To Stay in Power, the Leaders of Iraq and Lebanon Should Turn to the Protestors

Faisal Al Yafai

AFP photo: Joseph Eid

The protestors are back on the streets of Iraq, and a deposed prime minister is almost back in Beirut’s Government Palace. History repeated itself in Iraq and Lebanon in October, as protest movements in both countries re-emerged from a difficult summer as strong as before, and Lebanon’s Saad Hariri was named the new prime minister, a year after he dramatically resigned in the face of large-scale protests. Both men should embrace the protestors.

In office, the prime ministers of both countries face similar dilemmas: both must enact deep and widespread reforms, rapidly, in the face of hostile and entrenched political interests, all while watched by a mass protest movement determined to sweep the entire system away. Both face unprecedented international scrutiny. Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, has just returned from a tour of London, Paris and Berlin, to gather support for a new economic plan, and Hariri will find France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has taken it upon himself to speak for the people of Lebanon, interested in his choices for the new government.

Yet both also have a significant card to play, if they choose: instead of siding with political parties against the people, they can side with the protestors against those in power. By publicly taking the side of the protest movements, both could use the power of the street to force widespread reform.

In Iraq, Al-Kadhimi has the harder task.

The protest movement in Iraq is powerful; it brought down the prime minister last year, and has weathered determined attempts by Iraqi security forces, and even militias, to break it apart. Its reappearance on the streets in October signals the movement has no intention of dissipating, regardless of the continued restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nor does it appear to have lost its radicalism: the protestors still want a wholesale end to the current political system. Previous protests brought on by frustration at a lack of jobs and basic utilities – this when Iraq, with the world’s fourth-largest proven reserves of oil ought to be one of the world’s richest and most developed countries – have morphed into anger at the system and its perpetuation by Iraqi elites.

So if Al-Kadhimi believes he can simply break apart the protests by force, or wait for them to burn out before next year’s election, he will probably be toppled by them instead.

Instead, he should seize the opportunity provided by the protest movement. To do that, he has to show he is on their side, and that means, first and foremost, finding out who is murdering them. Since the start of the protests last year, hundreds of people have been killed or disappeared. Many were simply abducted by armed men without any police or military insignia. When Al-Kadhimi took office in May, he promised an independent investigation and even met families of the dead and disappeared.

But six months on, that investigation has not begun. Starting it should be the first task of the prime minister, and one that will demonstrate a commitment to finding answers. It may also persuade a skeptical protest movement that Al-Kadhimi, a former intelligence chief, is actually on their side.

No politician better knows the power of Lebanon’s protest movement than Hariri: he was the prime minister who was brought down by it last year. In one way, that puts him in a tricky position. As prime minister, he tried to placate the protestors by putting forward tepid reforms, and then failed to protect them as the protest sites were ransacked by unknown groups of men.

But the ensuing year has offered an opportunity following the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port in August. There is an investigation ongoing, though two months on there are still no answers. The protest movement is demanding an international investigation, and here Hariri, the assassination of whose father was also the subject of an international inquiry, could easily grant it.

Done swiftly, these independent investigations will mark a change from what has come before – even if, in the case of Hariri, it was him who came before. It will also signal something more fundamental, that the respective prime ministers are willing to challenge the power of the entrenched elite.

The instinct of both prime ministers will be to seek technical and economic reform, the sort of reform that is palatable to the political elites in a sectarian system, and hope the politics, and the protestors, can be swept aside. Al-Kadhimi has made much of a new, three-year economic plan he believes can end Iraq’s dependence on oil. Hariri, once he has formed a government, will seek to rapidly conclude an IMF bailout that the country desperately needs.

Yet those instincts are misplaced. Siding with the protestors in Beirut and Baghdad is the right thing for both prime ministers to do. Even better, it is smart politics. The protestors provide the prime ministers with a powerful weapon in breaking through the entrenched political class and forcing change. If Al-Kadhimi in Iraq and Hariri in Lebanon carry out widespread reforms in the name of the people protesting on the streets, it would be a necessary victory. They could even call it democracy in action.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.