The Political Transformation of Protest Movements in Iraq and Lebanon

Despite the limited achievements of Iraq and Lebanon’s recently-established protest movements compared to their stated objectives, the movements’ small gains may actually be more effective in the long run than those of the Arab Spring uprisings—a fact that is especially evident when one considers the current political situations in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Libya. In October 2019, distinct anti-government and reform protests broke out in both Iraq and Lebanon. The timing of the two movements—known as Tishreen (October) in Iraq and 17 Tishreen (October 17) in Lebanon—was not their only similarity; each movement challenged its country’s consociational democratic system (known in Arabic as Muhasasa), which in Iraq is based on an ethnic-sectarian quota, and in Lebanon on a purely religious one.

Since the outbreak of the initial protests, both countries’ political regimes have faced strong anti-establishment discourse and activities, resignations from governmental officials, economic crises due to said resignations and to the COVID-19 pandemic, and an unusually large number of new grassroots political parties associated with the diverse objectives of Tishreen and 17 Tishreen. Iraq and Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, which took place on October 10, 2021 and May 15, 2022, respectively, were heavily influenced by the protest movements that coincidentally emerged in both countries in October 2019. Even though powerful and well-established political parties in both countries have managed to maintain their dominance, new opposition parties and candidates made significant gains that they will likely be able to further build on in future elections. However, they will require extensive inter-party cooperation, as well as support from both their own constituents and the international community in order to achieve long-lasting political change.

From Protest to Politics

Lebanon’s protest movement actively debated the best way to build a better political future: should it prepare for upcoming parliamentary elections, which were to be held using a traditional establishment format, or should it forge ahead with and continue to build on its grassroots activism? Differing opinions on this matter allegedly led to difficulties in unifying the various groups that made up the 17 Tishreen movement, especially since they differed on key issues, such as where to draw the line in engaging with establishment players. Nevertheless, hope and eagerness for change were a vital factor in the election. May 15 saw many young voters participating in elections for the very first time, while older voters turned out as well, driven by a desire to change the regime. And in contrast to Iraq’s October 2021 elections, where nearly one million overseas voters were excluded from voting, Lebanon’s diaspora played a key role in its latest elections. Lebanese expats also actively worked in support of the country’s new opposition parties, funding their campaigns and supporting them via emerging “alternative media” platforms.

The protests in Iraq, meanwhile, had a much more direct influence on the country’s October 2021 parliamentary elections. First, the elections were held early, which was the government’s attempt to meet protesters’ demands. Second, protesters managed to amend Iraq’s electoral law, transforming the country’s 18 electoral districts into 83, thereby giving voters more candidates for whom to vote. One of the protesters’ main critiques was that Iraq’s post-2003 political system was nothing more than an electoral democracy where Iraqis enjoyed the right to vote every four years, but otherwise had limited access to democratic and civic practices. Although participants in the Tishreen movement initially debated whether to push for regime change or reform, acts of violence and intimidation by armed groups affiliated with the political parties in power at the time caused the protest movement to become increasingly radical, and its focus quickly moved from tackling corruption to advocating a complete overhaul of the Muhasasa system.

In Iraq, acts of violence and intimidation by armed groups affiliated with the political parties in power at the time caused the protest movement to become increasingly radical, and its focus quickly moved from tackling corruption to advocating a complete overhaul of the Muhasasa system.

Newly established political forces that grew out of the movement approached the 2021 elections in different ways. Opposition party Imtidad (Extension) won nine seats in the elections, and subsequently managed to build a coalition with Iraqi Kurdish party New Generation, while al-Bayt al-Watani (The National Home) boycotted the elections due to what it considered a hostile political environment for activists and opponents. Although all of these positions are understandable, opposition forces’ participation was justified by the importance of engagement with and patience in Iraq’s relatively new democracy, which is arguably improving, especially when compared to the dysfunctionality and insecurity that marked earlier stages of the US occupation.

The Dynamics and Rationale of Boycott and Participation

Many supporters of Lebanon’s 17 Tishreen protest movement decided not to participate in the country’s recent elections, while others submitted a blank voting form as a means of registering their disappointment at seeing divided opposition forces running against each other in the same district. In fact, only the South 3 electoral district was able to put forth a unified opposition bloc. Opposition candidates were accused of lacking the ability to provide realistic promises and expectations and to engage young voters, while some emerging political parties were also challenged by traditional and well-established political forces. In addition, a major fear that drove the sense of hopelessness among boycotting opposition forces was that establishment parties would be able to rely on a longstanding system of clientelism and media propaganda, as well as intimidation, in order to secure election gains.

Further complicating the situation, several older opposition parties reemerged or rebranded themselves ahead of Lebanon’s 2022 elections. The National Bloc, for instance, relaunched with a progressive agenda and emerged as a key player among opposition groups participating in the latest elections. Another party, Beirut Madinati (Beirut Is My City)—a secular group that sprang from the 2015-2016 “You Stink” movement that aimed to address the government’s failure to manage Beirut’s garbage crisis—also participated in the 2022 elections. And Minteshreen, which arose during the 17 Tishreen movement, promoted most of its objectives during the elections, including establishing a civic state outside of the Muhasasa system.

One traditional political party that managed to infiltrate the protest movement prior to the elections is the Kataeb Party. This Christian party, which despite its sectarian activity during the Lebanese Civil War and alleged corruption under the current system, managed to emphasize its 2016 resignation from parliament, and to call for a more sovereign Lebanon, the strengthening of the Lebanese Army, and the disarmament of Hezbollah, all in an effort to fit in with the 17 Tishreen political wave and its discourse. Kataeb’s involvement, however, resulted in significant doubt and mistrust among voters about the credibility of a supposedly “independent” new opposition.

Despite the challenges posed by these older parties’ involvement, the attempt to gradually change or reform the system through electoral means has not been a complete failure. The 2022 elections saw several surprising electoral defeats that indicate a major transformation in Lebanon’s political scene. Syrian Social Nationalist Party member Assaad Hardan, who had held the Orthodox Christian seat for the South 3 electoral district for three decades, lost to reform candidate Elias Jarade—the first defeat by an opposition candidate of any MP allied with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Similar defeats occurred in other areas as well, with veterans of establishment politics unable to hold on to their seats in the face of strong contention by opposition candidates.

The political debate on how Iraq’s Tishreen protest movement should approach the country’s elections, meanwhile, reflected a set of distinct and diverse opinions regarding future decisions. However, it was also heavily affected by many different events that likely impacted public opinion both directly and indirectly. Targeted assassinations, such as that of Ihab al-Wazni in May 2021 and the kidnapping of prominent activists, re-affirmed many hesitations regarding the safety and logic of promoting political participation in an environment that is not safe for political opponents and advocates of change to practice their democratic right to freedom of expression. Despite the popularity among participants in the Tishreen movement of the idea of boycotting the elections and their hostile political environment due to intimidation by paramilitary groups, both organized parties like Imtidad and independent candidates were still able to organize and mobilize their electoral campaigns.

New Opposition Forces in Parliament

The core approach of protest movements in both Iraq and Lebanon is to eliminate sectarianism from their respective political systems. This represents a significant challenge, since the two countries’ traditional political parties rely heavily on sectarianism to mobilize their constituents, who benefit from sectarian politics in terms of economic opportunities and political protection. Opposition forces now entering parliament must therefore emphasize how their proposed policies will achieve both short- and long-term reform.

The core approach of protest movements in both Iraq and Lebanon is to eliminate sectarianism from their respective political systems.

Political decision-making in Iraq and Lebanon is not limited to parliament, however. Both Baghdad and Beirut are heavily shaped by the informal, institutional forms of consociationalism that are driven by political party leaders, religious figures, businesspeople, and foreign countries. New opposition parties in both countries, which lack the weapons and finances that feed their political enemies, must therefore work both in parliament and outside of it by consistently aligning themselves with the aims and objectives of the grassroots protest movements that put their candidates in their current positions.

Cross-institutional alliances must also be formed between new opposition forces. In Iraq, for example, Imtidad can benefit from al-Bayt al-Watani’s on-the-ground experience, while the latter can amplify its work using the former’s parliamentary voice. This will further develop a diverse set of approaches among the opposition, which will ensure that both Tishreen and 17 Tishreen mature into political forces capable of providing alternative policy roadmaps to efficiently monitor governance, accountability, and public sector performance.

Reshaping the Political Future of Iraq and Lebanon

Some of the key issues that new opposition and independent parliamentarians should focus on lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 and monitoring and protecting judicial independence from political interference. Lowering the minimum age to vote is crucial to maintaining democratic engagement in Lebanon and Iraq, as both countries’ populations have a high proportion of youth. Judicial independence, meanwhile, would help empower civil society by ensuring accountability in cases of political violence and intimidation, and would encourage new lawmakers to file suits against the paramilitary groups that are the main driver of security destabilization in both countries.

In Lebanon, MPs usually rely on both district-level and confessional legitimacy. Today’s independent and reform MPs, however, have emerged from popular protest movements and possess little financial support or political backing. The success of these new opposition candidates may therefore reflect a failure of traditional parties’ common strategy to mobilize their constituents, even at the grassroots and cross-regional communal levels. Lebanon’s next parliamentary elections, which will take place in four years, and its municipal elections, which will come in a year’s time, offer greater prospects for new opposition candidates, since this latest election has helped them build momentum and demonstrated to voters that candidates’ collectivism can result in wins at the ballot box. The next wave of elections will likely see additional wins from new candidates, some of whom entered the 2022 elections on mixed coalition lists consisting of independents, reform advocates, and experienced party members. And voters who are involved in or sympathetic to the 17 Tishreen movement may be more encouraged to turn out for the upcoming municipal elections following opposition candidates’ recent successes.

The next wave of elections in Lebanon will likely see additional wins from new candidates, some of whom entered the 2022 elections on mixed coalition lists consisting of independents, reform advocates, and experienced party members.

In Iraq, newly emerging parties’ region-centric basis, which was seen by some as a weakness due to a perceived lack of an organized and connected nationwide movement, may actually prove to be a strength in the country’s upcoming (though still unscheduled) provincial elections. For example, Imtidad and al-Bayt al-Watani, which dominate in Iraq’s southern provinces, and specifically in the city of Nasiriyah, may be able to unify their forces and guarantee the political-administrative gains they have made thus far. Meanwhile, the New Generation party may be able to alter the duopoly rule shared by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Nevertheless, Iraq’s political situation is currently in deadlock due to a growing intra-Shia political rivalry between the Sadrist Movement and pro-Iran parties coalescing under the banner of the Coordination Framework, based on a disagreement over whether to form a majority government with KDP and the Sunni Sovereignty bloc or to work toward a consensus government that would accommodate all traditional political parties. This stalemate has drawn political attention away from the protest movement and its prospects in Iraq’s current parliament.

Although significant internal factors will continue to shape the political transformation of Iraq and Lebanon’s protest movements, much will depend on the support of global actors as well. Both the international community and foreign countries involved in Iraqi and Lebanese politics must recognize new emerging opposition forces (both within and outside of parliament) as official political representatives for a large portion of their societies. These groups’ grassroots popularity and electoral success in spite of boycott campaigns and a lack of both financial and media support clearly demonstrates their ability to mobilize their constituents to produce real political change. Without the acknowledgment and support of international bodies like the United Nations and European Union, and foreign governments like the United States, both countries’ emerging opposition politicians may be unable to overcome their own political rivalries, and to achieve their goal of freeing their societies from the grip of all-too-familiar armed and powerful establishment political forces.