A Deadly Game of Chicken in Iraq and Lebanon

A Deadly Game of Chicken in Iraq and Lebanon

A Deadly Game of Chicken in Iraq and Lebanon

Popular revolts in the Middle East are pitting people against regimes.


The popular revolts in Iraq and Lebanon may be against different governments, but they represent a linked challenge to despotism and regime violence in the Arab world. And both share a central element: They are quintessential showdowns. Because the regimes refuse to consider incremental reform, the only way forward is to win. Defeat, for either side, will be absolute. Gradual reform might be the best theoretical outcome for these troubled states, but, alas, it isn’t on offer.

To that end, demonstrators have put their lives on the line for months on end to demand change. It’s a risky move. They’re making it impossible for the ruling clique to continue its extractive rule, leaving it with only two choices: destroy the demonstrations, or change their ways. But the demonstrators are using the only method available, short of resorting to an armed rebellion or a coup, to resist predatory regimes that foreclose any reasonable attempt at incremental or democratic reform.

In both cases, the popular movements have internalized some of the lessons of the Arab revolts that came before: Issue concrete demands, pay attention to the national political narrative, try to persuade the wider public, and innovate tactics in order to maintain momentum. (Unfortunately, they’re less clear on the benefits of naming leaders and contesting hard-power institutions.)

Regimes have studied the other revolts too, and as a result have opted to use force from the get-go—in Iraq’s case, lethal force. If the protests subside or fracture, the ruling authorities will use all the tools at their disposal to destroy them.

The zero-sum nature of the revolts stems from the recalcitrance of the regimes. They are unable to reform even slightly, because their entire system is built around extraction, rather than governance. Traditionally, even a corrupt regime benefits from economic growth—there’s more to steal. But the regimes in Iraq and Lebanon have opted to rely on mainline extortion and Ponzi schemes. Even disruption and collapse that harm the population can benefit the rulers.

The governors no longer share common interests with the governed. That disconnect fuels the popular desire for a radical overhaul of the system. Incremental reform is no longer enough; even if the regimes were willing to entertain a marginal reshuffle, it would only buy them time—the systems in their current configurations are too broken to govern. That disconnect also explains the passion and scope of the popular mobilization: Much of the population has realized that catastrophe looms, and they have little left to lose.

This fall, I spent a few weeks in Iraq and Lebanon conducting interviews about rights and citizenship for a research project. The people I met in Baghdad in the week before the protests, who came from a great diversity of backgrounds, weren’t planning a revolution, but they had given up on the government. They had come to the conclusion that no one in power was going to help them in the slightest.

I met a man who worked for the shrine authority in Najaf. His brother had died fighting for a government-allied militia against ISIS. He lived with his parents and siblings in a rural house on the outskirts of the city, and he was as heartland a Shia as you could find in Iraq. ISIS was finally vanquished, but his dead brother’s children weren’t even receiving the minimal pittance of a pension that they had been promised.

In Baghdad’s Sadr City, I met an unemployed day laborer in pants several sizes too big. He was engaged to be married, but couldn’t gather $2,000 for a wedding party. After going begging at the office or home of every major politician who lived in Baghdad, he had come away without a dinar. These are people who had been willing to pull together, defer their dreams, and even die—under Saddam, during the American invasion and occupation, during the sectarian civil war of 2006, during the time of Al Qaeda, during the war with the Islamic State. Now, they realized they were living in a country that in a time of peace was pumping 5 million barrels of oil per day; by all expectations, Iraq should be rich and modern. Where was their share? Where were their rights? Why couldn’t they live with a modicum of dignity?

In Lebanon on the eve of the protests, I encountered a similar mix of disillusionment and desperation. Here the proximal cause was a looming currency collapse. The underlying dynamic was the same, however: chronic failure to govern, across every possible measure, through every possible set of circumstances. War, peace, boom, bust—the same humiliating result. Any challenge to the Lebanese status quo elicits the same threat from the boss rulers; it’s either our way, or civil war. The threat may seem artificial, but the war only ended in 1991, and the country’s warlords are well versed at stoking identity-based conflict and dispensing violence. A campaign of assassinations roiled Lebanon in the mid-2000s, and Hezbollah’s alliance shut down the city center for nearly two years before invading and briefly occupying West Beirut in May 2008 to resolve a political dispute in Hezbollah’s favor.

Today, critics, dissidents, journalists, and activists are regularly arrested, blackmailed, or beaten in a steady intimidation campaign. Lebanese authorities haven’t slaughtered hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, like their Iraqi counterparts have since early October, but violence is always a possibility.

The erosion of rights and the rise of authoritarianism is a global emergency. In the Middle East, that crisis has been at a peak for at least a decade. It takes a special form of courage to stand up against an authoritarian Arab regime in late 2019, after seeing the sacrifices made by, and murderous violence doled out against, peaceful revolutionaries in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. These communities and their governments are connected, intertwined.

Algeria and Sudan offer some cautious cause for optimism. Protests continue in Algeria, where persistent protest continues to challenge the security state’s dominance. Sudan’s uprising forced a transition in which power is being genuinely contested; it’s not clear whether the outcome will be democratic or reformist, but a brave and shrewd protest movement has created real possibilities. Still, nearly a decade of revolts against the region’s tyrants have yielded ample reason for worry. Decaying rulers who have never displayed even a shred of competence or ability to govern—much less respect the rights and dignity of their citizens—have proven ruthless and remarkably resilient when it comes to defending their perches. They have made good on their threats to destroy the state rather than surrender power. It’s no wonder that a current of concern flows beneath my admiration for the protesters in the squares and centers of every major city in Iraq and Lebanon.

These are not centralized, elite protests in a capital city, led by one or another social group; these are dizzyingly widespread protests that reflect broad frustration with the ruling system. Every sector has been harmed by the regimes; every sector has contributed to the revolts. I am terrified of the worst possible end—that the ruling order’s militias and thugs in Iraq and Lebanon follow the example of their allies in Syria and take the country hostage. Play by their rules, or they burn the country.

But I am also hopeful, because the central demand is so straightforward and pure and appealing: for better, democratic government, on the local population’s own terms. To be sure, the uprisings improve their odds as they innovate, organize, draw in the public, and articulate a political program. The enraged demonstrators might in the end be satisfied with some compromise that included good faith efforts to make life more livable—but even in the face of an angry nationwide mob, the corrupt rulers see even the smallest concession as surrender.

These mass revolts terrify the status quo rulers, because the thugs in charge know they are in the wrong; they simply don’t want to surrender their very profitable stranglehold over the state. If they are ruthless and violent enough, they might be able to hold on for a while, but they will always have to look over their shoulders like a nervous guard in a ramshackle prison camp, constantly fearing the next inevitable revolt.

Victory for the protesters is not inevitable; maybe it’s not even likely. But it is the only just outcome.

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