Anti-government protests have returned to Iraq less than a month after demonstrations broke out across the country — and again unarmed civilians have been targeted. At least 60 Iraqis were killed last weekend following the publication of a report that exonerated the government from the murder of no less than 160 people during the mass protests that broke out earlier this month. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi promised a series of reforms back then, but little has changed and the public mood remains tense amid accusations that Iranian-backed militias continue to target the protesters.
In Lebanon, anti-regime protests have spread to Hezbollah-controlled cities and towns in the south in spite of stern warnings by Hassan Nasrallah, who rejected demands that the government be sacked and early elections held. However, Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday bowed to the protesters’ demands and announced his resignation.
The contrasts between what is happening in Iraq and Lebanon are many, but so are the similarities. Protesters in both countries are fed up with sectarian divisions, institutional corruption and poor public services. While Lebanon’s revolt has been largely peaceful and festive-like, Iraq’s has been bloody and violent. In both cases, the public has demanded the departure of a discredited political class.
Another common denominator is Iranian influence, if not hegemony, over domestic politics. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is not shy of its Iranian connections and overall dependence on Tehran’s financial and military backing. Over the past decade, Hezbollah has become the main powerbroker in Lebanon and today it holds influence over the president, the Cabinet and Parliament. It has become a state within the state and a proxy of Iran not only in Lebanon but in Syria, Iraq and Yemen too.
By entering into alliances with President Michel Aoun and other parties and movements, Hezbollah has kept the sectarian-based political system alive. But, in the process, it has allowed the state’s institutions to implode, resulting in mass corruption, cronyism, high unemployment, poverty and failing public services across Lebanon. Most of the ruling political class was busy looting the country while citizens across sectarian and ethnic lines were left to suffer. Lebanon’s disenfranchised youth has today become the powerhouse for popular discontent. They are the ones who have challenged the dysfunctional system and taken to the streets.
Lebanon’s Shiite citizens have suffered under Hezbollah’s ironclad rule too. Hundreds of the militia’s fighters have lost their lives in Syria defending a ruthless regime on behalf of Iran. While Hezbollah was beefing up its arsenal and spending millions in Syria, it neglected its Shiite followers, especially in Lebanon’s deprived south. Nasrallah’s miscalculation in July of 2006 resulted in a month-long war with Israel that killed more than 1,300 Lebanese, displaced more than a million in southern Lebanon and severely damaged the country’s infrastructure.
It is no wonder that Hezbollah has been rattled by the ongoing mass protests that have spread to southern Lebanese towns. Hariri's resignation could disrupt the current political alliances and thus weaken the militia’s grip on the country. But Nasrallah’s options are limited. His goons have tried to intimidate protesters in Beirut, Tyre, Sidon and Nabatieh without success.
The collapse of sectarianism would limit Hezbollah’s influence and, by extension, that of Iran. The fact that Iran is suffering under US sanctions has also affected Hezbollah’s finances. Its ability to buy people’s loyalty has been curtailed.
In Iraq, Iran’s proxies present a major challenge to the sectarian-based ethno-confessional system. Mass corruption, poverty, unemployment and the lack of public services have driven people on to the streets across the country, but especially in the Shiite-majority southern governorates. Anti-Iranian slogans echoed in Karbala, Najaf and Basra, among others, while the offices of pro-Iranian political parties were torched by protesters.
The Iran Militia in Iraq and Syria (IMIS), comprised of tens of armed Shiite militias, has targeted protesters in Baghdad and southern towns. More than a dozen were reported killed in Karbala on Monday night after crowds were fired on. As in Lebanon, Iran now faces a popular backlash against its deep and messy intervention in Iraq’s political system. Any attempt to reform that system would undercut Tehran’s sway in Iraq. Both in Lebanon and Iraq, it is Iran and its proxies that oppose any change to the status quo.
The challenges facing Lebanon and Iraq are existential in nature. Abandoning a sectarian system that has benefited the few and allowed a foreign power to manipulate it from within will not be easy. But people’s soft power will not be subdued by force. No one really knows how things will turn out in Lebanon and Iraq, but one thing is clear: The deep state in both countries is on the defensive.