In 2011, as popular revolutions brought down regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, large-scale but lesser-known demonstrations also erupted in Lebanon and Iraq. While many uprisings in the region at the time targeted authoritarian regimes, the protests in Lebanon and Iraq bucked against political systems that were at least procedurally democratic. Over the last decade, additional waves of protest have swept Iraqis and Lebanese into the streets, most notably in 2015 and 2019. 

The roughly parallel timelines of civic unrest in Lebanon and Iraq, along with several other similarities, make for revealing comparisons. Both countries have sectarian political systems, weak central governments, and growing popular discontent with corrupt elites. Iraq and Lebanon also have in common a treacherous path to political change, which has been stymied by sectarian tensions, regional polarization, and counterrevolutionary repression. Protest movements in both countries are now almost stalled.

In this dialogue, Iraqi researcher Taif Alkhudary and Lebanese activist Jean Kassir discuss the experiences of their two respective countries over the last ten years. They show that comparison can yield new insights about the prospects of political change—and they hint at what would be needed for the antiestablishment campaigns to regain momentum. At the same time, the conversation shows that it is important not to overgeneralize: in Iraq and Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Middle East and the world, the intricacies and particularities of each context continue to matter as much or more than grand transnational trends. 

Jean Kassir: To understand the state of the antiestablishment movement in Lebanon, we need to go back about a decade. In February 2011, in the midst of the Arab uprisings, young Lebanese took to the streets calling for “the fall of the sectarian regime.” At the time, it was the largest anti-sectarian mobilization in the country since the end of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90). The new generation of activists that drove the protests was born after the war, and mobilized against the mounting sectarian polarization. They were joined by traditional leftist parties, some of which had close ties with the establishment. 

The 2011 movement didn’t last, but the younger activists succeeded in creating a new grassroots political space that allowed for antiestablishment and anti-sectarian politics. Secular student clubs in private universities began growing, focusing on secularism, social justice, and gender equality, as well as student-specific issues. These secular student clubs challenged traditional sectarian parties in student elections and revived the legacy of student strikes and protests. 

Outside the university, student clubs were joined by feminist groups and women’s rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which called for a civil personal status law and for Lebanese women to be given the right to pass on their nationality to their children. NGOs contributed to establishing a new political framework that included democratic and electoral reform, protection of individual liberties, and denouncing corruption. Finally, the syndical coordination committee, a labor group, led an unprecedented battle for workers’ rights, overcoming sectarian divisions of workers. The architects of this nascent ecosystem became the main instigators of antiestablishment protests in 2013–15

Cross-Sectarian Alliances

Taif Alkhudary: It’s interesting that the first cross-sectarian alliances against the political system in contemporary Iraq also emerged in 2011, though for different reasons—in response to the shortages in electricity that summer. People from cities in the south and the west of the country came together with others from Iraqi Kurdistan to demand service provision. This mobilization, to use sociologist John Nagle’s term, might be called “commonist,” in that it brought people together to call for a better functioning political system, as opposed to its transformation altogether. 

The mobilization failed to produce a cohesive opposition identity. Instead, it created a loose unity of groups that had previously been divided across ethno-sectarian lines. But this loose unity wasn’t enough to withstand state violence that killed some thirty protesters, or the accusations from Nouri al-Maliki (the prime minister at the time) that the protesters were affiliated with al-Qaeda and Ba’athists. Protesters reverted to narrow sect-based demands based on the exclusion of Sunnis from the Shia-dominated government.

“The loose unity wasn’t enough to withstand state violence, or accusations that the protesters were affiliated with al-Qaeda and Ba’athists.”

Another wave of protests surged in 2015, after Mosul fell to the Islamic State, and this time, it more directly targeted Iraq’s sectarian system. These protests were against the corruption of Maliki’s government—the corruption had weakened the army and caused it to crumble in the face of the Islamic State. Protesters pushed forward an anti-sectarian movement based on national principles of secular unity. This movement, to go back to Nagle, was now “transformationist”—it called for an overhaul of the political system, the Islamist parties at its center, and the corruption that it had enabled. Protesters wanted a new form of politics based on competence and honesty, and worked to challenge the norms on which the political system was built and justified since the invasion of 2003. 

Still, it remained difficult for organizers to sustain anti-sectarian mobilizations. In 2015, the fight against the Islamic State meant that the country was largely aligned behind predominantly Shia fighters battling against a Sunni insurgency. This difficulty was compounded by the alliance between the Iraqi Communist Party and the partisans of the Muqtada al-Sadr, the paramilitary leader, cleric, and political figure. This alliance gave its partners access to positions in parliament and to campaign for change “from within the system.” But the alliance also largely deflated the protests.

Police negotiate with the last few demonstrators to leave the Ring Bridge in Beirut, as anti-government protesters agree to reopen the highway linking the east and west of the city, on October 30, 2019. Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri had resigned the previous day, after nearly two weeks of protest. Source: Sam Tarling/Getty Images

Jean: Lebanon had a similarly large wave of protests in 2015 in response to the “garbage crisis.” Beirut and Mount Lebanon were covered by garbage for months due to the corrupt practices of the waste management company in charge, which was tied to political groups. The 2015 movement brought tens of thousands into the streets, and got lots of media coverage. But it was mostly confined to Beirut and Mount Lebanon and was mostly, like the Iraqi movement, led by middle-class political activists and civil society actors. 

The buildup of mobilizations in 2011 and 2015 paved the way for a national rhetoric of “the people versus the regime” that eventually led to the 2019 uprising. But the 2019 uprisings, which became known as the “October 17 Revolution,” included a much larger array of actors than even the new generation of opposition activists. They also involved many areas outside of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, including Tripoli, the Beqaa Valley, and southern Lebanon. The initial actions of October 17, 2019 were an unorganized outpouring of protesters who felt pushed to the limit by an imminent economic collapse and the government’s proposed WhatsApp tax. These protesters blocked roads and set garbage bins on fire.

The movement, which remains active today even if protests have subsided, is also socially and economically diverse—new political actors emerged from the streets and enlarged the antiestablishment camp. But even though these new actors are politically and ideologically heterogenous, they have adopted a platform that is anticorruption and non-sectarian, similar to the groups that arose in 2011. In doing so, they’ve established a “revolutionary common ground.” 

Taif: There was also a resurgence of protests in Iraq in 2019. Protesters were angry that, two years after the conflict with the Islamic State had ended, the government had still not fulfilled promises from 2015. Protesters articulated the most coherent critique of the ethno-sectarian system to date, targeting that system’s corruption and compromise of Iraqi sovereignty, at the expense of ordinary people. Demonstrators further developed the demands of 2015, calling for a form of representation on the basis of “Iraqi-ness” and not sect or ethnicity. The movement wanted political leaders who governed based on civic duty—putting the needs of Iraqi citizens before narrow party- or sect-based interests.

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Counterrevolutionary Violence and Internal Divisions

Jean: The October 2019 uprising did not achieve structural political change, partly due to the absence of a robust political infrastructure within the opposition that preceded the movement. The prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned less than two weeks after protests began, and then the movement faltered, for a couple of main reasons. One, it couldn’t translate street pressure into bargaining power and a political transition, because—despite the movement’s diversity—there still weren’t strong opposition political parties with broad, popular bases. Two, the momentum on the street succumbed to the violent repression of the police, the army, and the Hezbollah and Amal militias. The authorities also used the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020 as a pretext to destroy the sit-in camps in Beirut and Tripoli. 

Then came the devastating Beirut blast of August 4, 2020, which killed more than 200 people, injured many thousands, made 250,000 people homeless, and caused billions of dollars of additional damage. It was obvious that the officials’ corruption and negligence heavily contributed to this explosion and, once again, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets on August 8. They were faced with unprecedented police violence, which deterred large demonstrations. Once again, the antiestablishment actors failed to impose a political transition, mostly due to their organizational weakness. (A French initiative to form a national-unity technocratic government didn’t help.) Besides, Lebanon’s economic free fall, which began in 2019, kept potential protesters preoccupied with their livelihoods. 

These factors, as well as the counterrevolutionary efforts led by Hezbollah, the ruling parties, the central bank governor, and mainstream media, can partly explain the movement’s failure to sustain itself after the port blast. But another problem was the absence of a political infrastructure that could sustain the street pressure and translate it into political gains. Most of the new opposition parties in Lebanon were only created after October 2019, and it is difficult to simultaneously build institutions and respond to a crisis. 

Looking back, it’s clear that disillusionment sapped the opposition movement after 2015, but there were also notable missteps: most of the activists who were active earlier have ventured into creating ephemeral movements and electoral campaigns centered around charismatic leaders. They didn’t invest in long-term structures. Success in the 2016 municipal Beirut elections made some activists complacent about future campaigns. When they didn’t succeed in the 2018 national elections, it was clear they hadn’t done enough grassroots work, especially in different parts of the country. There were some student and feminist groups that had invested in long-term efforts to build solid bases. But none of this was enough to make the bigger political transformation that many had hoped for in 2019. Later, however, there were some successful symbolic victories among antiestablishment candidates in the lawyer and engineering syndicates elections of 2021. 

Militias and police used targeted assassinations, shot military-grade tear gas grenades at protesters’ vital organs, burned down protest camps, attacked the homes of protesters, and disappeared and threatened people.

Taif: In Iraq, counterrevolutionary repression was the main factor that stopped the protest movement’s momentum in 2019. The demonstrations faced an onslaught of violence at the hands of militias and anti-riot police resulting in the killing of some seven hundred demonstrators and injury of at least 25,000 others. Militias and police used targeted assassinations, shot military-grade tear gas grenades at protesters’ vital organs, burned down protest camps, attacked the homes of protesters, and disappeared and threatened people. Even though it hasn’t always been possible to prove who the perpetrators of this violence were, the similarity of attacks across different protest sites in Iraq suggests a coordinated strategy. The violence eventually quelled the protests, but it also radicalized protesters’ demands. The movement went from demanding services and an end to corruption to calling for the fall of the post-2003 political system in Iraq.

Confronting Institutional Politics

Jean: Ahead of the Lebanese general elections in May 2022, the antiestablishment movement was seeking to unify for a parliamentary breakthrough. This task is difficult, because there are disagreements about alliances with more traditional opposition actors, as well as political disagreements regarding key strategic questions. In addition to elections, another path of noninstitutional politics has continued to grow that aims to “reclaim society” from the regime and provide alternative models of autonomous self-organization. These initiatives include agricultural cooperatives, grassroots political groups, and alternative cultural spaces.

The chances of a significant electoral breakthrough of the opposition are real, despite the considerable challenges. Young and first-time voters across the country are eager to vote against the regime, and a sizable pool of voters from the older generation is also likely to either vote for the opposition or abstain. There is also more money and media available than in 2018: the diaspora is playing a key role in funding the opposition groups’ campaigns, and new alternative media platforms are giving visibility to opposition candidates. 

Still, despair and hopelessness continue to dominate Lebanon, because of the brutal economic collapse and the impunity following the Beirut port explosion. The opposition is yet to present a compelling project to mobilize disillusioned voters. We’re speaking a couple of months before the election on May 15, and by the time this is published we’ll probably have more clarity on the campaigns and the results. What’s clear, even now, is that traditional political parties have the structural capacity to mobilize their base more easily, even if many of them have lost popularity. Hezbollah is the strongest of these parties, but they can all tap into their clientelist networks of voters, use mass media propaganda, and rely on threats and intimidation to secure votes. 

Even a sizable electoral breakthrough for the opposition wouldn’t bring immediate change. Crucial decisions in Lebanon mostly happen outside parliament, between unelected forces, such as party leaders, banks, religious authorities and foreign powers. However, an electoral success is likely to actually accelerate the institutionalization of nascent opposition parties, and help the opposition gain more leverage in the political arena. On the other hand, a severe defeat of opposition lists may lead to a mass demobilization of activists, which would speed up the current sectarian and political polarization of society. This scenario could either cause the rapid decay of the antiestablishment ecosystem, or trigger a radical rethinking of revolutionary theories and tools, building on the noninstitutional political initiatives that have recently emerged.

Entrenched Sectarianism

Taif: In Iraq, it is no surprise that the 2019 mobilization led to the emergence of an organized political opposition in the form of political parties. Firstly, this is the most obvious avenue for making the transition from protests to a political movement that can systematically influence decision-making. Secondly, a key critique that protesters have made is that the post-2003 political system only promoted a very limited form of democracy, in which Iraqis have been allowed to go out to vote every four years, but a variation of the same political elite has stayed in power. This dissatisfaction is particularly clear from the way that protesters in 2019 made elections a key target of their demands for the first time. They not only called for early elections, but also for a new elections law to be adopted, and for implementation of a political parties law as a means of making the playing field more equal for new and independent parties and activists. 

As a result of these demands, early elections were held in October 2021, and a new elections law was adopted. In turn, new political forces emerged in the form of parties such as Imtidad (“Extension”) and al-Bayt al-Watani (“The National Home”). While Imtidad entered parliament with nine seats, the latter boycotted elections on the grounds that the violent repression against political activists meant that the playing field remained deeply unequal. Imtidad has since joined forces with several independent politicians and a nascent party with roots in Iraqi Kurdistan, known as New Generation, to form an opposition alliance. 

However, the new opposition in Iraq remains divided. They cannot agree about whether to participate in elections, and cannot agree on what the key issues are or who is responsible for them, and thus who to target in their campaigns. Secondly, the new political forces face substantial obstacles to expanding their appeal, because they are relatively new and do not have strong organizational capacities. They also face substantial repression from elite-sanctioned violence, particularly at the hands of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). 

Moreover, during the first session of the new parliament held in January, it became apparent that the new opposition parties intend to respect the customary ethno-sectarian division of government positions. As a result, mechanisms at the center of the ethno-sectarian system remain unchallenged despite the emergence of new opposition forces. 

Arguably, the reasons for the limitations of the new organized political opposition in Iraq can be put down to the nature of Iraq’s power-sharing system. Firstly, the system doesn’t allow for a clear-cut political transition, where a single political party emerges triumphant in elections and runs government, while other parties go to the opposition. As a result, new political parties must engage in tactics of elite accommodation and management, limiting the extent to which they can challenge the mechanisms of ethno-sectarian apportionment (known as the “muhasasa” system). Secondly, because of the extent to which power is diffused and fractured within the power-sharing system, it is difficult for nascent opposition parties to know whom to hold to account. Finally, the lack of unity among opposition parties leaves them open to a competitive logic. Instead of collaborating to mount the strongest opposition, they end up competing to prove they have the best response on key issues. The result is a failure to devise strategies to deal with the grievances of the protesters whom they supposedly represent. 

This dialogue is part of “Transnational Trends in Citizenship: Authoritarianism and the Emerging Global Culture of Resistance,” a TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Open Society Foundations.

header photo: Riot police forces run away from protesters after clashes during an anti-government protest on May 25, 2021, in Baghdad. Protesters from across the country gathered in Baghdad demanding accountability after a rise in targeted assassinations. Source: Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images