By Roger Cohen
Oct. 29, 2019
Eight years after the Arab Spring, massive street protests over corruption, sectarianism and official contempt for the citizenry have brought down the Lebanese government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The sources of Arab rage have not changed.
Across the region, societal dysfunction still runs deep. Very young populations are frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity and by constant insults to their dignity in the form of governmental impunity and waste. A millennial generation is sick of nepotism, frozen political systems and waste. Neither the oppression of dictators nor the promises of Islamic radicalism have delivered the human dignity that comes with government accountability.
Young Arabs want agency. They don’t want to pay their water bill and then pay again to bribe some official to get connected to the water pipe that goes to a minister’s home and so actually works. They don’t want to watch the same old men doing the same old things over and over again, before handing power to their sons.
“I’m at a dead end,” Hariri said as he quit. He might have been speaking about the Lebanese system with its sectarian division of the spoils and its inefficiency so gross that stretches of highway stink of sewage, electricity comes and goes, and the internet flickers to life from time to time.
"Our kids have been growing up in a polluted place,” Kamal Mansour, a businessman, told me. “They have put labels on us. But we are Lebanese.” Mansour turned to the protesters around him in the Hamra district of Beirut: “I don’t ask if they are Sunni or Shia Muslim, or Maronite, or whatever,” he said.
Lebanon fought a devastating civil war in the late 20th century over precisely those divisions. Balancing the political strength of each religious group seemed like a way of keeping the peace. But to a new generation, it looks like a way to perpetuate the power of corrupt clan leaders who pay their followers to entrench their influence. For example, Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of the Parliament, has held that post for 27 years.
The Lebanese in the streets want to be Lebanese, period. They want to elect a decent government that respects them. They are tired of Lebanon as a plaything for the region’s powers. The Palestine Liberation Organization came and left. Israel came and left. Syria came and left. Iran, through its Hezbollah surrogate, is still in Lebanon.
Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the militant group and political party that is a member of Hariri’s coalition, spoke out last week against the government’s resigning and warned of possible civil war. (He appeared last week flanked by the Lebanese flag, a departure from his normal practice of speaking beside Hezbollah’s yellow flag.)
The government resignation is therefore a direct challenge to Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Lebanon. It comes at the same time as crowds in Iraq, angered for similar reasons as the Lebanese, have been chanting: “Free, free Iraq. Get out corrupt ones” and “Iran, get out!”
Iran is not a great power. It is a modest power that has played a weak hand well.
As Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader, told me over dinner at his Moukhtara mountain fastness, “The American invasion of Iraq opened the door to the Persian Empire.”
The Shia-Sunni balance was upset in 2003, within Iraq and across the region, in favor of Shia Iran. The Islamic Republic, like President Vladimir Putin of Russia, is adept at exploiting strategic opportunity on the cheap.
It pocketed as much of Iraq as newfound Shia dominance would allow, used proxies to shore up Bashar al-Assad in Syria and win the Syrian war, underwrote the Houthis against the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, and consolidated Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon as the embodiment of “the resistance” to Israel.
That was pretty impressive. But the Islamic Republic, more than four decades after the revolution, resembles the late Soviet Empire — powerful but hollow, estranged from much of its population, an economic shambles and devoid of answers to the real challenges facing the Middle East today.
Iranian overreach is suddenly on the table. The word “hostages” is frequently heard in Beirut — as in hostages of Hezbollah. Why, people ask, should we be that? For a long time, the Israeli threat was sufficient answer. It does not feel that way in Lebanon today.
Powerful reactionary forces, from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, from Egypt to the Islamic Republic, are arrayed against the people of the Middle East who want to free themselves, establish accountable governments, secure the rule of law, live with dignity and enjoy economic opportunity. That has been demonstrated between 2011 and now. Only in Tunisia was the hope of the uprisings fulfilled to a significant degree.
Lebanon faces an uphill battle. With the economy on the brink, a descent into mayhem is not implausible. That mayhem could become violent, especially if Hezbollah sets red lines. But the Lebanese know civil war. They want to avoid it, become one people, fulfill the open promise of beautiful Beirut and start anew.
“Run for Modernity,” says a T-shirt I’ve been seeing on the seafront. Why not?
Original Headline: The Arab Spring Rekindled in Beirut
Source: The New York Times