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Iraq, Lebanon and dissent

Economic instability has caused large protests across the Middle East, protestors demand resignations and real change

Iraq, Lebanon and dissent
Lebanese army soldiers stand guard next to demonstrators during ongoing anti-government protests at a highway in Jal el-Dib - Reuters

After Iraq, this past week Lebanon has also been hit by mass protests and riots. The protesters are accusing the government of corruption and maladministration. But before discussing Iraq, let’s have a look at what has been happening in Lebanon.

This year several countries in the Middle East have experienced protest demonstrations of varying degrees. In Lebanon, however, the number of protesters has reached hundreds of thousands. Interestingly, one reason for these protests was the government announcement of imposing taxes on WhatsApp and other messaging services.  These demonstrations have forced the coalition government in Lebanon to announce economic reforms. This failed however to quell the momentum and now people are clamouring for more – and wider – changes in economic policies. The situation in Lebanon should serve as a lesson for countries like Pakistan.

Like Lebanon, Pakistan is going through an economic slump with decreasing growth rates and a shrinking economy. Both countries are under the tight noose of mounting debts, trying to reduce expenses; resulting in the curtailment of development outlays. When a government curbs the development process, people often respond with violence on the streets. In Lebanon too, power outages and garbage heaps along sidewalks have become a norm. To control the situation, Prime Minister Saad Hariri is attempting to introduce economic reforms.

Fifty-year-old Hariri assumed power for the second time, three years ago. Prior to this he had ruled as prime minister from 2009 to 2011. It is pertinent to recall that his father, Rafiq Hariri, was killed in an attack in 2005. The senior Hariri was a business tycoon, who served as the prime minister for ten years in two terms: first, from 1992 to 1998; and then from 2000 to 2004. He had an instrumental role in concluding the Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year long, civil war in Lebanon. That civil war had raged from 1975 to 1990 and claimed over a hundred thousand lives, and displaced over a million people.

Saad Hariri’s political party, Future Movement was formed in 2007. It is now the major partner in the coalition government. Saad Hariri has requested his allies to support his economic reforms. So, what are these reforms? The usual bundle of conditions that international financial institutions (IFIs) impose on the less fortunate countries: privatise public entities, reduce expenses, and minimise the budget deficit. Though Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy, its highest offices are allocated on the basis of religion. A Maronite Christian becomes president, representing 25 percent of the Lebanese population; i.e. 1.5m out of the total six million.

The prime minister of Lebanon is always a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament is always a Shia Muslim. The Shia and Sunni populations are almost equal in numbers and collectively constitute around 55 percent of the total population. Christian population is around 40 per cent and a majority of them are Maronite. The recent protests have attracted people belonging to nearly all denominations and religions.  The latest reports confirm that the demonstrations have spread beyond Beirut.  Like Pakistan, the Lebanese government, too, is holding a begging bowl and trying to secure around $11bn from the IFIs. If major reforms are not introduced and passed, the debt-to-GDP ratio in Lebanon is likely to hit a staggering 150 per cent.

If a country keeps spending precious resources in the name of national security and has disproportionately high expenses on non-productive sectors, people lose their livelihoods and are left to their own devices. The recent turn of events in both Iraq and Lebanon are a clear sign for the PTI-led government in Pakistan; governments have to respond to the people’s demands before it’s too late.

And now, something about Iraq where protests flared up in the beginning of October this year. The government had to impose a curfew in Baghdad, with a complete ban on social media in certain areas. In the first week, nearly a dozen people were killed and hundreds injured. In Iraq too, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi tried to control the situation but failed. After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the occupying forces introduced a new political system and established a tradition in which high offices were given to the representatives of different ethnic groups and sects.

So, Shia Arab, Sunni Arab, and Kurds received the three top positions of prime minister, speaker, and president, within the parliamentary system. In 2019, the population of Iraq is estimated to be around 40 million with 95 per cent Muslims: 55 percent Shia and 40 per cent Sunni. Kurds are Sunni, mostly from the Shafi’i school and constitute around 20 per cent of the population. Although, there is no constitutional provision for it, traditionally a Kurd leader becomes president, the prime minister is always a Shia, and a Sunni occupies the office of speaker.

A protestor amidst burning tyres - AP

A protestor amidst burning tyres – AP

In the last general elections, held in May 2018, an alliance of Shia leader Muqtada as-Sadr and the Communist Party of Iraq won the largest number of seats. It ended the four-year rule of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who had come to power in 2014 after an eight-year rule of Nouri al-Maliki. Now, Abdul-Mahdi has been in power for over a year, but has become highly unpopular with people staging demonstrations and protests. Again, the main reason behind this agitation is increasing unemployment and a lack of basic facilities for common people.

Coupled with corruption, these problems have intensified the unrest. The government responded by banning the internet, causing further deterioration in economic slowdown. By mid-October, the number of people killed in riots had crossed 50. The latest reports from Iraq inform us that the number has now exceeded the hundred mark. To snuff out the protests, the government has invoked the age-old narrative of ‘national security’; saying that the protests are in fact an attempt to harm national security. Be it Iraq, Lebanon, or Pakistan, there are a couple of common features.

The state in all three countries has failed to provide basic facilities to people; and, the governments have tried to placate the peoples’ concerns using hollow consolations and promises. Each country has a coalition government that is playing the national security tune, but this lullaby has been unable to put people to sleep. In Iraq and Pakistan, new prime ministers assumed power last year but have not presented clear and effective economic plans to inspire confidence. Iraq and Lebanon, have both witnessed agitation and huge demonstrations.

The governments have yet to make viable economic plans; which are nowhere in sight. The crux of the matter is that if a country keeps spending precious resources in the name of national security and has disproportionately high expenses on non-productive sectors, the development work suffers. People lose their livelihoods and are left to their own devices. As mentioned earlier, the recent turn of events in both Iraq and Lebanon are a clear sign for the PTI-led government in Pakistan; governments have to respond to the people’s demands before it’s too late.

If business are not revived, and basic facilities are not given, the public mood doesn’t take very long to turn volatile.

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

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