Protests in Iraq and Lebanon- Signs of Arab Spring 2.0

 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan
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While the cause for the uprising is quite similar, if not for the flags of Iraq and Lebanon, the differentiation is quite interesting. In recent times, both these nations with sectarian and ethnic power sharing systems have been experiencing a cluttered political and economic flux. Masses have taken on the streets both in Baghdad and Beirut, angered by the poor governance, high unemployment rates and undoubtedly increasing corruption. In Lebanon, Saad Hariri, now the former Prime Minister, resigned on October 29th, 2019.[i] It seems, like Saad Hariri, in Iraq Abdul-Mahdi would also have the same fate as that of his counterpart. The protests in Iraq since early October have shaped into a hysterical situation causing a quite large number of casualties, unlike in Beirut. However, these uprising reminds of the Arab spring of 2011.

Lebanese Economic Crunch

The small dynamic state of Lebanon in the Levant has been in the limelight for its nationwide protest- all due to its devastating debt-ridden economic state of affairs.[ii] Over the last month, huge demonstrations were staged in the streets of the nation against corruption and due to lack of economic reforms. This is not the first of its kind; reminds of the summer of 2011 and 2015 where protests had also erupted in similar lines. But what makes this different is that people from all sects and social classes have come out in large number to hold their political leaders accountable for the non-transparency in their system. Notably, in the past, typically the protests stages only in Beirut although this time masses protested even in other Lebanese cities including Tripoli, Saida, Nabatiyeh and Tyre.[iii]  Moreover, the momentum of protests has not been affected, even after threats from Hezbollah of crushing the protests; it is observed that people have come out even in Shia and Sunni populated areas of Tyre and Tripoli respectively. However, with much deliberations and with high level protest in the falling economy was to an extent successful as it forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down from the position.

The deplorable situation of the Middle Eastern state is quite evident as even International Monetary Fund (IMF) also urged the government and its central bank to implement stressed reforms immediately. Moreover, IMF has mentioned these measures while reviewing Lebanon’s emergency reforms, given the country’s high debt level and fiscal deficit. Lebanon has one of the world’s largest levels of government debt as a share of economic output.[iv] As per IMF’s forecast, the country would levy a fiscal deficit of 9.8 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this year and 11.5 percent next year.[v] Notably, for more than twelve days the protests has been prolonged while people are alarmed by the country’s movement to an economic collapse unseen since 1975-90 civil war. Though immediate reforms might not be satisfactory to the protestors, many argue that decades of inaction and corruption cannot be reversed within a month or so. However, across the nation, people are poorer and going back to work would become more of priority for them. These protest had an influence on the Lebanese government; with the resignation of the Prime Minister, evolution of potential demonstrations across the nation including all sects and classes was the highlight of the recent times as the uprising was a long anticipated event for a political change in Lebanon.

The Iraqi Outrage

Infuriated by the high unemployment rates and corrupted political system, people across Iraq have been protesting in the streets for a month or so;  the second wave in a few months’ time. A year old government of Abdul Mahdi, who is Iraq’s Prime Minister, might also get the same fate as of his counterpart in Lebanon. Although Iraq might be one of the largest oil producing nations in the world- but it’s high unemployment rates and political instability with lack good governance have brought its people into the streets. The current anti-government demonstrations have been the largest since the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Interestingly, the protestors chanted “No Moqtada, No Hadi![vi] reproving what they sensed as an agreement by the leaders of the two largest blocs in the parliament – populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and militia leader Hadi al-Amiri – to adhere realpolitik behind the scenes with or without the prime minister they positioned last year. In meantime, Al- Sadr withdrew his support and wanted to oust the Prime Minister[vii] as the latter did not give importance for an early election; but timely intervention by the militia leader Al- Amiri condensed the situation by keeping the power status balanced. Although, Iraq’s President Salih publicly mentioned that an apt alternative for Abdul Mahdi is to be decided in the meantime without bringing much vacuum in the system; adding that Prime Minister Mahdi, is willing to step down from the position. This vacuum to be filled seems to be in a jinx realising that a political consensus would be required on who will be the successor of Mahdi, with Al-Sadr and Al-Amiri having their own sectarian influences in hand. Interestingly, most of the Iraqis feel that this sectarian political class has been the biggest backdrop of their development crisis[viii] since it has cropped up – put in place by the US led invasion toppling Sadaam Hussain. However, in the bigger picture, the protestors would be questioning on what is the guarantee that even if a new leader comes from the alliance who was already in power- would make a change to the oil rich economy, at a time when unemployment rates are at the peak in its history.

Despite being one of the largest oil producers and suppliers among the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC), domestic development indicators in Iraq has been disappointing; many Iraqis live in poverty or do not have access to clean water, electricity, basic health care and education. Apart from this, the major demand from the agitators is  for the provision of employment especially for the youth. Firstly, mostly youngsters and later women and children, families, old people- all joined the increasing numbers for the protest; as for them the governments since 2003 has been non-transparent, greedy for power and got corrupted more by inclining to the needs as a proxy for its allies. However, these protest expanded to other major cities and religious shrine cities including Najaf and Kerbala-  mostly focusing in the five districts of the Shiite majority regions, causing more damage.[ix]

The blocking of the Ummr Qasr[x] by the demonstrators induced more worry for the Iraqi government as the port receives a large number imports including grains, sugar, vegetable oil- feeding majority of the country which is largely dependent on imports. However, oil exports take place through near-by offshores as the protest has not affected much there; concerns of excess demonstrations has affected their food imports lately. Notably, casualties have been increasing with more resistance from the government is in place. Lately, standalone protests in Southern Iraq has been the highlight over a period of time, although this time it turned to a huge widespread in terms of mass demonstrations diffusing across the country. Perhaps, a democratic wave in the country might be the people’s mandate where the government has not made efforts to fulfil people’s basic needs over the last decade or so.

An Alarming Rebound

Even though these protests hit headlines worldwide, it is a major a concern for the oil consuming nations in Asia. Iraq has been among the top three oil suppliers to India in the last few year; in fact, largest in the last quarter. The Iraqi government had mentioned that oil exports have not been affected, but however India’s serious concerns would not limit to oil. It would also affect the Indian workers and nurses working in those affected provinces. The Ministry of External Affairs has to be vigilant given the interest of its citizen’s safety. With these protest, along with Islamic State (IS) integrating post Baghdadi’s assassination and escape of eight hundred plus IS prisoners from the Kurdish periphery due to Turkish offensive in Syria- would be a worry not only for Iraq, even for India provided its diaspora and bilateral interest with the West Asian nation.

Most of the countries in the Levant which were hit by the Arab uprising of 2011 were either suppressed or still countering the wave. But with the case of Lebanon and Iraq, both witnessed a level of protest which faded in time and then later had elections which installed governments. Foremost, the political class and system in both these countries are influenced by sectarianism and it is by large a Shiite influenced structure which have their own priorities. The Arab spring of 2011 substantially influenced for a democratic change in power holders among nations in North Africa and to an extent in West Asia; however, this resurrection of the uprising seems have a significant economic angle to it- calling for immediate reforms in both the nations. However, the demands of the protestors, that is, the citizens of their respective nations- are not satisfied with their political mandate as they want the economic affairs to be more stabilised and want their leaders to be more inclusive in their state of affairs. Perhaps these uprising in West Asia might act as a serious eye-opener for other conflict economies and countries in the region particularly to focus on domestic economic reforms satisfying their mandate and if so, not to anticipate an uprising.

 

References

[i] T Perry, “ After struggling to reform, Hariri quits as  Lebanese PM”, Reuters,October 29, 2019, https://in.reuters.com/article/uk-lebanon-protests-hariri/after-struggling-to-reform-hariri-quits-as-lebanese-pm-idINKBN1X8275, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[ii] JB Alterman,”Lebanon’s Government Collapses”, CSIS, October 30,2019, https://www.csis.org/analysis/lebanons-government-collapses, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[iii]  C Parreira and K Stedem, “Lebanese are protesting in all regions of the country, not just Beirut. Here’s why that matters.”, The Washington Post, October 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/24/lebanese-are-protesting-all-regions-country-not-just-beirut-heres-why-that-matters/, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[iv] D Barbuscia, “IMF stresses urgency of reforms in Lebanon to restore economic stability”, Reuters, October 28, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lebanon-protests-imf/imf-stresses-urgency-of-reforms-in-lebanon-to-restore-economic-stability-idUSKBN1X70CJ, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[v] ibid

[vi] A Aboulenein, “Iraqi prime minister’s fate in limbo as protests swell, two killed”, Reuters, October 30, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests/iraqi-prime-ministers-main-backers-agree-to-oust-him-idUSKBN1X90HX, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[vii] “Iraq’s Sadr calls on rival to join him in ousting PM”, Reuters, October 29, 2019, https://in.reuters.com/article/uk-iraq-protests-sadr/iraqs-sadr-calls-on-rival-to-join-him-in-ousting-pm-idINKBN1X8258, accessed on October 31, 2019.

[viii] A Aboulenein, “Iraqi prime minister’s fate in limbo as protests swell, two killed”, Reuters, October 30, 2019.

[ix] Ibid

[x] “Iraq’s Umm Qasr port operations halted by protesters – officials”, Reuters, October 30, 2019, https://in.reuters.com/article/uk-iraq-protests-port/iraqs-umm-qasr-port-operations-halted-by-protesters-officials-idINKBN1X90VW, accessed on October 31, 2019.