Youth-Led Movements Are the Ones to Watch in Lebanon and Iraq

Global Challenges

Youth-Led Movements Are the Ones to Watch in Lebanon and Iraq

Posted on: 25th May 2022
Shayan Talabany

The Lebanese parliamentary elections on 15 May were held three years into a debilitating financial and political crisis that has pushed many to emigrate and much of the remaining population into poverty. Despite the predictions of little change, the results surprised many. Several independent candidates won seats, revealing a vision for positive change in Lebanon, primarily led by the country’s dynamic youth. In many ways, this mirrors Iraq’s results in October 2021 when the election of a significant number of independent candidates exceeded expectations.

Both countries, which share much in common, have lots to learn from each other, and both have a long way to go to address mounting popular agitation. In both countries, youth-led movements are now the ones to watch closely.

In Lebanon, in spite of low voter turnout estimated at 41 per cent (almost identical to Iraq’s numbers), 13 independent opposition candidates, affiliated to Lebanon’s recent large-scale protest movement, managed to secure parliamentary seats. At least two of these were won in the south of the country, a challenging feat given the overwhelming presence and influence of Hizbullah, the Iran-linked Shia Islamist political and military organisation. There was also a remarkable number of female candidates although this did not translate into votes.

The results are a culmination of years of dissatisfaction. In 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese of all sects and backgrounds took to the streets in a series of protests known as the “Thawra” (revolution), calling for an end to the country’s confessional system that divides power between religious sects under a quota system.

At the same time, 600 miles away, the “Tishreen” (“October”), Iraq’s largest protest movement since 2003, began. Like Lebanon, Iraq’s long list of grievances was heavily linked to the country’s inherently sectarian structure of governance that has protected the inept political elite overseeing the country for so long. For both Lebanon and Iraq, October 2019 represented the climax of years of progressive activism.

Both the Lebanese and Iraqi movements hoped to usher in a new political class that would enact reforms to counter corruption and years of systemic political and economic negligence. In Lebanon, the protests forced the then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign and generated huge international support for political and economic reforms in the country. In Iraq, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi was pushed to resign and a new government announced parliamentary elections that eventually took place in October 2021. Both countries’ elections exceeded expectations, with larger than expected wins for independents, despite less than half the eligible voters turning up to vote. Progressive movements in both countries can therefore learn from each other.

Lebanon’s economy has eroded to the verge of collapse and successive leaders have failed to resolve the country’s numerous crises. Independent candidates and their support base posed a genuine threat to (and won seats from) candidates affiliated to the dominant parties and their foreign backers such as Iran. In some cases, they pushed out families and names that have been near constants in Lebanon’s political scene, including the Druze sect’s politician Talal Arslan who had held a seat for three decades, and Faisal Karami, son of former Prime Minister Omar Karami.

The key for these independent MPs is to build a genuine opposition. Lack of a coherent political programme means they may struggle to coalesce but given that Sunday’s elections showed no clear majority for any group, an opposition alliance could play a substantial role in determining the country’s immediate future. There is also the question of Lebanon’s more traditional opposition figures and which way they will lean. Iraq’s newly elected independent MPs and more traditional opposition figures face similar questions and challenges, though they are further down the line from elections last October.

The key challenge in both Iraq and Lebanon is maintaining momentum in the face of widespread disillusionment ahead of the next opportunity or election – which is easier said than done.

While a lot has happened, not much has changed in the country since Iraq’s 2021 elections: there has been an attempted assassination of Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi; regressive forces continue to utilise formal and informal mechanisms to influence the formation of a government; and the once-flourishing Kurdistan region faces its own internal struggles. Overall, political negotiations remain in a harmful deadlock, with a government failing to form.

Similarly, Lebanon’s new parliament will have to form a government, select a speaker, prime minister and eventually a president. Rumoured presidential candidates such as Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese forces, a former militia turned right-wing Christian party, are unlikely to bring about the changes necessary in the short term to alleviate Lebanon’s multitude of crises.  

This is a pivotal moment for both countries, with both progressive and regressive forces vying for influence amid an ever-growing list of short-term grievances that must be addressed while equally trying to forge a long-term trajectory for governance. Regressive forces operating in Iraq and Lebanon are not limited to the dominant Iran-linked Shia Islamist ruling parties. An urgent need for change has allowed controversial populist figures to play central roles in government-formation processes in recent years. They have positioned themselves as viable opposition to the status quo, criticising governance and elitism despite belonging in varying degrees to the same elite club. In Iraq, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the former leader of the Mahdi Army militia, won the most seats in the last election while the controversial figure Shaswar Abdulwahid of the Kurdish New Generation Movement now leads the largest Kurdish opposition party in Iraq. In Lebanon, Samir Geagea, rumoured presidential contender, described by many as a warlord, managed to increase his proportion of seats. Their electoral advances highlight the pull of populism in the Middle East. Sadr, Abdulwahid and Geagea have little in common ideologically, but they understand the escalating divides in their countries, not least those between young progressive modernisers in Iraq and Lebanon and their respective governments.

The Tishreen uprising and the Thawra in Lebanon both evolved as leaderless, youth-driven, grassroots movements, at times joined by and, at others, opposed by populist forces. We should all watch the progress of this emerging generation, whose small yet effective wins could take them far, and nurture their visions before ideological and governance vacuums are filled with more malign powers.

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