Iraqi and Lebanese Protesters Will Struggle to Change Systems Built to Resist

Nov 27, 2019 | 10:30 GMT

This photo shows Iraqi protesters gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Oct. 31, 2019.

Iraqi protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on Oct. 31, 2019. The ongoing protest movement in Iraq could force some concessions, but a wholesale change of government remains unlikely, at least in the short term.

(AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)


  • The Iraqi and Lebanese political systems were designed to solve or preclude conflict, not produce efficient governments. The malaise felt by anti-government protesters today stems from those structures.
  • The difficulty of reforming these systems is compounded by their vulnerability to manipulation by external powers as well as the emergence of nonstate actors who can take advantage of the relative power vacuum.
  • The pressure created through popular demonstrations will likely result in electoral reform, the addition of technocratic leaders and a demand for strongman rule in both places, but any change will take place slowly.

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...

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