A national identity born of protest and anger brews in Iraq and Lebanon

A national identity born of protest and anger brews in Iraq and Lebanon
Comment: A year after mass protests reignited the Arab region, Rami Khouri explores how the struggle against corruption and poverty became the rallying call for a new generation.
6 min read
05 Oct, 2020
Iraqi women stage anti-government protests in the city of Najaf [Getty]

Much has changed and nothing has changed in Iraq and Lebanon, as both countries this month mark one year of non-stop mass protests by citizens against their ruling government establishments.

The significant changes that have occurred in society, together with the persistence of the corrupted and depleted governance systems tell important, larger, tales of this historic moment of Arab political turbulence.

Iraq and Lebanon's overarching message is that steadily pauperised and desperate Arab citizens who peacefully seek a total overhaul of their political systems will continue to face an increasingly militarised ruling elite that offers minor reform gestures without ceding any real power.

As these and other Arab lands settle into a long stalemate, society, economy, and statehood all steadily deteriorate and could collapse. Officials with power do not seem to care, and citizens seeking to evict the powerholders lack the means to do so.

Other protests in Algeria, Sudan, and Jordan echo the same dynamics of the Iraqi and Lebanese uprisings, anchored in common and deep grievances that plague a majority of Arab citizenries in almost all dimensions - economic, political, social, and environmental. These erupted in the last 18 months, but they perpetuate a full decade of protests since the 2010-11 Tunisia and Egypt revolutions.

Iraq and Lebanon are especially noteworthy because their governance systems are defined by sharply delineated sectarian identities and political organisations. Deliberate foreign manipulation formalised these sectarian power-sharing systems, with the French in Lebanon nearly a century ago, and the US in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

One big lesson of the last year is the sturdiness of sectarian politics at the top of society, in the face of desperate citizens at the bottom

The current tensions confirm how durable they have become - almost impregnable in most cases. One big lesson of the last year is the sturdiness of sectarian politics at the top of society, in the face of desperate citizens at the bottom who have started to transcend narrow religious or ethnic identities in favour of a national one.

The Lebanese and Iraqis call for evicting the entire sectarian governance system and replacing it with a new parliament elected via a secular law that allows non-sectarian political parties to emerge and compete for power. From months and months of protesting together in public squares, most young protesters under the age of 30 have felt a new sense of Lebanese or Iraqi national identity, while leaving their religious identity, whether it be Christian, Shia, Sunni, Druze, or other, to the private realm of their home and community.

Two new dynamics they express may shape how political life evolves in the near future: they recognise that their sectarian leaders have failed them and allowed them to slide into poverty and hopelessness, and their first ever public encounters with fellow citizens from other regions and religions showed them how they have all suffered equally and simultaneously.

They discovered they all suffer the same deprivations of jobs, income, fresh water, electricity and other life basics that have slowly slipped away from them. Even among those who dominated or monopolised power in recent decades - Shias in Iraq, and Shias, Sunnis, and Christians in Lebanon - protesters understand that the sectarian power-sharing system has spawned massive incompetence and corruption, and it must be changed from its roots.

Most young protesters under the age of 30 have felt a new sense of Lebanese or Iraqi national identity

Yet in both countries, the street protests that majorities of youth and middle-aged citizens support have not been able to force structural changes in the governing system. The state has responded in two ways: violence against protesters and offering limited political reform concessions. Both have failed to impress or scare the majority of angry and humiliated citizens who persist with their search of genuine citizenship in an equitably managed state.

The primary state response has been a combination of official and informal violence - police and army units routinely break up demonstrations with tear gas, baton charges, and some shooting, and increasingly arrest and indict protesters, while sectarian party thugs burn down protest camps, and beat up or even (in Iraq) kidnap or kill protest leaders. Some 700 have been killed in Iraq, only a few in Lebanon, and thousands have been injured.

Read more: Lebanese rally near presidential palace to demand justice over port blast

In parallel to attempts to quell the protests, the state has offered concessions, including, most notably, revised electoral laws, new prime ministers, major budget adjustments, a few more qualified ministers, and early parliamentary elections that might diminish the dominance of sectarian parties.

None of these have impressed angry citizens, who in some cases forced prime ministerial candidates to withdraw their nominations and prevented parliamentary consideration of some draft laws that would have protected corrupt officials who drained billions of dollars from the now bankrupt states.

The coronavirus pandemic cut short major public protests in April-June and hastened the economic stresses in both countries. Yet street demonstrations and other disruptive tactics have resumed, as citizens have become increasingly impoverished while their governments do little or nothing to address their condition.

The political stalemate persists because ruling powers have entrenched themselves for decades through clientelism and patronage networks that blend their sectarian focus with firm political allies from other identities (such as Shia Hezbollah's alliance with President Michel Aoun's Christian party). Foreign influences and money also make it hard for street protesters waving flags to dislodge hard-nosed power elites that enjoy the support of Iran, Saudi Arabia, or other regional powers.

Protesters understand that the sectarian power-sharing system has spawned massive incompetence and corruption

Observers of the Lebanese and Iraqi scenes, and the Arab region in general, should look beneath the surface to see the changes in social values and political behaviour that now define millions of individual men and women, mostly among the under-30 group. Some of these transformations in individuals' psyches, identities, and behaviour are evident at several levels.

Big demonstrations repeatedly reveal the growing single national identity that defines people who used to respond mainly to their narrow sectarian or geographic groups. The depth, breadth, and persistence of the protesters' political demands reveal courage and ambitions that are both new – in demanding the total removal of the prevailing governments, personally calling out the rejected leaders by name, and, in the face of death, arrest, and mass injuries, sticking to their demands for new, clean, efficient transitional governments that can re-legitimise the state via new secular elections.

At village and community level, citizens regularly work together to assist the needy through food banks or small cash donations, rebuild damaged facilities, and organise security and other public needs that their government's are not providing. Expert groups actively plan for a better future government by drafting revised laws, priorities, and regulations that would shape the state they seek with a focus on accountability and social justice. 

Women play a large role in all these public and private activities, shattering centuries-old traditions that had deprived public and national life of half the population's intellectual and creative power.

Much has changed in the people of Lebanon and Iraq, but little has changed in the political controls at the top of their state - yet.

Rami G. Khouri is Director of Global Engagement and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.