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Consequences of Reforms Reversals and Opposition Disunity in Iraq and Lebanon

In October 2019, protests erupted in Lebanon and Iraq against political sectarianism and widespread corruption. People in both countries were frustrated with their governments’ inability to improve the economy and public services like healthcare, education, and infrastructure. The protests aimed to challenge the sectarian power-sharing quotas known as the “Muhasasa” system, which was believed to be a major factor in the dysfunctionality of the consociational democracies in Beirut and Baghdad. Additionally, the incorporation of non-state armed actors in both countries into the political system and the creation of clientship networks further fueled public anger.

Despite the differences in the scale and location of the protests, there were many similarities between the movements in Lebanon and Iraq. Both challenged the political status quo and presented unprecedented challenges to Iran’s proxies, mainly Hezbollah in Lebanon and certain factions within Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. However, Lebanon’s protests were more widespread, while Iraq’s protests were mainly limited to its southern provinces and the capital, Baghdad. Furthermore, Lebanese protesters did not witness the same level of political violence committed against Iraqi protesters. The COVID-19 pandemic also played a crucial role in minimizing both protest movements, particularly in Lebanon, which witnessed the world’s most drastic economic crisis. Nonetheless, the protests in both countries demanded fundamental change rather than minor reforms from the political class. The political transformation of specific activist groups and the emergence of youth-led anti-sectarian discourse have become symbolic achievements for a new generation of protesters.

The political evolution of the protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon indicated a very diverse or divided youth-led rebellions due to distinct approaches towards the upcoming periods. Whilst certain emerging groups decided to develop as political movements and participate in the elections following the protests, other groups decided to maintain their grassroot opposition work, while demanding more significant reforms from the government.

Limitations on Criticism

Recently, both countries experienced limitations on government criticism. Between March 30-31st, the founder of Lebanese independent media outlet Megaphone News, Jean Kassir, was summoned by the General Directorate of State Security, and the editor-in-chief of the independent media organization The Public Source, Lara Bitar, was summoned by the Anti-Cybercrime Bureau. Kassir’s arrest raised concerns since State Security does not have the legal right to investigate journalists. Kassir’s lawyer attended the summons on his behalf to learn more about its political motives. The order was issued by the Public Prosecutor at the Court Cassation Ghassan Oueidat, who faced criticism for impeding charges in the Beirut Port Explosion investigation. The summons against Kassir addressed a post by Megaphone titled “Lebanon Ruled by Fugitives from Justice,” which explained how some Lebanese politicians avoid trials despite committed abuses. Bitar’s case concerns a post from August 2022 by The Public Source regarding the Lebanese Forces’ environmental misconduct during and after the Lebanese Civil War.

In Iraq, political analyst Mohammed Naana and Iraqi politician Laith Shubar were arrested for allegedly criticizing the Prime Minister. Naana’s arrest was related to his criticism of Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mohamed Shia’ al-Sudani. Although, Naana’s critique of Sudani’s ability to administer the new government did include the term ‘backward’ as a personal description of Sudani–an offensive word in Iraq and the Arab world. However, the arrest revealed the government’s willingness to use political and legal instruments to silence opponents and threaten personal freedoms. Similarly, Laith Shubbar was arrested for revealing how millions of U.S. dollars were smuggled from Iraq to Iran under the government’s watch. The timing also coincides with decreasing momentum of protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon–since protests are no longer organized in the similar consistency and size it used during the first months of both movements.

Silencing Fragmented Opposition

Last month, the Iraqi parliament passed a vote to amend the electoral law to increase the size of electoral districts. The amendment would increase the advantage for traditional political parties while undermining the chances for smaller parties that emerged from protest movements. This amendment overturned articles passed before the 2021 early elections as it would reallocate electoral maps to one electoral district per province, annulling previous compromises made to appease prior protest movements. Additionally, independent MPs representing the protest movement were escorted out of parliament by security forces after they tried to interrupt the vote.

While ruling elites in Iraq and Lebanon are cornering a minority of opposing voices within a broader political class, it is worth examining the consequences of the lack of alignment between the different protest movements as they aim to significantly reform their respective governments.

The gradual targeting of opposition voices and the restriction of freedom of expression within and beyond state institutions suggest that both political classes in Lebanon and Iraq are reversing structural reforms made in response to the protest movements of October 2019. For instance, the nomination of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi (2020-2022) by the Iraqi political class was an alleged attempt to present someone more technocratic and less Islamist than previous head of governments. Although, the latter motive was accurate, the former motive did not align with the protest movement’s agenda as Kadhimi was certainly not their candidate. However, the nomination of current Prime Minister Mohamed Shia’ al-Sudani was seen as a major step in return to a Muhasasa-motivated nomination considering Sudani’s strong connection to the traditional political parties and Iran proxies.

In Lebanon, opposition figures such as Lukman Sleem were also targeted months after the end of the protests, and therefore, did no longer present a direct threat to the political class. Additionally, the lack of a unifying force to align protest movements resulted in a leaderless and diverse set of emerging parties. Meanwhile, the political classes in Lebanon and Iraq arose from public frustration with government shortcomings related to rampant corruption, political sectarianism, underdeveloped public services, and the absence of trust between the state and society. These politicized efforts to limit freedom of expression only widen this gap and threaten the freedom of civil society to debate and hold the government accountable for its performance.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Zeidon Alkinani is a Middle East analyst and research with a primary focus on Iraq. Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and is Doctoral Researcher and Teaching Assistant in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. He holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London (UCL), a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Westminster, and a Preparatory Diploma in Law from London Metropolitan University. His research focuses on geopolitics, identity politics, democratization, power-sharing agreements, state-building, civil societies, and other policy issues in Iraq and the Middle East, where he has published extensively in articles, reports, policy analyses and briefs, and a book chapter. Currently, he works as a Media Specialist at a non-profit educational organization in Qatar and formerly was a Non-resident Fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara (IRAM). Alkinani is a regular political commentator and contributor to Aljazeera English, Open Democracy, Middle East Monitor, The New Arab, Al-Araby TV, and other media outlets.

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