Second Arab spring?
As demonstrators once again take to the streets, Yassamine Mather looks at the issues involved.
Major protests in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and now Egypt have been labelled the ‘second Arab spring’ by some, while others - including Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei - have called the protests in Iraq and Lebanon part of the efforts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to weaken Iran’s allies in the region, at a time when the US’s policy of maximum pressure to force the Islamic Republic to renegotiate the nuclear deal has palpably failed. As far as I can see, there is some truth in both descriptions.
The economic grievances of Iraqi, Lebanese and Algerian citizens are very real. As far as Iraq and Lebanon are concerned, the pursuit of neoliberal economic policies has led to an increasing gap between the rich and poor. Many professionals - teachers, doctors, civil servants, who considered themselves middle class - are now struggling, while crony capitalism continues to enrich the corrupt leaders of the sectarian groupings and their associates.
In Lebanon the protests started last month in opposition to the government’s austerity measures aimed at reducing $86 billion foreign debt and ending the country’s currency crisis. In Beirut the protestors regularly target the super-rich areas, where luxury apartments and shops have replaced the rubble of civil war. They denounce government ministers and members of parliament as ‘thieves’. Amongst their slogans are calls for ‘revolution’ and the ‘overthrow of the system’. No-one has any illusions about the way the pro-Saudi government is running the economy on behalf of the super-rich. But a few months ago, when I wrote that Hezbollah’s participation in government - with its neoliberal economic policies, including the privatisation of community housing, as well as social and welfare services - Iranian defenders of Hezbollah attacked me. Apparently one should not criticise the Shia group, because it is vilified by the United States and Israel.
According to Robert Fisk, who was observing one of the larger protests in the last week of October, the protestors, who were shouting, “The government is corrupt, the sectarian leaders are corrupt, all members of parliament are thieves - thieves, thieves, thieves”, did not mention the name of the Hezbollah chairman, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah:
And two of the men jumped down from the truck - big, tough figures towering over the younger protestors - dodging the police line, and moved into the demonstrators, shouting and demanding they end their curses about sectarianism. “The Sayed [Nasrallah] is the only one who is not corrupt!” one of them screamed. These men did not come to talk to the protestors or discuss their objections or even argue. They preached at them, raising their voices and bellowing their words.1
As Fisk points out, there is no proof that Nasrallah, who faces US sanctions, is personally corrupt. However, Hezbollah, as a partner in the Lebanese government, is subscribing to a neoliberal economic agenda in exactly the same way as Iran’s Shia clerics have done for the last three decades. And what the demonstrators fear most is what Hezbollah might do to keep its current privileged position in the government - they have rightly identified the sectarian nature of that government as one of their main targets. Ironically France, whose colonial rule initiated the current bizarre division of power in the country, is now siding with the protestors. According to the 1943 national pact, which provided the political foundations of modern Lebanon, seats in parliament were divided on a six-to-five ratio between Christians and Muslims (in 1990 the ratio changed to half and half) . Government positions are allocated on the same basis and along religious lines, with the top three positions in the ruling ‘troika’ distributed as follows:
President - a Maronite Christian.
Speaker of the parliament - a Shi’a Muslim.
Prime minister - a Sunni Muslim.
Already the prime minister and a number of ministers have resigned, and the attempts of president Michel Aoun at pacifying the protestors with promises of reform have failed. There are clear signs that the working class, together with the poor in Shia areas of Beirut, Tripoli and other major cities, are not only opposed to him, but no longer trust Hezbollah with their future. It could be that sanctions have reduced the organisation’s elaborate welfare structure in south Lebanon, but the demonstrators clearly identify Hezbollah as a contributor to the country’s economic problems.
Having said that, we should remember that, contrary to Saudi propaganda, the protest did not start with opposition to Hezbollah’s connections to Iran or allegations of the presence of Iranian military personnel in Lebanon. Most Lebanese, including Christians, were grateful that Hezbollah and Iran’s interventions helped defeat Daesh in Lebanon and no amount of Saudi publicity in Arabic, Persian or English will change that fact. In an unprecedented act of unity within a sectarian order the Christian president and his Sunni prime minister backed Hezbollah’s participation in the government. That despite Saudi and US interventions.
So Khamenei has a point when he says the vilification of Iran’s role in Lebanese affairs, mainly through Saudi propaganda, is a response to the failure of the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy. The US has claimed that the imposition of severe sanctions are part and parcel of a strategy which will get Tehran’s leaders to negotiate a new, ‘better’ nuclear deal.
No doubt if the current Lebanese government is toppled and Hezbollah loses its ministerial positions, Iran’s leaders, who have invested considerable financial and military investment in Lebanon, will suffer a setback. In the absence of a progressive alternative, it is possible that the current, completely legitimate, protests in Lebanon will be used by the Saudis, the United States or Israel to weaken Hezbollah. Iran could thereby lose one of its main weapons against a potential Israeli air strike - Hezbollah’s military forces in south Lebanon could be used to make a counter strike.
In this respect it was with great interest that I read Socialist Worker’s reporting of recent events in Lebanon:
Hezbollah - a political movement, which grew among impoverished Shia Muslims due to its resistance to imperialism and western-backed governments - opposed the protests … Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah effectively told protestors their demands for fundamental change were impossible. He said calls for the end of the government were a “waste of time”.2
Only a few years ago demonstrators at events organised by the Stop the War Coalition (when it was controlled by the Socialist Workers Party) were encouraged to shout, “We are all Hezbollah”. Protests by some of us, who argued that for many people in the Middle East Hezbollah is associated with chain-wielding thugs, were ignored. I have found no explanation on the SWP website for this dramatic change of heart regarding Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has never been a revolutionary or egalitarian force. Its extensive social welfare programme in south Lebanon has always been a way of maintaining long-term control over its supporters. In Beirut and other major cities, its middle class followers espoused the neoliberal economic agenda of their party in power. They did not even look like Hezbollah’s followers, as they appear in south Lebanon or Iran. At Hezbollah election rallies in the capital you can see the group’s women supporters without headscarves and wearing low-cut, sleeveless T shirts (the kind of clothes that can get you arrested in south Lebanon or in Tehran), waving the group’s yellow flags.
It is economic crisis that has fuelled the protests and Hezbollah has not changed. However, the organisation’s role as a major and credible obstacle to Israel’s expansionist policies should not be underestimated. Before getting too excited about ‘leaderless protests’ the left should be concerned about who will benefit if pro-Saudi forces, encouraged by the United States, turn Lebanon into another Syria or Libya as part of its rivalry with Iran.
The Iraqi situation is slightly different, in that the sectarian government in power is not a colonial relic, but a creation of a 21st century war. It is in power thanks to the US invasion of 2003 - a government now led by pro-Iran Shia groups.
Tens of thousands have been protesting in Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square and across southern Iraq, including the religious cities of Karbala and Najaf, in the last few weeks. They are calling for an end to the political system established after the US-led invasion. Major roads have been blocked and prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has resigned, although it is not very clear who will replace him. So far at least 256 people have been killed and last week the demonstrators attacked the ‘green zone’, which houses government ministries as well as the US and Iranian embassies. Schools, offices and other buildings are shut and there is no sign that the protests are going to stop.
Sixteen years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the country is a ‘failed state’. In Baghdad and other major cities, power cuts are very common, tap water is undrinkable and the country’s infrastructure is in disarray. Most Iraqis live in poverty, gaining nothing from the country’s huge oil reserves, the fourth largest in the world.
The constitution, drafted in 2005 by the Iraqi Governing Council, which was put in place by the US, defines the country as “an Islamic, democratic, federal, parliamentary republic”. Following the US-led invasion, political sectarianism was, as in Lebanon, written into the country’s constitutional DNA as a means of incorporating the main religious and national communities - the majority Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Until the recent wave of protests the top government posts were held by Mahdi, a Shia, together with a Kurdish president, Barham Salih, and a Sunni speaker of the house, Salim al-Jabouri.
Shia Iran had close relations with Shia groups and organisations that were opposed to Saddam Hussein. His overthrow by the US and its allies inevitably strengthened Tehran’s hand in Iraq. In addition, military groups loyal to Iran have played an important role in Iraqi civil wars, most recently against Islamic State.
We also have populist clerics, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, who has considerable support amongst lower-middle class Shias. He was a long-time ally of Iran, but nowadays he is accused of opportunism. He tries to present himself as ‘neutral’ in the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry. His threat to withdraw support from Mahdi’s government would have seriously damaged Shia rule in Iraq.
There is also the influential cleric, ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who last week seemed to be supporting protestors when he warned the security forces to show restraint to avoid “chaos and destruction”. However, in the last few days he has moderated his comments in support of the protestors. He also appears to have warmed somewhat to the government. Meanwhile, Iranian military hero, major-general Qasem Soleimani, has returned to Iraq to help ‘stabilise’ the government. It is alleged this coincided with an escalation in the use of force by the Iraq’s security forces.
There are clear signs that Iranian intervention in the country’s politics is deeply resented. In Karbala this took the form not only of angry demonstrations. On November 4 the Iranian consulate was attacked. Security forces opened fire, killing three people. The city is of huge symbolic importance. For Shias it ranks alongside Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Only three weeks ago tens of thousands of pilgrims celebrated Arba’een (a ceremony commemorating the martyrdom of Shia imam Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad).
However, again in the absence of any progressive alternative, let alone any influential revolutionary organisation, the fears of Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, might be correct. He warns: “Iraq shows all too many signs of returning to the kind of internal instability that led to low-level civil war in 2011 and the rise of Isis, and that undercut any efforts to bring stability and defeat extremism”.3