Massive, unexpected protests erupted across Lebanon on Thursday. While the protests were triggered by the government’s plan to impose a tax on WhatsApp, a popular messaging app, the underlying anger went far deeper. Lebanese have been struggling with a mounting economic crisis, including stagflation, public debt and last month’s gasoline stoppages and ATM outages. The governance failures that led to 2015’s “You Stink” protests over the non-removal of trash have seen scant improvement, while the government remains mired in dysfunction, dramatically expressed in its failure to deal with last week’s wildfires.

Protesters are angry about the decision to increase a range of taxes — even on what should be free WhatsApp calls — rather than clamping down on rampant clientelism and corruption inside, as well as outside, state institutions. Lebanese across sects and regions alike are mobilizing against the political and economic elite. Unlike the civil society-led 2015 protests, this time it is the very poor who have risen against their own sectarian leaders.

Decades of monetary policies favoring the rich triggered the kind of united uprising that identity divisions in a sectarian system are supposed to prevent. Lebanon’s protests, like those over the last month in Iraq, show that divisions among religions and sects do not explain all political events in the Arab world. Here’s how the current protests are actually about governance failures and economic grievance — and not about identity.

Lebanon’s sectarian past and economic present

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The power of Lebanon’s sectarian system, my research shows, is a consequence of how the political system’s institutional architecture and political economy work in unison to make alternatives seem unthinkable.

Corruption across private and public sectors served to lubricate the postwar political economy but at a cost that has brought state finances to the brink of collapse. The post-1990 public sector ballooned to encompass anywhere from 310,000 to 400,000 employees and retirees. In 2018, public salaries, wages and benefits amounted to $46 billion — 35 percent of government expenditures. It’s also equal to 21.29 percent of all $216 billion of government spending from 1993-2017. And while the very rich benefit, the income of the lower 50 percent of the population combined is equal to that of the top 0.1 percent.

The resulting economic protests this week in Lebanon demonstrate the possibility of political action outside this sectarian system.

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What about Iraq?

Iraq’s protests were met with violent repression by state security forces and reinforced by Shi’a militias. This crackdown is led by the post-2003 sectarian political elites with support from Iran. Protesters united against the political elite’s failure to deliver basic services. This, however, threatens the newly imposed sectarian order meant to prevent people from organizing along these other national and socioeconomic categories.

Iraq’s experience with sectarianism is a recent one, however: The attempt by exiled ethno-sectarian politicians, the U.S. occupying authority and Iran to construct an ethno-sectarian political order is a post-2003 phenomenon. While 16 years of political conflict and sectarian civil war have left deep scars, sectarianism is not deeply embedded in Iraqi politics.

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But like Lebanon’s much older sectarian political system, the post-2003 imposition of a new order on Iraq has structured access to state resources, public office and political mobilization along ethno-sectarian lines. Access to state resources is controlled by the ethno-sectarian political elite. Consequently, the public sector expanded from 850,000 employees in 2004 to between 7 and 9 million in 2016, with some 25 percent of public funds wasted in corruption schemes. The sectarian political elite uses access to subcontracts, border crossings, ports and even gas fields to support their sectarian clientelist networks.

Iraq’s leaderless and decentralized protests, triggered by cronyism, corruption, joblessness, dilapidated infrastructure and the heavy-handedness of sectarian militias in the south of the country, swiftly developed into a wholesale call for revolution. While the protests have largely occurred in Shiite dominated areas, they have not made sectarian appeals and have not been dissuaded by appeals to sectarian solidarity.

The protests were countered by extreme violence from a political elite defending a sectarian political system and its clientelist political economy serving their own narrow interests and those of their foreign patrons. That this political elite is compelled to use substantial violence against protesters resisting the post-2003 order reflects the weakness rather than the strength of Iraq’s sectarian system.

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Is reform possible?

In both Iraq and Lebanon’s unfolding protests, people’s demands for accountable governance, economic relief and an end to corruption stand at odds with identity-based sectarian solidarity. Will economically motivated protests calling for the fall of the sectarian regime incentivize Iraqi or Lebanese politicians to actually reform?

The response thus far in Iraq has been repression by the state and by sectarian militias, with a horrible corresponding death toll. Violence has put a stop to political protest for the time being but at the cost of increasing discontent with the current system.

While the government in Lebanon has already responded to revoke the WhatsApp tax, the people’s demands for reform are far from over. The sectarian political economic elites face a choice. The government would prefer to continue to use sectarianism and corruption to preserve its socioeconomic and political interests. But the protests suggest that the postwar political economy of sectarianism has reached a dead end and that many people who were expected to follow the rules of the sectarian order refuse to do so anymore.

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In both Iraq and Lebanon, the people are rebelling against the socioeconomic violence and personal indignation produced by the sectarian order. They are searching for a better future beyond sectarian identities and solidarities.

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).

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