Zaid M. Belbagi
November 25, 2019
Water, electricity and access to economic opportunities are not sectarian trophies to award, but basic human rights. What events in Baghdad and Beirut have in common is that citizens, rather than succumbing to sectarian strife, are united in their aspiration for better lives and representative government.
In a region known for endemic corruption, authoritarian rulers and sectarian bloodletting, citizens uniting in their calls to bring an end to dysfunctional government, irrespective of confessional and tribal divides, is a welcome development.
Not dissimilar to Europe in the Middle Ages, the Arab world has been ravaged by a Thirty Years’ War fought along ethnic and ideological lines. Citizens have found themselves at what the Arab Human Development Report has described as “a historical crossroads — caught between oppression at home and violation from abroad, Arabs are increasingly excluded from determining their own future.”
Such instability has lent itself to crude government structures, where sectarian allegiances have determined access to services. This has perpetuated the failure of government in societies rapidly in need of meeting the demands of a growing youth population.
According to Benjamin Barthe, Middle East correspondent for Le Monde, “people are fed up of behind the door deals between former warlords turned communitarian chiefs, that prioritize their own political ambitions and personal financial interests over the well-being of the nation.”
In the Lebanese context, sectarian divisions are breaking down as members of different sects have joined hands in challenging established parties and the zuama (strongmen) who lead them. In Iraq, crumbling public services and acute economic problems have brought about extraordinary circumstances whereby Iraqi citizens have thrown caution to the wind and taken to the streets under live fire to demand better government.
In some respects this has been a return to the pre-2003 status quo, when Iraq had been under Baathist rule for decades, wherein the state superseded local groups and religious affiliations. After the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, by destroying the state structure, sectarian militias and parties thrived as they acted as security providers for their communities.
If the protest movements succeed in driving real change, there is a possibility that they can contribute to building a truly non-sectarian and fair government in the Arab world.
Until Iraqi citizens came together this year, politics in Iraq had become wholly sectarian, with all parties operating along religious lines.
In both countries, government offices and representation in Parliament are distributed on the basis of sectarian quotas. Not only has this given confessional-based parties and militias a strong foothold, it has also resulted in the intervention of foreign powers in political life. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s long dominance of Shiite politics is the primary example of this phenomenon, but Christian and Druze militia operate on the same principle. Their involvement has resulted in a complete hollowing out of the Lebanese state, empowering Iran at the expense of the Lebanese government.
In Iraq, given Iran’s bloody experience of the 1980-88 war, it has invested great resources into supporting successive pliant governments in Baghdad, more concerned with supporting Tehran’s interests than in meeting the needs of Iraqi citizens. Remarkably, however, in both Lebanon and Iraq, the protest movements have cut across sectarian lines, suggesting that they could be moving toward a post-sectarian era in their development through the erosion of the control of traditional confession-based leadership.
In Lebanon, the protest movement amazed many as Hezbollah, the longtime protector of the Shiite community, showed itself to be completely out of touch with events. Despite its impressive political organization and its substantial military muscle, for it to be challenged by the country’s Shiite community was telling of the extent of public discontent.
Similarly, Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign as his Sunni constituents lost confidence in his leadership and Maronite President Michel Aoun is under pressure from his Christian constituency to follow suit.
In Iraq, catastrophic service provision led to some of the largest protests against the Iraqi government and its Iranian leanings in Shiite-dominated cities and towns.
The spontaneous nature of recent events has taken the region by surprise. Though, without a doubt, they provide a telling barometer of public discontent with failing state structures governed along sectarian lines, they also raise questions in regards to the ability of the protesters to overhaul their respective systems.
A complete dismantling of the current, though comprised, systems of government could force both countries into a state of lawlessness and chaos. If the protest movements succeed, however, in driving real change, there is a possibility that they can contribute to building a truly non-sectarian and fair government in the Arab world.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid