Violent conflicts pitting Sunni against Shiite and vehement rhetoric from Syria to the Gulf have led many to view the Middle East as inescapably sectarian. Indeed, sectarianism has become the dominant narrative and marker of political identity not only in Western discourse but also in the Arab public sphere. Though the region enjoyed malleable, multilayered identities in the past, sectarianism has filled the institutional and ideological vacuum since the Arab uprisings, and sectarianized geopolitical contests have caused a number of states concomitant collapse as a result.

Despite this divisive wave overtaking the Arab world, anti-sectarian voices persist. New protest movements searching for more inclusive types of political organization have sprung up, specifically rejecting the sectarian practices imposed from above by elite power sharing pacts. Part of a loose heterogeneous global trend, these grass roots movements protest the corruption of political elite, the failure of the state to deliver on an array of social provisions and the lopsided consequences of neoliberal economic policies. They express a post-uprisings irreversibly and “unprecedentedly mobilized Arab public sphere,” despite a ruthless authoritarian restoration. This kind of anti-sectarian politics does not fit the current narrative, making it all the more important.

The two most striking examples of such protest movements began — intriguingly — simultaneously in Iraq and Lebanon, in the summer of 2015. Each built on previous popular protests but took them in surprising new directions.

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Thousands of mainly young Iraqis poured into the squares and streets of major Iraqi cities on July 31, 2015 in what became a massive popular movement. The protesters demanded better state service provisions, holding the Green Zone political elite accountable for squandering public resources and corrupting the bureaucracy. They also demanded the elimination of the sectarian quota system on which the post-invasion political order and patronage networks are based.

As Wadood Hamad contended in an opinion piece in as-Safir newspaper, these protests were shaped by two patent characteristics. The predominantly Shiite protesters in the southern and central parts of the country mobilized independent of both secular and religious parties; parliamentarians affiliated with establishment political parties were denied access to the crowds. The protests were also expressly nonsectarian, as protesters intentionally distanced themselves from sectarian or ethnic symbols and discourse. However, the protests failed to build networks with similar demands in the largely Sunni areas and remained localized and contained.

Simultaneously in Beirut, a solid waste management crisis triggered demonstrations against corruption of the sectarian political elite and the dysfunctional sectarian power sharing pact. Attracting a broader base of cross-sectarian and cross-class supporters than its counterparts in Baghdad, it assumed the air of an anti-sectarian carnival of national conviviality, with people determined to creatively express their national, rather than sectarian, affiliations.

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The sectarian political elite’s response in Baghdad and Beirut to these protests was strikingly similar. They first tried to adopt a reformist discourse and contain the protests by co-opting some of the organizers. When these tactics failed to break the protesters’ autonomy and determination, they unleashed state security units and their own paralegal forces. Lacking any umbrella institutional structure and a menu of priorities, the first batch of demonstrations soon fizzled away.

Another wave of expressly anti-sectarian protests exploded in Baghdad in February 2016. Public exasperation with the corruption and failed promises of the Green Zone political elite again spilled into the streets as protesters demanded far-reaching anti-corruption reforms, a new technocratic cabinet and the elimination of sectarian quotas. This time, however, the protests were instrumentalized by the charismatic maverick Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr projecting himself as the champion of a national underclass. Nevertheless, the 2016 protests in Iraq expressed people’s insistence on mobilizing outside sectarian identities. As Zahra Ali notes, the protesters “brought new hopeful, creative and inclusive ways of being Iraqi in a country traumatized by decades of authoritarianism, imperialist military occupation, sectarian war and the fragmentation of its territory.” No small feat indeed.

In Lebanon, the failure of the 2015 protests led to a more focused anti-sectarian and anti-corruption but apolitical campaign in the form of the independent grass-roots movement Beirut Madinati (or “Beirut, my city”). Launched to contest the May 2016 municipal elections in the capital, the movement exploded onto the public scene and transformed a bland electoral contest into a politically existential threat to the country’s sectarian political elite.

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Though electoral rules and shenanigans denied Beirut Madinati any seats on the new municipal council, its experience suggests there is a broad anti- and cross-sectarian audience fed up with the corruption of the postwar sectarian elite and the paralysis of the country’s power sharing pact. They may be a silent minority given the complex ensemble of institutional, clientelist and discursive practices undergirding the political economy and ideological hegemony of sectarianism, but they are nevertheless waiting to be organized by new movements practicing a new kind of inclusive politics.

This underscores the challenges facing political reforms in weak state institutions crippled by sectarianized geopolitical battles. In Lebanon, grass roots demands have collided with a resilient sectarian system sustaining the privileges of an increasingly overlapping political economic elite. Iraq’s quandary is similar. The prognosis for Iraq by Maria Fantappie, senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, resonates aptly in Lebanon: “The system cannot generate renewal of the political class — whether through elections or legislative changes — nor will the political class genuinely try to reform that system.”

Contrapuntal, nonviolent, anti-sectarian protests in Iraq and Lebanon suggest that sectarianism is not taken for granted by all actors and that there are alternatives to the sectarianization of everyday politics across the region. Challenging sectarianism operates in piecemeal, interrupted and not necessarily linear ways, gradually exposing fissures in what may otherwise look like a hegemonic sectarian edifice. And although they have yet to cause a real redistribution of political power that empowers counterfactual nonsectarian or cross-sectarian groups, these modes of resistance nevertheless demystify the sectarian narrative so dominant in the post-uprisings Arab public sphere, showing that sectarian modes of political mobilization are neither primordial nor insurmountable.

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Bassel F. Salloukh is an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut and co-author of “The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon,” (Pluto Press, 2015) and “Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World,” (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012). This piece was originally prepared for the workshop “Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa,” held June 8 to 9 in Hamburg, Germany.

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