Yaron Friedman

Analysis: Lebanon and Iraq, home to Iranian puppet- regimes, are now paying the price for being the spearhead in the Islamic Republic’s battle against Sunnis; poverty and corruption in these countries raises potential of descent into anarchy


August 2015 was the month in which riots in Lebanon and Iraq broke out in full strength. The two countries are similar but different, and closely related.

At the end of July, Iraqi immigrants in Beirut protested in front of their country’s embassy against the corruption inside the country, which might have inspired the Lebanese.

These two Arab countries are in a huge economic crisis, both have large, poor, Shi’ite populations, both are under threat by ISIS, and in both cases recent protests were led by young people. Are we witnessing a new wave of the Arab Spring, or a continuation of it in places it didn’t reach in 2011?

If we looked for a consistent pattern in the spread of protests throughout the world so far, we would find that most regimes that fell or are close to falling were and are run by authoritarian leaders (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria), and while regimes survived in kingdoms and principalities (Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf Principalities) or countries traumatized by civil war (Algeria and Lebanon).

In Lebanon and Iraq, the protests did not bring about the regime’s fall. In Iraq, ISIS used the Sunni protest to take over the western part of the country. As for Lebanon, it seemed until recently that the wave of protests had passed over it and that it is stable despite the huge wave of refugees coming in from Syria.

But recently, the situation in Lebanon and eastern Iraq has become explosive.

Non-functioning states

Beirut and Baghdad are two cities where living costs have risen dramatically, while the population has remained mostly poor. In Iraq and Lebanon protests have spread to the south as well. Young Lebanese and Iraqis are protesting the same problems: governmental corruption, poverty, unemployment, delayed paychecks for government employees, and non-functioning public services and utilities such as water and power.

Both countries have a chronic disease nicknamed “the ethnic cancer” by analysts: An unceasing battle of ethnicities, particularly between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Lebanon is ruled by a compromise government that has ministers from the March 14 Alliance (former Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri’s people, Sunnis) and the March 8 Alliance (Hezbollah and its Shi’ite supporters). This is in fact a crippled government, due to internal power struggles. Each side stays stubborn and torpedoes the other’s initiatives.

The central issues remain unresolved: Lebanon hasn’t had a president for over a year, garbage piles are stacking up on the street without being cleared away.

Hariri supporters blame Hezbollah, claiming that the organization’s people took the garbage from their areas and transported it to other ethnicities’ neighborhoods in order to burn it. The garbage burning by residents might help spread disease.

Last Thursday, Lebanon’s government gathered in Beirut, again failing to agree on a solution to these urgent problems.

Thousands of soldiers and police officers try to control the protests in both countries, to no avail. In Lebanon, security forces have built concrete barriers on which protesters sprayed anti- government graffiti, only to remove them after public outcry. Official sources in both governments called for young people to avoid confronting security forces in order to avoid anarchy.

The main fear in both countries is that protests will get out of control, pushing the army to fight on two fronts – an interior one, and an exterior one, against ISIS. Another concern is intervention by armed Shi’ite militias, either in support of the protests or against them.

While Sunni and Shi’ite representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament blame one another for the crisis, the young people on the street are careful to not blame Hezbollah directly, speaking of corruption on all sides.

Even so, those voices that do dare to criticize Hezbollah are growing louder with every passing day.

Elias Khoury wrote an article for the An-Nahar newspaper under the headline: “Maybe Nasrallah will surprise us with a rescue initiative?”, writing that the decisions regarding garbage removal and presidential appointments go through Tehran. One comment on the story said Lebanon is essentially under Iranian occupation.

In southern Lebanon, the garbage crisis is reigniting tensions between Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Hezbollah represents Iranian interests and is headed by religious leaders with ambitions beyond Lebanon (fighting the rebels in Syria and the “Zionist enemy”). The Amal Movement represents the interests of Shi’ites inside Lebanon, and its leader is secular lawyer and Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri.

Hezbollah represents mainly the Shi’ites in the Beqaa Valley and Beirut, and Amal is more influential in the south. This led to the eruption of protests in the southern town of Nabatieh, started by people identifying with Amal.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that these protests are occurring as people prepare to mark the anniversary of the disappearance of Amal founder and leader, Imam Musa al-Sadr. Smelly garbage piles will greet those who remember al-Sadr’s kidnapping in Libya 38 years ago.

The closing of the garbage disposal plant was influenced by Hezbollah because it was owned by Amal. Money transferred from Europe for the reconstruction of southern Lebanon “disappeared”. Beyond garbage removal and municipal corruption, residents suffer from severe problems with water and electricity supplies.

Blame is directed at the regime, of which Hezbollah is a member. The protests in Nabatieh are secular in nature and young people are careful to not attack Hezbollah directly at this point.

Blame is directed at the regime, of which Hezbollah is a member. The protests in Nabatieh are secular in nature and young people are careful to not attack Hezbollah directly at this point.

In Iraq: Shi’ites vs. Shi’ites?
In the past, when Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni government, the Shi’ite protests were accompanied by traditional anti-discrimination slogans. But a decade after the Ba’ath Party’s rule ended and the Shi’ites rose to power, poor Shiites feel like their situation has stayed the same.

Now, the protests are focused on the corrupt Shi’ite parties, mainly the ruling Islamic Dawa Party, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (and previously by former PM Nouri al-Maliki). The party is, in practice, an Iran-operated puppet, much like Hezbollah is in Lebanon. Therefore, the protests that have spread to southern Shi’ite cities are, in fact, protests against the Iran-backed governments.

Even though Iraq has enjoyed incomes of billions of dollars in recent years, the local population hasn’t experienced a rise in living standards, which has amplified frustrations.

Even though the Army was given massive budgets, it proved its inefficiency, especially when ISIS conquered Mosul last year. What might split the Shi’ite populace even further are the added protests of militia members over unpaid salaries.

Lebanon and Iraq are now paying the price for being the spearhead in Iran’s fight against Sunni organizations.

Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shii’tes, blamed the government for failing to combat ISIS and said the regime’s corruption would cause Iraq to dissolve into three countries: Shi’ite, Sunni, and Kurdish.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah is drowning in Syria’s Civil War, and it’s unclear how long it will be able to fend off the thousands of jihadists making their way from Syria. Hezbollah has also dragged the Lebanese military into conflict with Sunni opposition organizations in Syria.

Poverty and corruption-bred frustrations create the dangerous possibility that the regimes in Lebanon and Iraq will weaken and deteriorate into anarchy. Shi’ite solidarity in both countries has been hurt by the perception that Iran is manipulating the Shi’ite minority to serve its needs.

Frustrations among Shi’ites are rising every day, along with the poverty and unemployment crises. Many young people are coming home in coffins because of the war against ISIS. The Shi’ite protest might spread from Iraq to its eastern neighbor, Iran, if the great hopes that arose in the Shiiite world after the deal with the United States, and the lifting of sanctions, bring disappointing results.

Dr. Yaron Friedman is Ynet’s Arab world analyst. He is a graduate of the Paris-Sorbonne University, and lectures on Islam in the Technion’s Department of Humanities and Arts and in the Galilee Collage. He teaches Arabic at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology and the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Haifa University. His book, “The Nuṣayrī-ʻAlawīs: An Introduction to the Religion, History, and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria” was published in 2010.