Revolutionary moments are often imbued with contradictory features and dynamics. Thus, it is possible for people to fight against sectarian neoliberalism while also adopting its main liberal clichés and slogans. A closer look at the 2019 revolutions in Lebanon and Iraq reveals such contradictions. Does the discourse of nationalism and ‘co-existence’ necessarily imply a condemnation of sectarianism? Is the problem one of corruption per se or of neoliberal capitalism? Can technocratic political demands be revolutionary? Can individualism and a rights-based approach pave the way for a revolution, or are these reformist approaches that serve to reproduce a status quo? In what follows, these trends will be scrutinized, especially in terms of how they reflect the remnants of a political culture fostered by decades of sectarian capitalism.
Nationalism versus sectarianism?
Waving the national flag and singing the national anthem were common, and sometimes predominant, in public squares across Lebanon and Iraq in 2019. This fixation on the Lebanese or Iraqi national identity as a way to express a rejection of sectarian and ethnic divisions, and to highlight ‘co-existence’ and ‘national unity’, was not new or exceptional. The focus on a national identity and patriotism has been observed in many other countries (such as Algeria and Egypt) where the national question remains central in shaping the political imaginaries of revolutionaries. In other countries, such as Syria and Libya, protesters adopted the modified independence flag to mark a rupture with the dictatorial regimes (of the Baʿth Party and of Muammar Gaddafi) and their associated flags. This play on the relationship between the flag, the national anthem and the regime has unfolded in most squares and streets across the Arab region since 2011.
In Lebanon and Iraq, though, protesters have often adopted a nationalist approach not in order to express the legacy of a national struggle, pride in a strong nation, or a rejection of a certain flag associated with the regime, but rather to illustrate their quest to establish a genuine nation, through their attempts to overcome sectarian divisions. However, is nationalism necessarily the opposite of sectarianism? Decades of literature on sectarianism and nationalism show that these two phenomena are often two sides of the same coin. In Lebanon and Iraq, nationalism has often been deployed with a sectarian connotation, in contrast to many national liberation struggles, in which nationalism represented a political ideology that was in opposition to colonization or occupation. The history of the region provides a nuanced account in this regard. To give two examples: Arab nationalism has historically been associated with Sunni overtones; and Lebanese nationalism has often entailed a Christian connotation. However, it remains common for ordinary members of society to use a nationalist discourse in order to signal their rejection of sectarianism. Seen in this light we can say that the uprisings in both Iraq and Lebanon have clearly attempted to address the question of sectarianism through raising the demand of an “imagined nation” as a remedy for the problems the countries face.
In Iraq’s 2019 uprising, the main slogans in the squares were ‘The people want to overthrow the regime’ (the famous chant of the 2011 protests across the Arab region), and Nreed watan (We want a homeland). This was coupled with chants and banners denouncing sectarianism and asserting the fraternity between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias. By demanding a ‘homeland’8 and rejecting sectarianism, the protesters were signalling a desire for a modern state that would be able to serve its citizens and provide a sense of belonging beyond sectarian and ethnic fragmentation.
In Lebanon, a similar process of re-imagining the ‘nation’ beyond sectarian fragmentation was observed. Squares quickly filled with the national flag, and the Lebanese anthem was repeatedly heard on loud speakers. While the main slogans also included the famous ‘The people want to overthrow the regime’, a more custom-made slogan was added: Kellon ya’ne kellon (All of them means all of them), signalling a rejection of the sectarian power-sharing system and denouncing all leaders, regardless of their sectarian belonging. Like in Iraq, the rejection of political sectarianism was expressed through a desire to get rid of all sectarian leaders and to build a ‘country’, a ‘state’, and a ‘nation’ that will protect its citizens and treat them equally and justly.
However, sectarianism was not the only problem that needed to be tackled in the two countries: a dire economic situation also loomed over the scene. Therefore, the discourse of national unity and co-existence was coupled with slogans about the economic situation, often in the form of ‘anti-corruption’ rhetoric.
Corruption or sectarian neoliberalism?
A trend that appeared in both revolutions, and that seemed to contradict the radical side of the moment, was the predominance of a liberal discourse around ‘corruption’. Of course, corruption is a major problem in Lebanon and Iraq. However, the alarmingly high rates of youth unemployment, the deregulation of labour markets, the expansion of the informal sector, the politics of austerity, the lack of development in productive economic sectors, the heavy reliance on imports for basic needs (such as food and electricity), the debt crisis, and the reliance on financial capital (the banking sector) or oil rent are hardly the result of corruption only. These are clearly indicators of a deeper crisis in the neoliberal capitalist system that has, in the case of Lebanon and Iraq, intersected with a sectarian political system and a heavy militarization of some political parties to create a sort of ‘mafia state’, where ruling elites have acted to ensure the state and its spoils serve their economic interests and those of the business and banking cronies that sustain them.
The flourishing of such an oligarchy that controls the state and uses it for its own benefits, shielded from accountability or the rule of law, has allowed for patronage networks and the politics of clientelism to strive and shape what has been called the ‘politics of non-state welfare’.9 In this context, revolutionaries in the streets of Lebanon and Iraq who were protesting unemployment or financial crisis were also – even if indirectly – protesting neoliberal capitalism and its local version of neoliberal sectarianism. However, the protesters’ framing remained mainly fixated on anti-corruption, and did not address the structure of the economic system. More and more, the crisis was reduced to the corruption of a few ‘bad leaders’ who needed to be replaced by better and more ethical technocrats. Shaped by an NGO lingo of anti-corruption that fails to tackle capitalism as a root cause, this trend obscured the more radical drive of the first few days of the protests, which called for the complete overhaul of the system, rather than merely the replacement of corrupt politicians.
Seen from this perspective, the major challenge for the uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon now is to move beyond liberal politics and simultaneously to re-target the struggle more precisely against the two pillars of the sectarian-neoliberal regime: keeping the focus on the demand for socioeconomic justice beyond neoliberal capitalism, while also rejecting the intertwined system of sectarian power-sharing and identity politics.
Technocratic politics and leaderlessness
The popular demand for a technocratic government that emerged in the aftermath of the resignation of the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq became a life vest for the two regimes. How did the protesters that wanted to uproot the whole system end up demanding from the regimes to form technocratic governments?
This third contradiction in the 2019 uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq revealed itself in the schism between the radical demands of a complete overhaul, on one side, and the widespread celebrations of leaderlessness and technocratic political demands, on the other side. Given the state of affairs in both countries, political organization and political leadership came to be equated by wide sections of society with corruption and criminality. A new generation had grown to perceive party politics as bad, and to distance itself from political organization or leadership aspirations. For most people, being patriotic and honest meant staying away from politics. This ‘anti-politics’ approach, although rooted in an aversion to conventional politics, translated in many cases into a rejection of all types of organizing or leadership. This resulted in a deep contradiction during the initial days of the uprisings, when the popular will to oust the regimes was at its highest, while the popular capacity to provide a political alternative was clearly weak. This crisis of political organization led the masses to raise demands that at times sounded anarchist (rejecting any rule or leadership), and at others liberal (the demand for the formation of a technocratic government).
Here again the demands fell short of addressing the radical and revolutionary potential of the moment. This situation needs to be understood as a consequence of the weakness of leftist political organization and the cooptation of unions and syndicates. The revolutionary fervour was thus guided by political trends that diluted the revolutionary political path, instead of strengthening it. Unlike in Sudan or Tunisia, where unions and leftist organizations managed to scaffold the initial revolutionary moment (despite the later counter-revolutionary developments), the revolutions in Lebanon and Iraq erupted at a time when such organizations were too weak to lead the way.
Given the weakness of unions in both countries, road blockades were a widely used tactic to indirectly bring the country to a halt, thus imposing a de facto general strike. The imposed closure of businesses and institutions allowed for huge crowds to mobilize in the streets and created a revolutionary moment. Similarly, the student movements played a crucial role in sustaining the uprisings in both Lebanon and Iraq, through their calls for strikes and mobilization. However, despite the huge collective efforts of hundreds of thousands who gave their best to ensure the success of this revolutionary moment, the lack of organization and leadership, and the decades of de-politicization and NGO-ization in Lebanon since the early 1990s, and in Iraq since 2003, created a political ceiling for the uprisings that was much lower than the popular aspirations that animated them.
My revolution or ours? In search of a collective ‘we’
The articulations and changing dynamics of the uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon remind us that neoliberalism is more than a question of financial structures: it is also an ideological manifestation. Hence, the contradiction between the collectiveness of the revolutionary moment and the individualism of the political framings that emerged from the collective action are emblematic of the neoliberal age. This was noticeable in how some of the major political initiatives during this period were largely framed by an individual subjective outlook. For example, a key electoral campaign that grew out of the 2015 mobilizations in Lebanon, and that was active in the 2019 uprising, was Beirut Madinati (Beirut, my city). Instead of emphasizing a collective ‘our’ that rethinks the city as a shared space for all, the name emphasizes an individual relationship with the city. Similarly, in the aftermath of the financial collapse in 2019, activists in the Lebanese uprising sprayed graffiti on the windows of banks, saying ‘Give me back my money’ – not ‘Give us back our money’. While the collective anger against the banks was clear, the political culture that shaped the activism of this period was still a product of the very system it was fighting against.
Many campaigns also emphasized a legal and rights-based approach that seems to be detached from the realities of both Lebanon and Iraq. In both countries, the post-war sectarian-neoliberal setting flourished in the context of a weakening of the legal and judicial systems. The language of ‘rights’ therefore does not occupy a central space in the political imaginaries of people who have learned not to trust the legal pathway. However, several prominent political movements and campaigns have centred individual ‘rights’ as the locus of their activism. Examples include the political campaign that ignited the uprising in Iraq under the slogan Nazel akhod haqqi (I am mobilizing to take my right), and the political group Li maqqi (For my right) that was very active in the Lebanese uprising.
This emphasis on individual rights in political organizations and campaigns speaks to the longing for an imagined state where the rule of law is respected. However, as suggested earlier, the pervasiveness of a neoliberal culture that enshrines individualism and individual rights seems to be at odds with the progressive politics of collectiveness embodied in the revolutions’ squares – even if only for a short time.