Iraq and Lebanon Struggle for a Higher Ground

Monday, May 11, 2020
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

Previously, I compared Tunisia and Algeria with Lebanon to look at key factors that might influence the outcomes of popular demonstrations in the countries. I noted that “The core issues in Lebanon, Algeria, and Tunisia center on the economy, inequality, corruption, and lack of institutional coherence and government integrity.” Of course, that could be said about most of the MENA region, my point being that despite macro-level differences, these states are not immune to their people expressing discontent with the status quo, even after major shakeups as in Tunisia.

Iraq and Lebanon also have much in common. In fact, it was the Lebanese model of governance that was imposed on Iraq during the disastrous occupation of that country by the US in its attempt to democratize institutions and processes in the country. The “Lebanonization” of Iraq has led to the same quagmire against which Lebanese are now demonstrating: poor governance, a faltering and moribund economy, and lack of respect for rule of law.

I am quite aware of the differences in population (Iraq 39 million vs 6 million), literacy (Lebanon 95% vs 50%), and life expectancy (+9 in Lebanon). But they have similar 2019 per capita incomes (~$19,000), obesity rates (30%), and massive youth unemployment (>30%), and the governments are struggling to find their futures with new, largely technocratic governments and a focus on economic and political reforms. A deeper look is instructive.

Most of the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s Cabinet members are technocrats with long histories of working in their areas of expertise, with no or little affiliation with political parties. While this is only partially true in the new Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government, they did manage to agree on inviting the IMF in to help engineer the country’s economic and social recovery and adopted a rather robust series of reform intentions.

Iraq’s cabinet also adopted a very proactive reform agenda which includes holding free and fair elections under a new electoral law, containing the pandemic and building a stronger nationwide health system, restricting weapons to state and military institutions, developing a comprehensive economic reform agenda, launching a national dialogue inclusive of all sectors of the society, protecting the country’s security and sovereignty, fighting corruption, promoting the values of a common citizenship, and caring for refugees and IDPs.

Point by point, and there is much more detail in the linked article, this could also be Lebanon’s blueprint as it struggles with challenges, from controlling Hezbollah’s armed forces and political influence, to reaching out to demonstrators, protecting the country’s borders, developing a national rather than sectarian identity, and managing the refugee crisis.

A major structural difference between Iraq and Lebanon is that despite Iraq’s early attempts in the 1930s to build democratic institutions, subsequent revolutions, coups, and dictatorships made that impossible. In Lebanon, at least older generations can recall, pre-civil war, a functioning bureaucracy and government organizations that served some of the people most of the time. Since then it has held elections from time to time, parliaments came and mostly stayed, and the courts functioned in a fashion such that the notion of government institutions endured.

In both countries, youth hold political elites responsible for the poor governance, corruption, and weakened sovereignty that affects all dimensions of society. This is another similarity, as the Al-Monitor article linked above notes, “And while the young may be in the lead, the diversity and inclusivity of the demonstrators is a trait shared with those calling for change in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region and beyond, including Hong Kong.” It goes on to note that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the priority for the Iraqi and Lebanese governments is “to cure insecurity.”

In assessing how the US can be helpful, another common position becomes clear. “Former US diplomat Edward Djerejian told Al-Monitor that he would advise US policy-makers to ‘do no harm’ in Iraq. ‘Do not get directly involved,’ he said. ‘Promote our values, but without any false hopes that we’re going to be the instrument of change in any way in these countries.’” This is reflected in this administration’s stance which, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has done, supports the rights of the demonstrators, deplores public violence, and threatens sanctions against those stealing the national wealth and “killing and wounding peaceful protestors.”

Lebanon’s “model” is also evident in that the new Iraqi Prime Minister’s partnerships with Iraqi President Barham Salih and parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi are referred to as the “three presidents,” and it appears that PM Kadhimi’s relations are very cordial with the others.

Two other useful key points of comparison are the role of the US military and engaging international financial institutions. The US has been central to bolstering, training, and professionalizing the Iraqi and Lebanese militaries. In both countries, the relationship is solid, a source of national stability, and highly regarded by the US Defense Department. The US can be instrumental in engaging with the IMF, the World Bank, and other sources of technical and monetary assistance to support the reform process in both countries.

Finally, of paramount importance is that both countries have contracted another virus called Iran. Neither wants to be a battleground between the US and its friends and Iran and its proxies. Both countries seem to have strong movements towards building non-sectarian national identifies which are critical to supporting values of sovereignty and independence.

It will be more than interesting to assess how these two countries, one that was once the intellectual center of the Levant, the other the industrial leader of the region, move forward in the coming months and years to achieve their visions of security, stability, prosperity, and unity.