Dubai: Both Iraqis and Lebanese have been protesting against their government for weeks now. In Iraq, the protesters have been met with brutal repression with more than 300 protesters killed whereas in Lebanon protests have thankfully gone over peacefully with no recorded deaths to date.
But, despite the drastic differences between the two country’s protests, the end results have been practically the same: nothing.
Despite the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri over a week ago, there has been no agreement by Lebanon’s ruling elite on the way forward.
Lebanese citizens want the removal of all corrupt politicians but it seems that controversial Lebanese Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, is refusing to budge.
In Iraq, Iran has openly intervened, sending in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards chief, Qassem Soleimani, to personally intervene and make sure the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi does not fall.
This is not the first time Iran has intervened to bolster a government that the people sought to topple.
It is because of Iran, and also Russia, that the government of Bashar Al Assad in Syria is still intact, despite a gruelling eight-year civil war that killed nearly half a million people and practically destroyed the country.
What do the Iraqi and Lebanese people want?
The demands of both country’s citizens are relatively the same.
In Iraq, public anger erupted in October over rampant corruption and a lack of jobs but quickly spiralled into calls to overthrow a regime blamed for perpetuating graft and clientelism.
Oil-rich Iraq is OPEC’s second biggest producer, but one in five people live in poverty and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, the World Bank says.
In Lebanon, the protests began on October 17 after citizens, angry over plans to impose a levy on WhatsApp calls, poured out into the streets.
This was preceded by sporadic protests in the months prior, driven by dire economic conditions made worse by the country’s financial crisis.
It is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, and recently the government declared a state of economic emergency. The government says it is seeking ways to fight deficit, but meanwhile, the country’s currency, pegged against the dollar, remains under pressure.
The proposed Internet-phone fee, seen as a new revenue stream, was revoked after the protests. But it was not enough to appease the protesters.
The protests evolved and intensified until Hariri announced his government was resigning on October 31, but still this was not enough to appease the protesters who are calling for a government of technocrats, free from the “corrupt” ruling elite.
What are the similarities between the two protests?
Both Iraqis and Lebanese have had a sordid history plagued by sectarian-based violence. Lebanon had a gruelling 15-year civil war, which generally pitted Muslims against Christians.
However, the recent protests in both countries have transcended those sectarian divisions. Iraqi and Lebanese protesters have come together in the past weeks from across the religious, political and geographic spectrum, united in disdain for a political class they say has cheated them of a decent future.
While the older generations have been more skeptical that real change can be achieved, the younger generations have taken the lead in protests this time around.
They did not live under Saddam Hussein or were born after Lebanon’s civil war, so they do not have the same hang-ups as their parent’s generation.
In Lebanon, 25-year-old Huda Wissam is protesting with her younger siblings.
“I am veiled and when I see a Christian smiling at me, I get reassured that we have shed off sectarianism,” said Wissam, a Sunni Muslim. “The challenge is for us all to remain together, Christian, Muslim, Shiite or Sunni ... then we will succeed.”
Her father, she said, wanted her to stay out of protests, warning, “This will lead to a civil war.”
“He doesn’t want his children to become victims for something that won’t happen. He has given up, but we won’t,” she said.
“I don’t want to wait until I am my parents’ age and then there would be nothing I can do.”
“When you ask for the dismantling of the political sectarian system ... you’re basically asking the current political elite to commit group suicide. They’re not going to do that,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
The young “want basic, fundamental rights and for them they really have nothing to lose,” she said. “They recognise that this system hasn’t worked for their parents and it is not working for them.”
What role has Iran played in both countries?
Both countries have governments heavily influence by Iran.
In both countries, citizens have criticised foreign powers controlling the government’s decisions.
An increasingly violent crackdown in Iraq and an attack by Hezbollah and Amal supporters on the main protest camp in Beirut have raised fears of a backlash by Iran and its allies.
“We in Iran know how to deal with protests,” Soleimani told the Iraqi officials, according to two senior officials familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secret gathering.
“This happened in Iran and we got it under control.”
But nearly a month later, the protests in Iraq have resumed and demonstrations continue in Lebanon, both directed at governments and factions allied with Tehran.
The protests threaten Iran’s regional influence at a time when it is struggling under crippling US sanctions.
“All the parties and factions are corrupt, and this is connected to Iran, because it’s using them to try and export its system of clerical rule to Iraq,” said Ali al-Araqi, a 35-year-old protester from the southern town of Nasiriyah, which has seen especially violent clashes between protesters and security forces.
“The people are against this, and that is why you are seeing an uprising against Iran,” he said.
What have the politicians done so far?
The Iraqi government has suggested a series of reforms in response to the demonstrations, including hiring drives, welfare plans, a revamp of the electoral law and constitutional amendments.
After intitially backing the protesters, political forces in Iraq closed ranks this week to defend the government, and the consensus among the Iraqi elite seems to have paved the way for a crackdown as protesters clashed with security forces.
This, of course, came after direct intervention from Soleimani, who ‘corrected’ the thinking of such figures as Moqtada Al Sadr and chief of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units, Hadi Al Ameri.
This has only intensfied the drive and anger of protesters against Iran’s malign interference in their domestic affairs.
In Lebanon, political bargaining has stumbled over the shape of a new government.
Hariri, before resigning, had issued dozens of sweeping reforms including halving government ministers’ salaries and reinstating pensions of retired Lebanese civil servants.
However, at that point protesters were not satisfied and wanted the government to resign.
They kept pouring into the streets across the country from Tripoli in the north to Nabatiyeh in the south. Christians, Sunnis, Shiites and Druze were demanding a government of technocrats free of the corrupt ruling elite and free of Lebanon’s sectarian-based system of the past.
Thousands protested on Sunday across Lebanon against the ruling class for a fourth consecutive week, as they await a new cabinet two weeks after demonstrations forced the premier to resign.
Dubbed “Sunday of Determination”, the day was marked by huge rallies in several cities from the afternoon onwards.
From the capital Beirut to Sidon and Tyre in the south up to Tripoli in the north, the ranks of protesters on the streets swelled from the early evening.
Brandishing Lebanese national flags, the protesters demanded that the formation of a new government be accelerated.
They once again insisted any incoming cabinet be comprised of technocrats and be independent of established political parties.
“We will not leave the streets before our demands are totally satisfied!” shouted one young protester into the microphone of a local broadcaster.
“We are more determined than ever,” she insisted.
-with inputs from agencies