Around the world, more and more countries suffer under incompetent, authoritarian governments. Reform plans and street protests rarely seem to change shameless or dictatorial regimes.

Two of the most broken states in the world, Iraq and Lebanon, have witnessed some of the bravest and most persistent efforts to transform their awful governments—so far, without success.

What can we learn from the failures of reformers, and the persistence of predatory, incompetent rulers? And looking to the future, is there any way to radically improve life in abusively governed polities?

The main viable remaining path to change is risky: for a popular reform movement to directly seize power from the existing rulers. A revolution can lead to even worse predations than the status quo. But the experience of the past decade of Arab revolts suggests some conditions for constructive change. First, to succeed, a “people power” uprising—or any reform movement, really—must seek power directly; regimes have proven themselves immune to pressure, shame, and a loss of legitimacy. Second, a successful transformation will require support from part of the status quo—some security institutions, some political parties, some insiders. Defectors from the status quo will provide backbone and muscle, and, practically, provide evidence that an uprising or reform movement can persuade some regime loyalists. Third and finally, a new order must explicitly and immediately redefine citizenship, security, and stability in order to establish new human-centered goals for an inclusive state. Otherwise, change is likely to lead to more of the same malgovernance, abuse, and corruption that has characterized the fragmented and failing states of the Middle East. (Sarah Mokh and I expand on the elements of plausible reform and the role of hybrid actors in “Redefining Citizenship, Security, and Stability.”)

Citizenship, Security, and Stability

For the suffering denizens of Iraq and Lebanon, the question of governance is a matter of life and death. And the outcome of their struggle has relevance for everyone; not only the populations of neighboring states in the Middle East, but also for citizens of established democracies further afield that face new threats to their own governance, including Americans accustomed to thinking of themselves as living in an exceptional world apart. The United States today is hostage to its own dysfunctional system—thankfully less lethal than the damaged democracies in Iraq and Lebanon, but equally resistant to wholesale reform.

Mapping a viable route to change in Iraq and Lebanon has implications for other countries suffering under comparable predatory governments, most immediately their peer governments in the Middle East. The specifics vary in each context, but many of the core problems overlap: hybrid militias that claim state support while undermining state authority; endemic corruption; coalition rule by rival warlords who band together to defend the system against the people it governs; and degraded citizenship rights in a broken system that could be described as “elections without democracy.” Repression, fear, and collective action problems bedevil even the most determined reformers.

A genuine democratic revival requires a full revamping of the bedrocks of society and democracy: the first step is to rewrite the compacts of citizenship, security, and stability. Iraq and Lebanon, through similar choices, have reached a bleak tipping point. The status quo is so broken, so dysfunctional, so predatory that there’s no way for a citizen to simply mind their own business and survive. The toxic ruling order abuses and kills the governed, allowing no neutral space to go along to get along.

The status quo is so broken, so dysfunctional, so predatory that there’s no way for a citizen to simply mind their own business and survive. The toxic ruling order abuses and kills the governed, allowing no neutral space to go along to get along.

This dystopia is a symptom of the new crisis in misrule. Historically, tyrants and corrupt leaders enriched themselves yet provided enough to their subjects—whether in rights, or in quality of life services—to justify their rule, or at least forestall revolt. Modern bosses and warlords, however, have marshaled all their creativity and ingenuity to perpetuate their own wealth and positions of power while offering literally nothing in the way of rights, security, and stability to their subjects. Incremental reform is always a safer bet than revolution, but tragically, adaptive authoritarian systems have chosen to foreclose any gradual or minimal reform programs. That intransigence—and the success of predatory rulers at maintaining their positions—has led us to today’s impasse.

Protesters in Beirut mark the one-year anniversary of the anti-government protests that toppled the government but eventually lost momentum. Source: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images.

Crucially, radical change can only come from the ranks of the governed, and requires buy-in from existing centers of power. Any serious attempt to right a broken system carries substantial risk. Terrible status quos endure in part because change increases the possibility of violence. The vulnerable misgoverned know better than anyone else that they, not the ruling elites, will pay the price in times of privation of violent conflict—and they know that the protestations of warlords and would-be revolutionaries notwithstanding, things can always get worse.

Terrible but Persistent Misrule

For more than a year, outraged citizens in Iraq and Lebanon have risked their lives to challenge their ineffectual governments. There are significant parallels in the crises buffeting the two republics. Both are fragile multi-ethnic democracies with seasoned but destructive political classes, and both have determined, politically literate citizens determined to create better governments. State institutions in both countries have been degraded by decades of conflict. The most glaring similarity is in their systems of government: Iraq has copied Lebanon’s recipe, distributing government positions among a range of sectarian political and militia movements, with no accountability despite some of the region’s most transparent and inclusive elections.

The differences are stark as well. Iraq is a potentially rich and viable country, with vast oil reserves and a GDP of $224 billion, four times greater than Lebanon’s. Lebanon, on the other hand, is saddled with colossal debt and an economy run for decades like a Ponzi scheme. When the current economic collapse runs its course, Lebanon will face a painful recovery and a slim likelihood of building a viable, much less productive, economy. Despite the current economic crisis, Iraq’s oil reserves generate real value for the economy—which has been treated by militias and political parties as a private cash stream, not as a source of national wealth. Foreign powers regularly intervene in the country, with the United States threatening sanctions while Iran apparently has been directly involved in the killings of peaceful demonstrators. Iraq’s protesters are divided between those who call for an end to the sectarian spoils system, and those who want the corrupt system’s benefits to be more widely distributed among Iraqi citizens.

Lebanon’s protest movement reflects the particularities of Lebanon’s freewheeling political culture. It has produced sophisticated and specific proposals for reform, but it also contends with a profound sense of resignation—Lebanon has been an independent democracy since 1943, and most of the warlords who dominate the country today come from families that have held the country in their grasp since its founding. The popular reform movement is mature and creative, but unfortunately, so are the bosses who have exhibited great resilience at holding onto power through generations of civil war, foreign invasion, and economic collapse.

In both cases, the ruling order will only change tack if it believes the status quo is unsustainable. In the near-term, the popular protest movements—no matter how brave—have not posed a sustained threat to the ruling coalition of sectarian warlords and organized crime bosses. There are at least two conceivable paths to systemic change. The first is a protest movement that transforms into a viable claimant to power, most feasibly by persuading significant state institutions or hybrid power centers to defect from the ruling order en masse. The second is systemic collapse. Both options are plausible outgrowths of the current explosive situation; while the status quo is increasingly unbearable for a great many residents of both countries, systemic change entails real risk. It is conceivable that a decisive shift by a critical mass of political actors could create a new, more humane system of governance. It is equally conceivable that a shock to the current awful order could catalyze an even more violent or destructive disorder. The epic governance failures and civil violence experience in Lebanon and Iraq, which occur in regular cycles, offer a cautionary parable: unscrupulous militia leaders can survive in power even if the communities they rule suffer immeasurable loss. Communal destruction does not always lead to renewal of communal leadership, a sad pattern seen among most of Lebanon and Iraq’s sectarian leaders. Only a new compact, forced upon the ruling elite, has a chance of ending this vicious cycle.

One key precursor to change is the military’s withdrawal of active support for the ruling order. Another is a galvanized opposition that can obtain the loyalty of powerful segments of the social order. The catalyzing event might be a catastrophic failure, like the rise of the Islamic State, the 2008 global financial collapse, or the explosion in Beirut port. Or it could be a shift in the calculus of a key patron, be it a local warlord, a regional government that finances and arms a critical hybrid actor, or a surge in international aid to targeted institutions in the government and security sector, contingent on a quick shift in behavior. Critically, change won’t come from a full, top-down makeover, nor, most likely, solely from a widespread uprising. What will be required is a partnership between elite and popular forces, which targets specific sectors of the power structure and takes advantage of the porosity of the weak state.

A Problem Washington Cannot Solve

The crises in the Middle East are not unfolding in a vacuum. They are intimately tied to world events, and especially in Iraq’s case, to the actions of the United States. The global climate has become increasingly permissive for authoritarians, not least because of the illiberal style of rule advanced by President Donald Trump. Around the United States and around the world, millions of people, maybe billions, are waiting anxiously for November. Will the United States topple decisively into a ranks of states run by corrupt authoritarian strongmen? It surely matters whether the United States fully embraces a nihilist free-for-all. But let us not delude ourselves. Even at its best over the three decades since the Cold War, America has never been the world’s savior, or its policeman. At times it has contributed to the greater good, at times it has undermined it, and often it has done both simultaneously. In any case, a better America will not be able to dictate the kinds of positive regime transformation discussed here, even if it manages to resolve its own crisis in federal governance.

President Donald Trump hosts Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in the Oval Office on August 20, 2020. Kadhimi won support from some Iraqi reformers, but has limited power to change Iraq’s system. Source: Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images.

In the fragile or broken zones where the great powers have influence—small or shattered countries, vulnerable to foreign interference—their involvement demonstrably can make things worse. A case in point is the way that Washington has accelerated the collapse of Lebanon and Iraq by viewing both countries merely as cudgels against Iran.

But when it comes to fixing the deep systemic problems in Lebanon and Iraq, the best great powers can hope to accomplish is first, do no harm, and second, if and when positive transformation occurs, engage and support constructive forces—at a civil, diplomatic arm’s length, bearing in mind that change will occur over the long-term and will require difficult, even unlikely, shifts in political culture. These are not problems for outsiders to fix. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative in August to push Lebanon’s rotten political class to take constructive action was a model of thoughtful, minimal intervention, relying on diplomacy and economic inducements rather than the threat of force. And it, too, utterly failed to catalyze any action whatsoever: a stark reminder that foreign intervention won’t resolve this epochal crisis in citizenship, stability and security.

header photo: On October 17, 2020, the one-year anniversary of anti-government protests, Beirutis walk past a hotel damaged in the August 4 explosion at the port. Source: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images.