04 December 2020
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The Arab World’s Revolution Against Sectarianism

Friday, 25 October 2019 13:06
Lebanese demonstrators burn tires and wave their national flag during a protest against dire economic conditions on a highway between Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on Oct. 18 Lebanese demonstrators burn tires and wave their national flag during a protest against dire economic conditions on a highway between Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on Oct. 18

Lebanon and Iraq are rising up against constitutions that have empowered religious factions—and enabled their corruption.

he recent mass protests in Lebanon and Iraq seem at first glance to differ greatly from each other. In Iraq, the protesters mostly consisted of angry young working-class men, and they were quickly confronted with violence. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the protests have been marked by that country’s unmistakable sense of style and festive spirit, and the initiators have mostly been from the upper social classes. In downtown Beirut this past weekend, the sea of protesters included a woman in white-rimmed retro sunglasses with her dog named Pucci and a young man waving a Lebanese flag while lying in an inflatable kiddie pool.

Yet despite the stark contrast between the protests, the rebels in both countries are in fact very similar. They are confronting many of the same political problems and are making essentially the same demand. They want the downfall of their countries’ existing self-serving elites, and big changes to the sectarian constitutional systems that enabled them. The message was summed up by the thousands of Lebanese who have been facing parliament, clapping in sync while chanting: “Thieves … Thieves … Thieves …”

The recent spate of protests in Lebanon began last December. At the time, the country had lacked a national government since elections the previous May, and daily life was getting palpably worse for most residents. Early protesters took to the streets to complain about the chronic shortage of electricity, lack of jobs, and mounting national debt, the third-largest in the world as a proportion of gross domestic product, which was hobbling the government.

The cynics among them argued that nothing would change under the next government—and they were right. Since taking office in January, the new cabinet has been unable to reduce the deficit enough to trigger an $11 billion loan package from European countries. Saad Hariri, the pro-Western prime minister, has made various attempts to balance the books by cutting benefits for public-sector employees and army veterans, only to run up against mass strikes and other opposition. In a final, desperate measure, the government suggested a tax on tobacco and a daily charge for WhatsApp calls. That’s what finally brought the masses onto the streets.

But if austerity measures were a trigger, the protesters now have much bigger complaints on their minds. Amani Sheaito, an accountant at a school in Beirut, earns $700 a month and pays all but $100 to rent and groceries. She said the politicians had failed to generate employment but had created business empires for themselves. “We won’t leave until we achieve our demands, until we have a transitional government which calls for elections,” she said. “And the new government’s first job should be to take our stolen money from the corrupt politicians.”

Iraqi protesters share the Lebanese view of their ruling elite as corrupt and inefficient (although they have also learned their government is quicker to resort to violence to restore order). Akram Azab, a 31-year-old father of one in Baghdad who began protesting on October 2, expressed similar sentiments to Sheaito’s. He said despite his country holding the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, generating revenue of billions of dollars a year, he remained dependent for his livelihood on the paltry earnings of his vegetable stall. He said the politicians pocketed the national wealth. “They even took my cart from me,” he said. “I was divorced because I was jobless. Politicians give whatever work there is to their henchmen, not to us.”

Sheaito and Azab’s anger is not unfounded. Many of the politicians in Lebanon and Iraq are the direct material beneficiaries of sectarian systems instituted after conflicts in both countries. In Lebanon, the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended that country’s civil war brought peace by dividing power among the warring factions. Under the agreement, the president is Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker Shiite, ensuring that power stayed in the hands of essentially sectarian leaders and warlords, whatever the result of ensuing elections. Wealth and national resources were carved up along sectarian lines, with no party having an interest in upsetting the status quo.

After the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq borrowed from Lebanon to build its own muhasasa taifa, or balanced sectarianism. Power is likewise shared between the ruling elite of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. As a result, while elections can shift the balance of power, they do little to change the faces of those who wield it, from whichever sect or faction. As a result, critics say, there is no real change for the public—elites have little incentive to enforce policies or ethical standards that will improve living standards for the broader public.

Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, says such division of power has reduced sectarian conflict but failed at making government efficient or transparent. Nader highlighted another similarity between the protests in the two Arab nations. “What is striking or the key feature of it is that it doesn’t carry any religious or sectarian or even political dimension to it,” he said. “On the contrary, one side of the protests is that they are against any political parties that are religious or ideologically charged.”

At least two generations of Iraqis have been scarred by sectarianism, beginning with Saddam Hussein’s killings of Shiites in Iraq, the subsequent revenge by the Shiite militias on Sunnis, and then the formation of the Islamic State. They are not just exhausted from the chaos unleashed by sectarian rivalries, but also disdainful of them. The most recent Iraqi protests were held mainly in Shiite cities and against a Shiite-dominated government.

Source: Foreign Policy

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