy in Lebanon and Iraq proved to be successful in penetrating state institutions through its proxies but insufficient for maintaining their position long-term due to the prioritisation of Tehran’s interests over the locals’ needs. Losing popular legitimacy in those two countries is a major blow to the Iranian regime’s regional influence. Against the carfully built perception of Iran as the champion of all Shia Muslims and the oppressed, the Iranian proxies are increasingly perceived by the locals as part of the problem, siding with the political es-tablishment and attacking the protestors. Tehran is able to hold its popular support base across the Middle East only as long as it provides and currently, it is failing to do so. Well-aware of the pro-tests’ threat, Iran actively encouraged its proxies to suppress them with force.
The protests in Lebanon and Iraq represent a significant step for the development of national identities, taking precedence over sectarian narratives, putting the country’s progress first, while refusing foreign interference. The outcomes of the protests remain to be seen, however it is clear that there is no way to overcome the deep rooted crises without serious wide-ranging political and economic reforms that would mirror the people’s demands. In the meantime, Iran and its proxies will continue to stir violence and discredit the protests as foreign powers’ creation, which will prove costly in the long run.
31 October 2019