Economic distress, rampant corruption, a selfish ruling elite and the ever-looming fear of armed militias – little goes their way, but protesters in Iraq and Lebanon have found a reason to smile.
In the university elections in Lebanon, they turned into candidates and gave a beating to opposing student groups backed by traditional political parties that prey on and propagate sectarianism. In Iraq, they are preparing to challenge established parties on election campaigns and in the upcoming general elections. Their message: they may have been beaten by the system but they are not ready to concede defeat.
In October 2019, Iraq and Lebanon erupted into protests as people demanded jobs, an end to corruption and the removal of the ruling political elite. The uprisings have brought hope to a region depressed by the failed Arab Spring in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Many believed that the Arab world might, after all, see a new dawn in its politics.
The prime ministers of Iraq and Lebanon were forced to resign, sparking euphoria in the streets that the protesters could win and succeed in bringing about the change. But soon enough, the protests died down and came to nothing.
In Iraq, they were brutally crushed with 500 protesters killed and 15,000 injured, many by indiscriminate fire allegedly by security forces and gunmen widely suspected of belonging to pro-Iranian militias. Their Lebanese cousins were exhausted by a series of crises; hyperinflation, a free-falling currency and the biggest non-nuclear explosion the world has ever seen.
But just as analysts called the Iraqi and Lebanese uprisings another failed chapter in modern Arab history, the young people behind them shifted from protests to politics. The journey ahead is going to be long, arduous, perhaps even bloodier than the protests and yet they seem determined to keep fighting.
The elections in Iraq, initially scheduled for June, have been postponed until October. So far, a total of 260 political parties have registered to compete, of which 60 are new and either independently founded by protesters and activists, or formed between protesters and existing political actors.
Alaa Rikabi, an Iraqi activist from the southern town of Nasiriya, founded Imtidad or the Extension party. Tallal al-Hariri, a Baghdad-based activist, named his party “October 25” after Iraq witnessed one of the biggest anti-government protests. Hussein al-Gharabi, father of six, lawyer by profession and demonstrator out of necessity, also from Nasiriya, co-founded Beit Watani or the National Home Party.
All of these groups have common goals: to replace the sectarian power-sharing system that institutionalizes clientelism and the culture of corruption with a government of technocrats elected on the basis of their expertise, as well as freeing their lands from all kinds of outsiders. . intervention.
“I can say that my party is entirely Iraqi, its funding is Iraqi and its decisions are made by the Iraqis,” al-Gharabi told Al Jazeera. “Not like the rest of the parties that receive orders from foreign countries. I see the old political parties as political shops. They have loyalty buying programs but not a political program or a political vision for the future of Iraq.
Lebanon is expected to vote in 2022. Based on the results of the campus elections held at the end of last year, independent candidates have a chance like never before to enter parliament and start crafting decisions. policies.
Consider this: The independents won 85 seats out of a total of 101 at St Joseph’s University. At Lebanon’s most renowned university, the American University of Beirut (AUB), they scored 80 out of 101, quadrupling the gains made in the last election in 2018.
At the Lebanese American University (LAU) they won every seat they contested, and at Rafik Hariri University (RHU) they made inroads for the first time by winning four seats out of a total of nine .
Aya Abou Saleh is president of the student council of the Faculty of Law of Saint Joseph University of Beirut. She said that behind the overwhelming victories lies a political awakening among young people initiated by the “October Revolution” in the country.
“A lot of students who were leaving the country stopped after the revolution,” said Abu Saleh. “They basically wanted to send a message to the ruling class that enough is enough, that young people don’t speak their language and that we are no longer pawns in the little game they have been playing for decades. We don’t want sectarian or regional politics, but something else, something more modern, something worthy of the 21st century.
She added that the winners would focus first on negotiating tuition fees, which have risen significantly since the Lebanese pound, pegged to the dollar, lost 80% of its value. But the biggest battle is to prepare to lead the country into a new era of progress through parliamentary politics.
Al-Gharabi in Iraq has also said he is a strong advocate for reform. The Iraqi and Lebanese protesters, however, are joined not only by their vision, but also by their challenges. Topping the list are the constant threats from the militias and the fear of being assassinated.
“I receive threats on my cell phone and on social media almost daily,” al-Gharabi said. “I even got a live threat on the air while doing a TV interview.”
Al-Gharabi said that although he did not falter as an activist, the threats had an effect on his decision to participate in the elections. He still wonders whether he should fight the elections or support secular candidates from outside.
“The security situation does not allow free and fair elections,” he said. “There is a fear of arms and uncontrolled militias, as well as traditional party control over the state. “
Dhia al-Assadi, an academic and former president of the Al-Ahrar Bloc in parliament, oddly agreed with al-Gharabi on one thing: traditional parties control resources and it would be difficult for independent candidates to break through.
“In addition, protesters who have formed political parties have lost their credibility with their peers because they have changed course and are trying to change the system from within,” al-Assadi said. “While other segments of the protesters are against the whole system and don’t think it can be changed by simply fighting the elections.”
Makram Rabah, speaker at AUB, said that in Iraq in Lebanon too, there was fear of an Iranian-backed militia, Hezbollah. “Ultimately, the Iranian militias control the ground in Lebanon and Iraq and kill us, which will not change whether we win or lose the elections,” Rabah said.
Nassir Yassin, also a professor at AUB, said that even though the campus election results were a “blow” to mainstream political parties, they could still rely on identity politics to work in national elections.
“The general elections have specific meaning for many voters, whether it is around geographic identity or sectarian membership or in fact loyalty to the political leaders who gave them jobs as part of their networks. clientelists, ”Yassin said.
Sami Nader, regional policy expert, was more optimistic. He said that despite the shortcomings of the Lebanese electoral law and its sectarian distribution of seats, participation in the elections still had a purpose.
“Student elections are transparent, where no money changes hands. The general elections are changed through gerrymandering and a tailor-made law for the benefit of sectarian parties, ”he said. “We don’t have time to change the electoral law until 2022. But we still have to move forward because we will see a change. Even a small change is worth it.
The Iraqis succeeded in forcing their government to pass a new electoral law in November last year that divided each of Iraq’s 18 provinces into 83 different constituencies. It offers independents a greater chance to win, but in Iraq too, the tools and resources to win remain in the hands of the political elite.
Protesters from both countries admit they cannot form governments in their respective capitals, but claim they will make a dent in the count of existing parties.
If not through revolution, then out of sheer persistence they intend to change their policy for as long as it might take. So far, small victories in a long struggle have given the air a much needed burst of optimism.