After eight years, 2011 was reborn again two months before the end of 2019.
In Lebanon and Iraq, the people took to the streets to demonstrate against the ruling elites in both countries. The world watched people of all walks of life call for a complete break with the past.
In Lebanon, the government of Saad Al-Hariri had to submit its resignation while the Iraqi government accepted to resign, in principle, after the prime minister defiantly refused to take this step.
In both countries ordinary people gathered enough courage to defy all government attempts to end the protest movements. However, the Lebanese and the Iraqis did not come up with concrete ideas on how to move from the status quo to a new political architecture and a revival of their respective economies to create jobs for the young and fight poverty, the two major ills that destabilised many Arab countries, including Egypt, eight years ago.
The winds of change across the Arab world are still strong despite the fight against terrorism. The factors that led to the popular upheavals in 2011 have persisted, in varying degrees, in Lebanon, Iraq and other Arab countries. If there are differences between the two waves of Arab uprisings in the third millennium it is the fact that Iranian influence in both Lebanon and Iraq has been quite pronounced. This Iranian factor could be a significant factor in how the dynamics of change in the two countries unfold. Some observers believe that the widespread street protests in Beirut, Baghdad and other Lebanese and Iraqi cities are directed, indirectly, against Iranian presence through surrogate political forces and militias.
Still, the fact remains that radical changes have been long overdue in both cases. Popular wrath has been directed at the political elites who have been ruling in the Lebanese and Iraqi capitals. These elites failed to steer their respective countries on the road of political stability and economic advancement, let alone squandering national financial resources through mismanagement, corruption and leaving economic inequalities unchallenged. In addition, the people reached a stage where they lost all confidence in their governments. The same factor that had been a main driver behind the 2011 upheavals.
However, people cannot remain in the streets for long. They need leadership, a plan of action and foreign financial support to enter into the second phase of national reconstruction, constitutional, political and economic. In both Lebanon and Iraq, the situation is still fluid, which makes it difficult to predict the course of future events despite all the talk of politicians in both countries that they side with the people.
The main challenge in both cases remains who will lead the necessary changes needed to put the two countries on the right track and set up political regimes that are responsive to popular ambitions and aspirations. So far, no new leadership has come forward to lead the two nations.
As far as Lebanon is concerned, the change will be slow and arduous in laying the foundation of a modern state that breaks completely with the past since the independence of Lebanon in the 1940s. It has been a system based on sectarianism and political posts have been apportioned accordingly; a Maronite head of state, a Shia speaker of parliament and a Sunni prime minister. The system has weathered regional upheavals and a civil war. Even the agreement that ended this 15-year civil war, the Taif Agreement, brokered by the Saudis in 1989 and backed by the great powers of the day, with wide Arab support, was based on this political sectarianism that has assured the Lebanese a certain political stability. But the system has almost run its course. The Lebanese in the streets have demanded the end of the system. The Lebanese President Michel Aoun, has adopted this popular demand. For the time being, most political forces have not challenged the idea. However, the road towards a modern state, not based on political sectarianism, will not be an easy one, nor should it be seen as a foregone conclusion. Although the outgoing prime minister resigned, he led a demonstration where his supporters cheered him as if he had just won a democratic election for the premiership. Under the present domestic, regional and international circumstances, predictions about the political future of Lebanon will be hazardous.
The same goes for Iraq. In the post-Saddam Iraq, and under direct American guardianship, a Lebanese-style political system was established under a democratic veneer. Unlike the Lebanese case, the Iraqi system has favoured the majority which is Shia to the extent that Iraqi Sunnis have felt marginalised politically, as well as economically. In trying to understand the popular support that the “Islamic State” group enjoyed within Iraq, in its heyday from 2014 to 2016, some terrorism experts believed that this support had stemmed, largely, from this feeling of marginalisation for the benefit of the Shias of Iraq. The “Islamic State” group was Sunni. As a matter of fact, it capitalised in its political messaging and recruitment on this sentiment on the part of the Sunnis of Iraq of being left behind. All the prime ministers in Iraq from 2005 till 2019 have hailed from Iraq’s Shias and the most important ministries went to them. On top of that, Iraq has seen the emergence of pro-Iranian militias that have exercised undue influence and great power within government and on the street. Some elements within these militias have terrorised Iraqis. Their new source of semi-legitimacy is the fact that they had fought the “Islamic State” group and are being enlisted these days to make sure that this terrorist organisation will not re-emerge in Iraq once again.
The key to the success of the popular upheavals of the second wave will be the regional balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As long as the confrontation between the two persists, the less likely the aspirations of the Lebanese and the Iraqis for truly democratic regimes will be fulfilled. One precondition in this respect is the co-opting of pro-Iranian political forces and militias in Lebanon and Iraq, something that is untenable as long as Saudi Arabia and Iran remain at loggerheads, and as long as the US administration keeps its sanctions regimes against Iran in a policy called a “maximum pressure” strategy.
The first wave of Arab upheavals in 2011 was not foreign nor regional dependent, to a large extent. However, the final outcome of the second wave will depend, to a large extent, on the new regional balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The road of establishing a modern state in Lebanon and Iraq is long and fraught.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.