Protesters blocking access to the Ring bridge in Beirut, Lebanon in October 2019 (Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

What has been happening in Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and Sudan for the past one and half months is nothing short of Arab Spring 2.0 in the making. Who would have thought that the spark left unquenched a decade earlier will start burning again? It has been almost 10 years since the Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire as an act of protest culminating in the toppling of various regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.The reasons for a second Arab Spring to a greater extent would be the same as the earlier one—corruption, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, income inequality, unemployment, and so on.

Lebanon, where the protest started, has a peculiar case of governance system where all the country’s 18 sects are given representation through a complex power-sharing system. The power is shared among Christian Maronites, Sunni and Shia Muslims. Even the number of seats in Parliament is split between Christians and Muslims, and proportionally divided among various denominations of each religion. The power sharing is such that the President must always be a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament will be a Shia. This system of power-sharing, which came after the 15-long years of civil war (1975–90), has led to deepening of socioeconomic degeneration of the country. Even government jobs are divided among the three factions without any merit.

Cutting across traditional sectarian lines, people have taken to the streets protesting against increasing political corruption, unemployment, income inequality, frequent water and electricity cuts and building garbage problem, among others. The recent flare up of the protest is followed by the government’s decision to tax online call—‘WhatsApp calling’—and levies raised on fuel and cigarettes. The protests, which so far have been peaceful with no major incidents of violence reported,have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet. The resignation was seen as a small victory of the long-term struggle to bring the country out of social, economic and political crisis,and the people are determined to change the existing political system.

Like Lebanon, Iraq is yet another example of fractured polity. The political parties here too are divided on religious and ethnic lines. The power-sharing system that exists in Iraq requires a Shia Muslim to be the Prime Minister and a Kurdish President. In such a system, each party places its supporters in prominent positions in government jobs and bureaucracy. Even the contracts are given on preferential basis leading to corruption and income inequality.

For the past two months,protests are escalating in Iraq with the death toll reaching 320 and almost 10,000 injured. Protests had started in the wake of persistent political corruption, unemployment and poor public services including lack of clean water and electricity. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country has been battling systemic corruption as a result of fractured political system left behind by Americans. The infighting between Shias (constituting majority of the population) and Sunnis (used to rule during the Saddam Hussain’s period) has led to political instability in the country. Even after having a current account surplus of $65 billion in oil export revenue,the government is unable to provide basic necessities to its citizens. There is no trickle down effect.

Protesters, who had initially demanded jobs and basic necessities, are now calling for reforms in the electoral system of the country. They want to hold leaders accountable for political corruption and to overthrow not only the Prime Minister but also the entire political system laced with sectarianism. However, the protests have not gone down well with Iran and have sparked great anger in the country, which maintains a strong influence and considers Iraq—with a Shia Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi—its strategic backyard. The changing political scenario unfolding in Iraq will have a profound impact on the stability of the region.Protests will continue as long as the Iraqi political elite does not address the grievances of ordinary people and taking orders from Iran.The uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq show that people are averse to systemic corruption and sectarianism and want democratic reforms without foreign involvement.

This article was published in the Foreign Policy News on December 3, 2019 click here to read

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Gazi Hassan
Gazi Hassan
Gazi Hassan is Senior Research Associate at the CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies. He can be contacted on email at gazi@cppr.in and on twitter @gazihassan