Leaderless or led?

Met with maximum force

Yassamine Mather discusses the popular revolts against corruption, sectarianism and Iranian influence.

The protestors who have been out on the streets in Beirut and Baghdad have two common complaints:

1. While there is economic hardship for the majority, corruption and nepotism is flourishing amongst those in power.

2. Both states are saddled with sectarian constitutions.

The first complaint has echoes of Iran, where the ruling clerical elite faces identical accusations, while the second is in fact a by-product of colonial and imperialist interventions.

As I pointed out last week, the Iraqi constitution written in 2015 had the seal of approval of the occupying countries - most notably the United States and the United Kingdom.1 I had always thought this was part of a general plan to divide and rule, but the British ambassador to Baghdad, speaking in Oxford University this week, denied any such “conspiracy” by the major powers and claimed that in the absence of Sunnis from the discussions around the constitution, they failed to play a role in determining the blueprint for the distribution of power.

Probably there is an element of truth in this. However, the main point remains that war and occupation paved the way for sectarianism and the subsequent horrors of the jihadi ascendency to statehood. These jihadis were finally defeated partly with Iranian intervention - a fact admitted by the US media - and this is turn increased Iran’s interference in Iraq.

Looking at events this week, it is clear that the main areas where Iraqi protests are continuing are amongst Shias, in addition to the capital, Baghdad, where the protestors come from diverse religious backgrounds. Repression is taking its toll and there are reports of protestors disappearing (presumed to have been kidnapped by security forces), as they travel home after protests. However, there seems to be a growing determination to make their voices heard.

According to Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent,

Iraqi security and pro-Iranian paramilitary forces are shooting into crowds of protestors in a bid to drive them from the centre of Baghdad and end six weeks of demonstrations that have challenged the political system to an extent not seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Police retook three bridges across the Tigris River that leads to the fortified Green Zone on Saturday and are surrounding Tahrir Square, the central focus of the protests. In al-Rasheed Street, close to the square, police set fire to tents set up by volunteer doctors to treat injured protestors.2

Four Communist Party of Iraq (CPI) MPs resigned from the government last week in protest at the security forces’ treatment of the demonstrators. Amongst them are general secretary Raid Jahed Fahmi, as well as Taha al-Difai and Muzahem al-Tamimi, both members of former prime minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr coalition.

Opposition groups are claiming that, far from being ‘leaderless’, the protests are organised by ‘coordination committees’ composed of academics, university graduates, youth movements, and tribal leaders. Similar committees were involved in the anti-government demonstrations of February 2011 and both the CPI and the supporters of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claim to be involved in them.

Even if we accept that the above-mentioned committees are playing a leading role in organising the protests, surely an alliance between one of the most discredited, opportunist communist parties of the Middle East and an over-ambitious cleric (whose aspirations of leadership have seen him move from Ghom to Riyadh and back again) give little reason for hope. For example, it only needs 50 MPs to call for a vote of no confidence in the government of prime minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, yet at the moment there is no sign that al-Sadr will join such a move.

Inevitably western politicians and journalists are blaming the violence on the ministry of the interior, which is allegedly controlled by general Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. For its part, however, Iran claims that the issue is not about interference in Iraqi affairs, but a question of survival. Faced with severe sanctions and threats of war from the United States, Iran cannot afford to risk losing allies in Iraq or Lebanon and the Tehran regime seems to have decided that, as far as Iraq is concerned, maximum force is the only answer.

However, although such a policy might work in the immediate context of the current protests - if, of course, it is true that pro-Iranian militia led by Revolutionary Guard commanders are involved in the repression - in the long term Iran will lose the support and solidarity of a large section of young Iraqis, irrespective of what their government decides to do.


Corruption and nepotism are high on the list of complaints made by Iranians against the many factions of the religious state. Here we are not talking of accusations made by the US or pro-‘regime change’ Iranian exiles: just about every ordinary citizen will say the same thing. Indeed the two main factions of the regime are competing to expose each other’s corruption.

With the judiciary continuing to charge close allies and relatives of Iran’s ‘reformist’ president, Hassan Rouhani, with corruption, he hit back on November 11, when he said: “Now that you are pursuing cases of corruption involving millions of tomans, also explain to the people the cases of corruption involving billions of dollars.”

Referring to Babak Zanjani, a close ally of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani stated: “After a number of years they issued a death sentence for the case of the individual who stole $2.8 billion from the treasury, but it’s not clear where this money went and who else had a role in this case.”3

According to Rouhani - whose brother was recently jailed for five years on corruption charges and was miraculously released on ‘leave’ on the first day of that sentence - some institutions have acquired $964 million and have no account of it, while others are in debt to the tune of some $700 million.

So clearly the Shia government in Iran has exported not just its military forces, but its economic policies - both in terms of the neoliberalism espoused by Hezbollah in Lebanon and also the cronyism and corruption in Iraq’s Shia government.

The situation in Lebanon deteriorated on November 12, when for the first time since protests started a member of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party was killed by a soldier. Jumblatt is an opponent of the country’s Christian president Michel Aoun, but so far there are no signs of any revenge attacks. The shooting came soon after a televised interview with Aoun, who told protestors: “If you continue in this way, you will damage Lebanon and your own interests.” But, far from calming the situation, the speech sparked fresh demonstrations.

Ironically Aoun is considered an ally of the pro-Iran Hezbollah, whereas prime minster Saad Hariri, who resigned at the end of October, was aligned to western and Gulf Arab states. Prompted by his western allies Hariri now wants to lead a ‘technocratic’ government that would resolve the country’s ‘financial problems’.

But the protestors hate Hariri and his Saudi and Persian Gulf backers as much as, if not more than, they hate Hezbollah. Iranian leftist radical Hemad Sheybani, who has spent a considerable amount of time in Lebanon and is familiar with the political developments there, reminds us that the cross-sectarian unity amongst protestors is a sign of hope, given Lebanon’s history of civil war, and that US and Saudi interference in Lebanese politics has played a major role in creating an unequal society, where 30% of youth are unemployed, wages are low and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing ever wider. Sheybani has written extensively about the financial interest of Saudi and Gulf stakeholders in the Lebanese economy and believes that calls by sections of the Lebanese left for a takeover of the financial and banking system is more important than street protests and occupations.4

Sheybani’s interventions are very important for Persian-speaking audiences, who hear contradictory reports from the pro-Hezbollah media inside Iran’s Islamic Republic and from Saudi-financed TV stations abroad. According to the latter, the Lebanese protests are all about Iran’s intervention in the country! I suppose when you are paid by the Saudis all you can produce is fake news.

  1. . ‘Second Arab spring?’, November 7.↩︎

  2. . The Independent November 11.↩︎

  3. . www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/11/iran-rouhani-economic-corruption-clash-raisi-judiciary.html#ixzz654mU2U9G.↩︎

  4. . www.facebook.com/hemad.sheybani.↩︎