2019 saw popular demonstrations and violent regime repression against these protests from North Africa to Iraq. In contrast to what usually is covered in the Western media, these protests were not about the United States or President Trump or Israel or Salafi-Jihadist terrorism. It was almost as if some of the principal issues that usually mobilize Western punditry were beside the point. The turmoil upended two tired nostrums favored by the Western Left and Right – that it is always about the misdeeds of the United States and Israel and that the Middle East "street" does not matter.
Significant public turmoil broke out in five Arabic-speaking majority countries: Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon. All of these protests shared certain surface similarities: anger at corruption, poor governance, economic deprivation, and political exclusion. While these events were driven by broadly similar frustrations, they each had their very specific local flavor and tangible results have varied widely.
Demonstrations in Sudan, begun in December 2018 in response to dire economic conditions, eventually led to the end of the almost 30-year-old rule of President Omar al-Bashir. Sudan's revolution is the best of the 2019 bunch so far in terms of actual change. Not much changed on the surface in Algeria and Egypt.
The turmoil in Sudan, Algeria and Egypt differed from the other two Arab states. They had a purely domestic, internal orientation. When Sudan's warlord Hemedti or Algeria's generals decided to take action, they did not have to appease or break with a foreign master. To a certain extent, change was easier in places ruled, truly ruled, by local tyrants reacting solely to local realities and power structures. In Iraq and Lebanon, protesters would face a different challenge.
Shaking The Bars Of The Iranian Cage
Those two countries are part of Iran's sphere of control for years. Iran (which implemented an especially brutal repression of its own demonstrators in 2019) has spent decades now investing in coopting the ruling political class, the media, and creating its own military proxies in both countries. This was not done for the sake of good governance but to advance Iran's regional aspirations. The priorities were clear: a Lebanon which cannot pay its debts is also awash in tens of thousands of advanced missiles provided by Iran to Hezbollah for the next round of war against Israel. Iraq’s domestic industry and agriculture is subservient to Iran's need for money laundering and hard currency.
Like Sudan, Iraq is a country that has had many demonstrations in the past few years, and the protests that began in October 2019 overlapped to a degree with those of summer 2018 – anger at corruption, lack of government services, and lack of jobs. Both also shared largely (and mostly peaceful) Iraqi Shia participants and an undercurrent of violence between rival Shia militias. The Tishreen Revolution continues and succeeded on November 29 in getting Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi to agree to resign (he remains in power until a successor is chosen). It only took more than 400 dead and 20,000 wounded at the hands of security forces and pro-Iranian militias.
The demonstrations placed certain interesting realities in Iraq in sharp relief. Iranian power in Iraq is omnipresent and pernicious but also under siege. Iranian-controlled militias have reliably been accused of multiple kidnappings, shootings and stabbings attacks against demonstrators and civil society. Yet while the overwhelming bulk of demonstrators were peaceful and joyful, the headquarters of Shia Islamist parties and pro-Iranian militias were sacked in much of Southern Iraq (some of this had also occurred in 2018) as Sadrists fought and slaughtered rival militiamen.
One widely circulated video clip showed notorious militia leader Qais al-Khazali threaten the United States, Israel, and US-funded Al-Hurra television for supposedly organizing the demonstrations. But al-Khazali’s remarks came at the funeral of one of his militia leaders who had been literally torn apart, taken from an ambulance and killed. There is real, unfeigned hatred by many Iraqis for this predatory militia class that has so much innocent blood on its hands.
One Iraqi Shia commentator recently told me that the surprising thing is how little all that Iranian influence has bought among Iraq's population (as opposed to its ruling elite). "There is little cultural closeness, affection or affinity. You are more likely to find an Iranian restaurant in Dubai than you are in Southern Iraq. Farsi speakers among ordinary people are limited to those involved in the pilgrim trade. There are Iranian agents and agreements everywhere but also deep resentment."
Iran's reign in the Iraqi media space ostensibly looks dominant with dozens of media outlets and an aggressive "electronic army" at their service. Not only have demonstrators been killed by snipers, shot in the head with gas grenades, stabbed by militiamen, and disappeared by death squads. They have been subjected to a steady campaign of defamation by the state controlled media and by pro-Iranian outlets and advocates, calling demonstrators "Saddam's gypsies," exaggerating or fabricating instances of mob violence and inferring that the demonstrators are morally corrupt.
And yet the protests remain, buoyed by the resilient and creative spirit of Iraqi youth. These are youth who are both desperate and hopeful, naïve and leaderless, and yet brave and idealistic. They have lasted far longer than many expected. Repression should have been easy. The state is heavily armed and well-funded by oil revenues. Ruthless Iranian proxies are ubiquitous in Iraq. Media outlets seen as sympathetic with the demonstrators have been attacked or silenced while those that defame them do so with impunity.
With the exception of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – an essential and honorable exception – many national Iraqi leaders, members of a corrupt and privileged political class, mildly praised demonstrators initially and then moved to either demonize or subvert the protests. Deadly provocations against Iraq's protestors continue unabated and yet a new culture of popular, peaceful civic resistance has been born on Iraq's streets that has proven to be far more resilient than many experts expected.
This type of steadfastness has also been on display in Lebanon's demonstrations that broke out on October 17. Like Iraq and Sudan, demonstrations are nothing new in Lebanon and these were ostensibly triggered by the threat of additional taxes on already heavily burdened Lebanese citizens. Lebanese demonstrators transcended religious sect and displayed much of the same youthful enthusiasm and creativity seen elsewhere. Demonstrators brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Hariri's government and vague promises of reform within two weeks and without the body count seen in Iraq.
But the responses from the Lebanese authorities to demonstrators betray similarities with those seen in other countries. An initial patronizing approval gave way to irritation and then anger that the protesters were not satisfied with whatever crumbs and vague promises were offered. Hezbollah made a special effort to squelch unrest among its own Shia demographic with some success while playing the sectarian card against others. Pressure, violence and defamation was brought to bear on remaining protests in an attempt to silence them. The protests continue even as Lebanon tries to form a government keep the same crowd in control while ostensibly trying to pacify the masses and secure enough funding from the CEDRE process to delay economic collapse while making as little change as possible at the top.
Can A Distracted America Be A Subversive Force For Good?
What can we learn about these demonstrations and what do they teach us about Trump Administration foreign policy in the Middle East?
These protests are not unique to the Middle East, we see them from Latin America to Europe to East Asia. But there is no region on the globe as buffeted by the combination of poor governance and lack of freedom. That much maligned Middle East "Freedom Deficit" is very real. Adding climate change and population growth to the mix has only made things worse. It is quite likely that a regional feedback loop of oppression, incompetence, desperation and revolt will be the new normal.
Secondly, with the partial exception of Sudan, the old regimes are for now "winning," holding on and buying time, learning from the turmoil of the Arab Spring and seeking to forge new chains, new technical tools and tactics of repression. The people resist as much as they can against what on paper seem hopeless odds. The protests in Iraq and Lebanon were not directed squarely at Iranian hegemony – the political systems and corrupt elites in both countries were not created by the Iranians. But protests have over time become more about Iran and Hezbollah as Tehran’s hold on political elites becomes publicly more blatant.
Kleptocracy and rampant corruption in both countries was not created by Iran but today directly subsidizes Tehran's hegemony. The system has to subsidize not only local kleptocrats, as was done in places like Sudan and Tunisia in the past, but pay for the upkeep of their Iranian-connected jailers. This is the Iranian Supreme Leader's version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, what they have, they will hold at all costs. But preferably in Lebanese Lira, Iraqi Dinars, and US Dollars.
The stakes are very high. Iran's dominion over Lebanon and Iraq is very valuable. While Lebanon faces economic disaster that could loosen Iran's chokehold on that country, the situation in Iraq could be even more dangerous. This is a largely Iraqi Shia uprising, channeling both Iraqi nationalist sentiment and religious feeling not only independent of, but opposed to, Iran's continued hegemony. This is a potentially a deadly new front in opposition to Iran's leadership aspirations.
Despite the feverish ravings of pro-Iran propagandists, Washington (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) did not create or fund the protest movements in Beirut and Baghdad. But there is much the United States can do to both turn events to our advantage and provide succor to demonstrators who are bravely standing up not for America, but for their own values and causes that are not in conflict with our interests.
Certainly, the maximum pressure campaign against Tehran waged by the Trump Administration has raised the ticket price for maintaining Iran's empire creating new political and economic stress fractures all along that empire's food chain. Perhaps unintentionally, American timing has been impeccable. That pressure should be accelerated and any remaining chokepoints on Tehran activated.
Iran has spent years and money developing an extensive media empire in both Iraq and Lebanon. This has included the many media organizations grouped in the Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) but also silencing and coopting media outlets in two countries where there was until recently some independent media space. The West needs to accelerate providing remaining independent media in both countries with the tools to survive and communicate their own stories more effectively and to amplify the voices of citizen journalists reporting from the squares of martyrs and liberty in Baghdad and Beirut.
The current American Administration inherited an odd relationship with governments in Lebanon and Iraq. In both places, US embassies try to maintain a productive relationship with rancid governments obviously beholden to Iran in a forlorn effort to influence them. There is a certain logic that some cooperation with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) can provide the United States with useful access and intelligence, especially against Salafi-Jihadist groups. Iraqi Intelligence was reportedly key to the liquidation of ISIS "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But as Iran and its surrogates aggressively seek to crush dissent and revolt in Iraq and Lebanon, the time is ripe for the United States to aggressively up the ante on elements of the state apparatus that serve Iranian repression. The December 6 designation of four Iraqis under the Global Magnitsky Act should be only the beginning. Rather than militia leaders and corrupt businessmen, it is past time to sanction government officials and politicians in both countries. Given deep American fatigue on the Middle East, can Washington learn to live with Revolution it did not launch and does not control? It must do so and play a subtle political game if it hopes to win.
Embracing a state of ambiguity with elites in Baghdad and Beirut can and should be done. In Sudan for many years, the United States maintained a fruitful relationship with Sudanese Intelligence while at the same time continuing a hostile relationship with the regime. The difference is that behind Sudan’s NISS was eventually al-Bashir. Behind elements of the LAF and ISF are not just local leaders but Iran. Washington needs to clearly see most of the supposed rulers in Baghdad and Beirut not as allies but as adversaries and act accordingly.
The political crisis on the region, seen especially in Lebanon and Iraq, has a complex back-story. The United States cannot solve or manage a convulsive process that must inevitably run its course and that will likely continue given dystopian trends in the region. Iran certainly has no solutions for a desperate people’s aspirations, and neither may many of our regional allies.
What hope there is may lie in places like Tunisia and Sudan and in the Beirut and Baghdad revolutions. There may be popular revolts in other countries that may directly threaten American interests but that is not the case today. Even with our limited attention span and policy dysfunction in Washington, we can be aggressive in trying as much as possible to level the playing field for uprisings that not only champion inchoate aspirations towards human dignity but also increasingly target our greatest regional adversary.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of MBN or the U.S. government.