The Nationalist Movements Against Sectarian Politics

Protesters in Iraq and Lebanon are transcending societal divides to oppose political systems that are rooted in division. But can the unity last?

A close up photo of a demonstrator flashing a V sign. In the background, protesters gather waving Lebanon flags.
A demonstrator flashes a V sign during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut. (Ali Hashisho / Reuters)

In many ways, the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon mirror demonstrations taking place all over the world: Huge numbers of people in Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, and Egypt have taken to the streets in recent weeks to challenge social and economic inequality and government corruption.

In one crucial way, though, these Iraqi and Lebanese protests stand out: Shared grievances over economic dysfunction and a lack of government accountability have united people across ethno-religious lines. The demands of the demonstrators in those two countries, and the national unity underpinning them, are seen as posing a direct threat to the sectarian political systems that have long governed both countries—not least because protesters have called for them to be dismantled.

But in places where people have long been divided on ethnic and religious lines, how sustainable are national movements that seek to breach them? If the aim is for existing sectarian political systems to be dismantled, what replaces them? And without a clear leader at the helm of these spontaneous grassroots movements, who replaces them?

Though the catalysts of these protests were different (in Lebanon, it was a raft of austerity measures, including a proposed tax on the popular messaging service WhatsApp; in Iraq, it was growing frustrations with unemployment and lacking public services), the grievances fueling them are largely the same. Both protest movements seek to end the endemic corruption that has plagued their respective countries, as well as the systems that have enabled it in the first place. In Lebanon, these demands have manifested in two weeks of predominantly peaceful demonstrations involving people across regional, religious, and social lines. The movement in Iraq, where mostly young men have been protesting since early October, has been considerably more violent: More than 200 people have been killed in clashes with Iraqi security forces (many at the hands of snipers), and thousands more have been injured.

“People are calling for a fundamental change of the political system because they feel the government is not delivering to citizens,” Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told me. What unites them, she says, are fundamentally secular issues. “They are doing this regardless of their sectarian background.”

These nonsectarian protest movements stand in contrast to the prevailing political systems in both countries, which are based on power-sharing arrangements that divide government—and, by extension, society—among different ethno-religious groupings. Under the Lebanese model, political representation is split proportionally between Christian and Muslim denominations, with certain top jobs reserved for specific sects. Dating back to the end of the French colonial mandate in the 1940s, Lebanon has always had a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia Muslim speaker of Parliament. In Iraq, the newer and less formal muhasasa system reserves the presidency for an Iraqi Kurd, the premiership for a Shia Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament for a Sunni Muslim. Both systems were devised with the aim of ensuring political representation across religious groups and reducing fighting among them.

While sectarian violence has largely receded across the region, representation hasn’t necessarily improved as a result of these systems—nor has government transparency. Instead, they have produced in each country “a political class that has operated its own webs of patronage,” Fanar Haddad, the author of the forthcoming book Understanding ‘Sectarianism’: Sunni-Shi’a Relations in the Modern Arab World, told me. He said that while the balance of power among sects may change after each election, the individuals who wield it rarely do. Further entrenching the political classes (or perhaps a result of that entrenchment) is rampant corruption: Iraq and Lebanon ranked 168 and 138, respectively, out of 180 countries on global corruption watchdog Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The challenges facing these protests are immense—not least because neither government has a formal opposition that supports them, another byproduct of each community having its share of power. As a result, the protesters’ demands include the complete overthrow of their respective political systems, as well as the ruling elite who have largely proven unwilling to cede ground. (Though Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation yesterday was regarded as a coup for the protesters, it’s a far cry from their demands for complete government reform.) They are effectively “asking a rotten system to reform itself,” Haddad said, “to change the rules of the game.”

What remains unclear is how such spontaneous and grassroots nationalist movements can be sustained in a sectarian context. Take another example: Even after more than two decades of peace in Northern Ireland, which long suffered sectarian strife between unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and who are predominantly Protestant) and nationalists (those, mostly Catholic, who prefer reuniting with the Republic of Ireland, a separate country), polarization remains high. Though the cross-community Alliance Party got increased support during this year’s European Parliament elections, it has yet to break the parliamentary stranglehold of the main unionist and nationalist parties.

Similar nonsectarian movements have cropped up in Lebanon in recent years, but they have largely failed to amass widespread support. (Kulluna Watani, a grouping of nonsectarian civil-society activists, secured just one seat during the country’s 2018 parliamentary election.) In Iraq, sect-blind movements such as the Iraqi Communist Party and the Civil Democratic Alliance, a coalition of secular independent parties, have also emerged over the years, though they too have failed to amass decisive support.

What’s more, this type of movement has little precedent in the region. Whereas the Arab Spring protests of 2011 were directed at specific strongmen across the region, “there is no king to drag to the guillotine … or a statue to pull down,” Haddad said. “There are always systems and structures of power and webs of power that are underneath the face of the regime. But Iraq and Lebanon don't even have a face, so it really is a protest against the system.”

How long the protests can last will depend on the momentum of these grassroots movements and the resolve of the governments that spurred them—neither of which appear to be waning. Khatib said that the sustained demonstrations in Iraq, despite the violent crackdown by state security forces, proves that, for many in these protests, the fear barrier has been broken.

“The protesters are presenting an existential threat to the political elite,” Khatib said. “There is no easy solution, neither in Iraq nor in Lebanon. But one thing is clear: People are not deterred.”