In Lebanon and Iraq, protesters have been out in force and the scalps they have claimed are significant. Lebanon’s chastened prime minister, Saad Hariri, has resigned; in Iraq, struggling president Barham Salih has been forced into offering new elections.
But for many involved in the protests, merely bringing down the governments of the day is not enough. They want to topple the systems that put them there.
“I hope to get rid of all the parties that participated in the political process from 2003 to today,” said Haider Jalal, a 21-year-old protester in Baghdad, reflecting widespread anger against the political system that was installed by the US and its allies after their invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Baghdad and Beirut’s fragile democracies were born of conflict: a devastating civil war in Lebanon, which pitted religious communities against each another and ended in 1990; and the power vacuum that followed the ousting of Saddam. The consequence in both countries was the construction of complex, power-sharing political systems that aimed to balance religious interests and also ethnic ones in Iraq, in the hope of avoiding more bloodshed and creating inclusive governments.
Now, protesters and analysts say, these sectarian-based systems have become corrupted by the political parties they empowered, preventing effective governance and frustrating citizens demanding better standards of living.
Demonstrators — particularly a burgeoning population of economically disenfranchised youth with no first-hand experience of past conflicts — have vented their anger at sectarian political parties, which they feel have been allowed to keep a stranglehold on power and plunder state resources while doing little to represent their concerns.
In both Iraq and Lebanon, governments are operated by a “cartel of parties that represent sectarian groups,” said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, a think-tank. “And in both cases they are totally corrupt.”
In Lebanon, where roughly 5m citizens live in a delicate demographic balance, with Shia and Sunni Muslims and Christians historically believed to make up roughly a third each, formalising ways for those communities to share power helped to end a 15-year civil war.
Parliamentary seats are guaranteed to each sect proportional to their share of the population, thanks to the electoral system, while top posts are shared out: the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliamentary speaker a Shia Muslim. Cementing the sectarian nature of politics, voters are obliged to cast their votes in their ancestral villages, where identities have greater salience.
In Iraq, where the 40m population is majority Shia Muslim, a quota system was set up after Saddam’s fall to share power between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, with some guaranteed roles for minorities.
While the post-2003 constitution does not stipulate how posts should be awarded, by convention its prime minister is Shia, its president a Kurd and its parliamentary speaker a Sunni.
In both countries, allocation of jobs by sect penetrates ministries and civil services, meaning that loyalty to party often trumps talent.
Protesters say this has let sectarian political elites divide state resources, institutionalising corruption.
They also object to the ineffectiveness of the governance it has instituted: decision-making is mired by the need for majority agreement between parties, and the creation of patronage networks within the civil services have cost the countries dearly.
Public sector payrolls have swelled — trebling since 2003 in Iraq to 3m government employees. Baghdad fuelled this with oil revenues but Beirut had to borrow and its debt now exceeds 150 per cent of gross domestic product.
Meanwhile basic public service delivery has suffered, with both Lebanon and Iraq enduring chronic water, electricity and waste management problems.
These political systems, designed to create unity, have at the same time fomented divisions: sectarian politicians kept their voters with divisive scare-tactics, analysts say, to frighten their constituents and encourage them to stick with the party of their sect for protection.
However, some argue that this system is better than authoritarianism, and should be reformed rather than thrown out.
Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute think-tank argues that such a complex form of government is imperfect but preferable to the sectarian persecution of a dictatorship, such as that in Iraq under Saddam, a Sunni Muslim.
To break free of what they decry as a failed system, Iraqi and Lebanese demonstrators are calling for new election laws. But protesters know they have a long fight ahead, and the powerful political classes of both countries will do what they can to ensure the endurance of the system and their own survival.
“Today the protesters are threatening the financial empire of the parties,” said an Iraqi protest leader in Baghdad, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted by militias. “The people want a people’s government and this threatens the [parties] . . . since they won’t be able to rob [it].”
In Iraq, protesters have met with shocking violence — at least 250 people have been killed in clashes with security forces and pro-government militias last month alone, Iraq’s worst outbreak of violence since the defeat of Sunni jihadis Isis.
Analysts warn that protesters are fighting parties that will try to suppress or avert change and system-wide reform may not be a realistic goal.
Bassel Salloukh, a social professor of political economy at the Lebanese American University, said: “This is not a house of cards, it is a robust system and will take a long-term strategy to destroy it.”
Additional reporting by Asmaa al Omar
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