Lebanon’s largely peaceful “Arab Spring” is a model in civic activism for the greater Middle East. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s offer to resign in response to the country’s popular uprising, which has been devoid of bloodshed and mayhem, is starkly different from the response of regimes to the first Arab Spring in 2011. It’s also different from the Iraqi government’s bloody response to protests in Baghdad, even though following the killing of hundreds of demonstrators, the Iraqi prime minister has also offered to resign.
Yet, the Lebanese uprising poses a serious challenge to the very existence of the Lebanese state. Lebanon is a precarious state in which trash has been piling up, public services and utilities have been sporadic, and the desire to leave the country has been the overwhelming concern of so many Lebanese.
Attaining a new political order free of sectarianism and corruption in Lebanon is a tall order. The Beirut demonstrations are patently indigenous and locally driven. The demands for justice and dignity have targeted corruption and corrupt politicians regardless of their sect, religion and social status who have benefitted from corruption through partisan patronage positions and other shady deals.
Although the Lebanese popular movement is not religious, its key demand for a new secular and corruption-free order strikes at the very existence of the religious edifice in Lebanon.
Arab autocratic regimes are worried that the protest virus will inflict their societies and threaten their hold on power. Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq are concerned because any serious change in the existing power alignments in the two countries will seriously undermine Iran’s political influence in both countries.
Iran’s clerical regime and Arab autocrats seem incapable of halting the Arab publics’ rejection of humiliation, and their persistent demands to root out corruption from their societies and hold their leaders accountable. Instead, Arab and Iranian autocrats and their proxies have been impugning the motives of the demonstrators and belittling the objectives of the new “Arab Spring.”
A bit of history
Lebanon was established as an independent state in 1943 with a “confessional” or religious system of government in which senior leadership positions were allotted on the basis of religious or sectarian affiliation. The so-called National Charter prescribed, for example, that the president of the republic will be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. The Christian community, which according to the 1932 census was a majority, has become a minority. Muslims now are more than 50% of all Lebanese.
Sectarianism and the 1975-1990 civil war have contributed to systemic instability and government paralysis. The confessional basis of the political system was reaffirmed following the civil war with the Ta’if agreement of 1989. This agreement allowed Syria to extend its military and security hegemony over Lebanon and indirectly empowered Hezbollah to emerge as the most powerful political party and king maker in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah has maintained that its ability to thwart Israel’s military assault in 2006 and to protect the border between Lebanon and Israel justifies its continued build-up of a credible weapons arsenal.
The 2011 Arab uprisings focused on regime change. But the demands of the current protest movement for a better life, a more hopeful future, good governance, accountable leaders and an end to humiliation are genuine. The gap between the wealthy minority and the poorer, unemployed and underemployed majority has increased exponentially.
Social media has played a significant role in mobilizing the crowds but not in starting the protest movement. Arab youth are keenly aware through social media of the economic and social conditions in their respective countries.
If the Arab and Iranian regimes hope to survive, they should implement a new social contract with their peoples that would enshrine the people’s right to hold their economic and political leaders accountable. The days of banking and financial leaders as untouchable gnomes are long gone. The new social contract should delineate new rules for legitimate and illegitimate means of amassing wealth. Acquiring of opulence through shady deals is the handmaiden of corruption, social and economic divisions, injustice, humiliation and political instability.
This is what has driven thousands of people to the streets. If regimes do not understand this phenomenon and act on it, their security states and services will not be able to save them, and they will be swept away.
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version of this article was published on LobeLog.