Phil Hearse reports on the new popular upsurge shaking corrupt elites across the Middle East.
2 February 2020.
The Arab Spring of 2011-13 was drowned in rivers of blood, sometimes after being first diverted by the dead-end of political Islam. But in the last year, revolt has spread once more across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, as well as countries on its periphery – notably Sudan and Iran.
A remarkable rebellion is taking place in Lebanon and Iraq, a rebellion targeting similar enemies as during the Arab Spring – corrupt elites who pilfer the country’s resources and divide them between the major sectarian religious-confessional blocs.
Among the rebellions’ main political enemies are movements and militias tied to Iran and Syria. The protests have been met with massive state violence.
Lebanese protestors have faced nothing like the horrific violence meted out in Iraq, where at least 400 people have been killed by security forces and pro-Iranian militias. Even so, hundreds have been injured by water cannon and rubber bullets, and one person shot dead.
The Lebanese revolt
The revolt in Lebanon started in October when the government tried to impose a special tax on communication apps – the so-called ‘What’s App tax’. This was a final insult to a population wracked by mass poverty, rocketing inflation, frequent outages of electricity and water, and crushing unemployment, especially among the young.
In October, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign. Popular fury against him was magnified by the discovery that he had given his girlfriend, South African swimwear model Candice van der Merwe, an astonishing $16 million.
Hariri, worth an estimated $1.6 billion, could easily afford it. How did he become so wealthy? Because his father, assassinated in 2005, was also prime minister – and for no other reason than that, such are the astronomical levels of corruption at the top of the Lebanese political system.
For more than 100 days, many thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly clashed with riot police – and been repeatedly harassed by pro-Iranian Hezbollah and Amal supporters. Both these parties are strong in the poor Shi’a suburbs of Beirut, but only Hezbollah retains an armed wing.
When Saad Hariri resigned in October, he was replaced by ‘technocrat’ Hassan Diab. But it is not the change the protesters wanted. In fact, the 20-member Cabinet is still dominated by the so-called ‘March 8 Alliance’ – which brings together supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement (the dominant Christian Party), Hezbollah, Amal, and the Progressive Socialist Party, the Druze movement led by Walid Jumblatt.
This is an alliance of the elite, and all of them are connected, to one degree or other, with the murderous Bashir al-Assad regime in neighbouring Syria.
The protestors want democratisation of the whole system and a new constitution. The crisis is likely to get worse, because within a few weeks Lebanese bond repayments to foreign debtors fall due. Without a bailout from the US or France, Lebanon faces bankruptcy.
Apart from the effects of rampant corruption, the financial crisis has been impacted by the arrival of 1.5 million Syrian refugees and by international sanctions against Hezbollah, a key component of the political system.
Saad Hariri: the pinnacle of Lebanon's pyramid of corruption.
The Iraqi revolt
The rebellion in Iraq reflects the completely intolerable situation faced by the mass of ordinary people – hell on earth, lorded over by Americans, corrupt governments, and pro-Iranian militias – and until recently the Sunni fundamentalist death cult ISIS.
Ordinary people know full well that that Iraq is an immensely rich country, sitting on top of the biggest proven oil reserves in the world, but that this oil wealth is systematically stolen by the political elite.
The country has faced social catastrophe and economic collapse for 30 years, but at a much more intensified level since 2003. The US invasion wrecked the country’s infrastructure and the subsequent sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia militias and death squads resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead. Probably more than a million people have died violent deaths since 2003.
According to Al Jazeera, ‘protesters are demanding the overthrow of a political class seen as corrupt and serving foreign powers while many Iraqis languish in poverty without jobs, healthcare, or education.
Only 36% of the adult population of Iraq have jobs, and despite the gutting of the public sector under US occupation, its remnants still employ more people than the private sector, which fared even worse under the violence and chaos of the US’s militarised shock doctrine.
Nicholas S J Davies argues that although Iran has an enormous influence and plays a reactionary role in Iraq, the corruption was ‘made in the USA’.
Western reporting conveniently casts Iran as the dominant foreign player in Iraq today. But while Iran has gained enormous influence and is one of the targets of the protests, most of the people ruling Iraq today are still the former exiles that the US flew in with its occupation forces in 2003 – ‘coming to Iraq with empty pockets to fill,’ as a taxi-driver in Baghdad told a Western reporter at the time.
The real causes of Iraq’s unending political and economic crisis are these former exiles’ betrayal of their country, their endemic corruption, and the US’s illegitimate role in destroying Iraq’s government, handing it over to them, and maintaining them in power for 16 years.
Iraqi youth in action against corruption and sectarianism.
Sectarianism and popular struggle
Basics of everyday life like water and electricity are at disaster levels. And millions of people cannot find work. Iraqi governments, as in Lebanon, are a stitch-up between sectarian politicians, but pro-Iranian parties and religious figures now play a decisive role. Pro-Iranian militias are much more powerful than the national army and in many operations directly under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
The current revolt cuts across confessional divides, but is especially strong in poor Shi’a areas. Demonstrators have demanded the removal of both Iranian and American political/military forces from the country and demonstrated for basic services, employment opportunities, and an end to corruption. The response of Iran to the demonstrations – just like their response to the movement in Lebanon – was to denounce them as a pro-American plot.
After the demonstrations drew in tens of thousands from the Shi’a community, the populist cleric and Shi’a militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr – a key player in the government – expressed his sympathies for the demonstrators. So did the leading religious figure Ayatollah Sistani, like Al-Sadr mindful of the opinions of their street-level Shi’a supporters. However, when their masters in Tehran cracked the whip, they withdrew their support and adopted a ‘neutral’ position.
This manoeuvre does not seem to have been wholly successful. While some al-Sadr supporters went home, many others flocked to new demonstrations. Following al-Sadr’s withdrawal of support, on January 23, security forces renewed their attacks on demonstrators, firing live ammunition in a new push by the regime to regain control of the street. Twelve people were killed.
The latest deaths brought the toll since October to more than 500, according to local human rights activists. Despite the violence, protesters have remained on the streets of Baghdad and other southern cities.
National and democratic demands
In both Lebanon and Iraq, important questions of national independence are raised. Following the assassination of Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad airport, demonstrators attacked this as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanded an end to both American attacks and Iranian interference. In Lebanon, Iran continues to interfere directly through Hezbollah.
It is an illusion, unfortunately one shared by important sections of the Left, that Iran is somehow playing a progressive or ‘anti-imperialist’ role in the region.
Iran is a bastion of clerical reaction throughout the region, and bitterly hostile to confessional opponents, progressive and democratic movements, and of course the rights of women and LGTB people. Which is why the progressive democratic movement in Lebanon, with thousands of women at its head, are so hostile to Iran’s local satrap – Hezbollah.
Iran would love to do a deal with American and European imperialist powers, to extricate it from the economic mess which the government is presiding over. Socialists and democrats should oppose the US sanctions regime against Iran, which, like the decades-long sanctions against Iraq, are mainly hitting the poor, not the leaders of the regime. And of course, military threats by the US against Iran should also be opposed. These threats only strengthen the regime domestically.
Iraqi sovereignty is in any case in shreds, and has been since 2003. When most US troops withdrew in 2012, some of the largest Western oil companies, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell, remained. The Trump administration insists that it has control of Iraqi oil as a ‘compensation’ for the costs of the invasion. A whole succession of corrupt Iraqi governments have tried to balance between Iran and the United States.
The young women of Lebanon's vanguard against corruption, sectarianism, and patriarchy.
The reactionary role of Islamic Republic
Regrettably, in November 2019, some misguided left-wing intellectuals circulated a letter denouncing anti-regime protests in Iran as ‘pro-imperialist’. After a barrage of criticism, this petition was thankfully withdrawn.
For socialists, democrats, and defenders of human rights, the idea that ‘our enemy’s enemy is our friend’ is radically false and disorientating.
Political reaction marked the very founding of the Islamic state, as the revolutionary, anti-capitalist, and socialist wing of the 1979 revolution was brutally crushed by the regime’s thugs – the pasdaran street gangs, later organised into the Revolutionary Guard.
The idea that the Left has to choose sides between the major forces in any conflict has also led a few marginal leftist groups to side, tacitly or openly, with the murderous Syrian regime and its Russian backers in Syria – between them responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the country’s civil war.
Iran has not just backed or instigated violence against the popular movements in Lebanon and Iraq, it also visited an avalanche of violence against a protest movement in its own country last November. Certainly hundreds, maybe thousands, were killed by the regime.
After the crushing of the 2011-13 Arab Spring, a new movement and a new wave of struggle is emerging across the region. In 2019, it was Algeria and Sudan, now followed by Lebanon and Iraq.
The signs – albeit so far green shoots – of anti-sectarian politics contains massive potential. Self-evidently, divide and rule along confessional lines has been a major tactic of elites in the region and disastrous for the prospect for democratic and egalitarian progress.
Another major step forward has been the role of women in the Lebanese movement. The movements in both countries have targeted confessional divisions and the corruption of elites, but Lebanon is notable for the leading role played by mainly young women in the rebellion, often to be seen massed at the front of the street protests.
According to Fadi Nicholas Nassar:
Since the very beginning of the protests, women have been on the frontlines. One of the first viral moments that galvanised the movement was footage of a woman kicking an armed security guard who threatened to open fire on protesters.
As the protests grew in size and momentum, photographs spread on social media of young women and girls forming barriers between the army and demonstrators.
The underlying reasons for doing so were to protect their male counterparts from violence by the army, defuse tensions, and maintain the non-violent nature of the protests. These are not isolated incidents — photographs and videos of women, across generations, participating in the revolution, holding witty and bold protest posters, dancing defiantly, and protecting their fellow demonstrators highlight the very visible engagement of women in the revolution. The role of young women in the protests stems not only from the dynamism of a new generation, but from the marginalisation of women in Lebanese society. The collapse of social services and basic amenities affects women disproportionately, and especially poor women in neglected regions. Domestic workers (mainly women and often refugees) are fearfully exploited, and women face legal obstacles to divorce and many other restrictions on their personal freedom.
The power of confessional political groups remains a huge obstacle to women’s lives. The fight for democracy in Lebanon, and throughout the region, is a fight for women’s rights.
The question of leadership
The crushing of the Arab Spring led many to suspect that the fight for democracy and social justice in the region was dead for a generation. Now we can see that this was an exaggerated perspective. But the depth and scale of the defeats does not make any remobilisation easy.
A major problem is always repression. But the objective conditions for revolt are constantly renewed, because the corrupt elites are always incapable of meeting the needs of the population. The sclerotic, corrupt political systems in both countries are incapable of promoting the economic development that might give jobs and prosperity to the younger generation. Youth revolt is therefore always inn the air.
As Gilbert Achcar points out:
The problem in the Arab world is not adapting political systems to societies and economies that have reached maturity… rather, it is eliminating political systems that have hindered social and economic development since the 1980s. The main symptom is youth unemployment, in which this region has long held the world record.
The same author also points out that a crucial failure of the 2011 Arab Spring was, at least in part, caused by the absence of leadership:
The failure of most of the 2011 uprisings, and the partial success of the only one whose democratic gains have been preserved, have the same explanation. The Arab Spring was called postmodern because it seemed to be leaderless. But no popular movement can last under such conditions; even those that arise spontaneously must acquire leaders to persist.
This is always a point of controversy on the Left, but in the real world mass movements and political parties always need leaderships. Otherwise they are easily dispersed, either breaking up in rancorous dispute or simply withering away.
In the movements in Lebanon and Iraq, we can easily see the outlines of a programme to unite a movement, in the first instance around democratic and national demands.
But in the Middle Eastern context, a national and democratic movement will inevitably, after its first phase, begin to pose the question of power. Who rules: the corrupt elite or the people?
Phil Hearse is a veteran revolutionary socialist active in Mutiny and Socialist Resistance.