Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's 2020 Annual Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis of key developments over the next quarter and throughout the year.
The protest movements underway in both Iraq and Lebanon share many of the same characteristics, including common complaints about inefficient and corrupt governments that don't deliver what citizens need. They also share a similar future: The prospects that either can effectively pressure their leaders to quickly reform the Iraqi and Lebanese political systems appear slim. That's because, by their very nature, the governing systems in the countries bracketing the Levant are exceptionally difficult to overhaul.
After all, the governments, which both arose either in the aftermath of a devastating civil war in Lebanon’s case — or in Iraq’s to preclude one — were designed to solve and manage conflict, not necessarily to provide ideal governing systems. This was accomplished by carefully allotting positions to the leaders of the many competing sects in both countries, ideally in an egalitarian way. But the structures of both governments also allow an entrenched elite class to take advantage while leaving the systems themselves susceptible to intervention by external powers. And unless either system completely collapses, the political paralysis that grips both the Iraqi and Lebanese governments will prevent rapid change, even as popular unrest continues to simmer.
The popular protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon that began as reactions to economic weakness have morphed into expressions of dissatisfaction with ossified political systems. Those systems, which were designed to ease sectarian conflict, are particularly resistant to reform, however, and particularly prone to manipulation and corruption.
History and Geography Matter
Sectarian divides have historically been a hallmark of both Iraq and Lebanon — and of the geographic space between them. The sheer number and diversity of the Levant's ethnic and religious groups, each promoting competing interests, leave them prone to conflict and vulnerable to manipulation by the stronger external powers that surround the space. The current political systems in Lebanon and Iraq were both formed with the objective of solving some of these conflicts, accomplishing that by forcing compromise upon fighting political factions, and in a broader sense, giving the different interest groups equal representation.
More specifically, Lebanon's governmental system was patched together to end its 15-year civil war. The system arising from the 1989 agreement signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia, that marked war's end was based on previous Ottoman-era power-sharing constructs and officially recognizes 18 distinct religious groups, including Muslim, Christian, Druze and Jewish sects. Political positions — including a Christian president, Shiite Muslim speaker of parliament and Sunni Muslim prime minister, as well as legislative positions — are allotted by sect based on long-outdated census data that predates the foundation of modern Lebanon. A similar political system put in place in Iraq with U.S. backing after the 2003 ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, reserved the premiership for a Shiite, the presidency for a Kurd and the parliamentary speaker position for a Sunni. But the divisions of power in both countries are products of custom, more than formally set in their constitutions.
While these systems have been praised as a means of ensuring that each interest group in these countries has a voice, the inevitable power entrenchment and corruption that they facilitate create problems that reduce their appeal in the long run. Even though these systems reduce the risk of sectarian violence breaking out, they merely swapped one set of problems for another. Despite the relative peace, much of the population in both countries has run out of tolerance for the inefficiencies and deep-seated corruption exhibited by their governments.
Disadvantages of the Systems
Even though the governing systems in Iraq and Lebanon were specifically designed to be fair to all groups, practically, they do not live up to those aspirations. For example, the Iraqi parliament seated soon after the 2003 government change did not include proportional representation of the Sunni population. This came about due to a climate of fear among Sunnis in the post-Saddam era: A Shiite majority had been newly empowered, and sectarian violence was commonplace, limiting Sunni engagement in the democratic process. In Lebanon, its parliament's confessional representation is allotted using decades-old census information. The census, which was conducted in 1932, does not reflect the growing share of the Shiite population in Lebanon, causing the sect's members to be underrepresented in government.
And although the leaders of the sects in both countries purportedly fight for the interests of their constituents, instead of focusing on a more equitable distribution of government funding, they often divvy up the spoils, whether a slice of the budget or patronage they can use to bolster their own standing. This situation, which has become a major point of contention among protesters in both Baghdad and Beirut, points out another shortcoming of sectarian distribution of power: voter disenfranchisement.
Instead of being able to use the ballot box to back candidates they think will serve the greater good, a sect's members have few options but to support their own sectarian leaders, lest their group lose power. Another shortfall of sectarian politics is the difficulty of building consensus, which leads to political paralysis that limits policy implementation. Not only does making a decision on how to change the system itself become all the more challenging, but the political elite's reluctance to reassess the division of political and economic power also inhibits any effort to change the system.
These factors explain why the ruling classes in Lebanon and in Iraq have so far offered only piecemeal reforms that fall far short of protester demands. The limits of the sectarian system also explain why the same names continually surface when openings for prominent leadership positions like prime minister become available; finding consensus candidates who satisfy all the country's interest groups becomes exceptionally difficult. Also inhibiting change is the fear among the political elite that a recalibration of their post-conflict systems risks reopening fissures among population groups.
The inherent weakness of the Iraqi and Lebanese political systems allows nonstate actors to more easily accrue political and economic capital and military leverage. Persistent paralysis that leaves the state unable to respond effectively opens the door for militias, civil society groups, and sectarian and confessional organizations to swoop in to guarantee citizen needs. This is one reason a plethora of militias is available to fill security gaps in Iraq, where the national military force has yet to achieve significant capabilities, and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s capabilities exceed those of the Lebanese army.
Those weaknesses also allow stronger outside powers to take advantage. One prevailing theme of the current protests is a condemnation of the efforts by neighboring states to manipulate the Iraqi and Lebanese political systems. Iran is the obvious culprit in both countries, but other regional states, including the Arab Gulf states and Turkey, have also pursued political and economic footholds there.
What's Next for Iraq and Lebanon?
Although swift political reform is unlikely in either country, the scope of the protest movements guarantees they will have an effect. The events to come will likely follow one or more of the following paths:
- A slow-moving electoral reform: The process of changing the electoral laws in both countries will drive efforts to transform their governing systems. Their confessional systems are codified into electoral laws that are difficult to overhaul, even if they are constant bones of contention. In both countries, small reform packages are being discussed, but both also held elections in 2018. Even so, early elections are possible if the current governments continue to lose legitimacy, assuming progress is made on electoral law reform.
- A takeover by technocrats: Protesters in both countries frequently demand the introduction of a technocratic government. But many protesters will reject specific technocrats — experts who possess experience in particular policy areas — with ties to previous regimes, or who, despite their expertise, are deemed too sectarian.
- A dictatorial approach: The desire for strongman rule, especially by a nationalist-focus leader, persists. Despite Saddam's iron-fisted rule, there is a nostalgic wistfulness among some quarters in Iraq for the simplicity of his approach, brutal though it was. While modern Lebanon has not had a strongman ruler, in the midst of its ongoing unrest, some have questioned whether a military-backed system would be better than the current one.
- Strong protest leaders emerge: Governments resisting pressure to change are banking that no strong leaders will arise to guide the protest movements. Their calculations could change if protest leaders able to accrue popularity emerge. But unless that happens, although the protest movements have strong cross-sectarian support and a nationalist bent, they will remain unable to relay a unified message of their demands.
- Discontent spreads regionally: Sustained popular unrest in Iraq and Lebanon could inspire similar anti-government demonstrations in neighboring countries. Already, Jordan’s parliament, which is grappling with profound fiscal problems, has hesitated to impose any new taxes or austerity measures in the 2020 budget for fear of sparking unrest that could upend Jordan's stability.