Levantine Contrasts

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Jon Alterman: Chloe Cornish is Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times. Chloe, welcome to Babel.

Chloe Cornish: Thanks for having me, Jon.

Jon Alterman: How did you get the beat of focusing mostly on Lebanon and Iraq? I am not sure there are other reporters who have that concentration.

Chloe Cornish: This beat covers Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria—what has historically been thought of as the Levant. At one point, it was known as the “ISIS beat.” Some people think of it as the “Iran influence beat.” I don't think of it as that so much, but certainly those two themes have been widely covered over the past ten years.

Jon Alterman: What sorts of things do you notice covering that beat that people would be missing because they are either focusing on the entire region or focusing on one country or another?

Chloe Cornish: You see linkages between those countries that sometimes might go undiscussed. When the financial crisis kicked off in Lebanon in October 2019, it was not long before I could see the repercussions for Syria because I was already aware—as most people who cover Syria are—of how much that country depended on Lebanon's financial system. We were able to write about that quickly because of covering both of those countries and having an eye on both those economies. You have Lebanese Hezbollah, which obviously has roles to play in Syria, and then there are lots of parallels with other militia groups or non-state armed actors in Iraq. There are a myriad of parallels and cross-connecting issues across the three countries—security and economic, but also cultural and religious and all sorts of those things that I do not cover on a day-to-day basis.

Jon Alterman: It also feels that while Syria is a little bit suis generis because of the war that has been going on. You also have enduring dysfunctional politics in Lebanon and Iraq that seem to be getting more deeply embedded into the way the countries work. Is there a way that Lebanese and Iraqis are adjusting similarly—or adjusting differently—to enduringly dysfunctional politics?

Chloe Cornish: Lebanon and Iraq do have similar political systems, in that it is always a coalition government—no one ever has a majority. That means that political parties are always haggling between themselves for months to appoint a cabinet or a prime minister and nobody has an overall majority, which means everyone has a veto. That leads to very dysfunctional politics in both countries, but in both circumstances, the reason for this extremely dysfunctional and difficult system is to try to ensure representation for a diversity of sects and ethnic groups—in the case of Iraq—and for religious sects, in the case of Lebanon. Both systems have engendered massive amounts of corruption within the states as parties use those ministries that they haggle for to get a hold of patronage networks so that they can keep looking after their supporters and bolster themselves when it comes to election time. It becomes much more about dividing resources that the state can provide, and that is true of both Iraq and Lebanon. How do people respond to that, though? In the past two years we have seen huge disenfranchisement, disillusionment, and upset in both countries at those systems. In October 2019, both Iraq and Lebanon had these mass protest movements—unprecedented in their nationwide scale and both calling for a sweeping change to political systems. In Lebanon, the slogan was “ killin ya`ani killin,” which means, “all of them means all of them,” referring to this desire to sweep out an entire political establishment and replace it with something new. In Iraq, there was a similar sentiment amongst protests. Protests in Iraq evolved from being very much around jobs and opportunities to protests that became very much more about, “What are these politics that we have ended up with?” It is so corrupt. It is so difficult for ordinary citizens to have any impact or influence on politics. It is this very tight elite that is looking after itself. Simultaneously, in both these countries, you saw huge civil unrest over the very fabric of the political system that was governing them, so that has been the main response.

In both countries, there was also a large crackdown on those protests. In Lebanon, it happened much less so, but in Iraq, somewhere around 600 people were killed during the protests. They were killed by security forces and by militia groups who were actively trying to suppress the process in the hope that the political status quo would be maintained. There have also been campaigns of kidnappings and targeted assassinations of activists to try and stop those protest movements from gaining ground. You can see the established system—which in Iraq is a marriage between these non-state actors and politicians—really kicking back against these protest movements.

Jon Alterman: When you talk to the protesters, do they seem similarly motivated or similarly oriented? When you talk to the people involved, do they seem like they are profoundly similar or profoundly different because they come from different countries and different political traditions?

Chloe Cornish: It is important to point out that in both cases the protesters were very diverse and not centrally organized. There was not really a structure that they were coalescing under. You can see more change because of the protests in Iraq, I would say. There are more groups that have come out and managed to get elected, despite everything that they have gone through and despite a massive boycott to the elections. Lebanon and Iraq have different demographics and different expectations from each set of citizens. In Lebanon, you are talking about a country that was middle income with relatively high levels of education and higher incomes compared to the region before the onset of the financial crisis in 2019—which has seen around half of the population be dumped into poverty, unceremoniously. These protests were happening before that.

A lot of young people were saying that they did not see their trajectory being what they wanted it to be in Lebanon. That is similar to Iraq, but the trajectories they are envisaging were different. In Iraq, you have an extremely young population—about 60 percent of the population under 25— which has seen a great deal of war and violence and disruption, and young people still expect the government to provide them with a job and opportunities to work. That is different in Lebanon. In Iraq, you have people say, “Why isn't the government giving us a job,” and it’s completely understandable why they say that.

Iraq is having this difficult transition from a socialist, centrally planned economy through the shock therapy of the American-led invasion in 2003 to now, when it is straddling this top-down, government revenue-driven economic activity as it tries to transition towards a more diversified economy with more private sector initiatives. It is really struggling with that. A lot of the demands of the young people at protests in Iraq show the gaps in the economic transition that the country is very painfully going through.

In Lebanon, the civil war—the 15 years of war—ended in 1990, so for most young people, they have not experienced anywhere near the kinds of disruption to their lives through violence that young Iraqis have. They are definitely hardened to the avarices of the state. Lebanon is a very dysfunctional place. There's little electricity provided by the state. People are very reliant on themselves.

Jon Alterman: To me, It also feels like the sectarian system in Lebanon was baked into the creation of the state before it was a state, and it's still based on the census of 1932. In many ways, the United States exacerbated and embedded the sectarian system in Iraq after 2003. Is there any sense that sectarianism in Iraq is more recent than the way people in Lebanon talk about it, or by this point is it so baked into the system that it’s hard to imagine a post sectarian state, even for protestors?

Chloe Cornish: I think that in Iraq we are moving beyond straightforward identity politics. That was the main motivating factor for parties after 2003 because the Shi`ite parties at the start of Iraq’s democratic experiment wanted to protect the gains they had made in getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Shi`a are a majority in Iraq, whereas Sunnis are a minority, so that was a very dominant theme in the post-2003 political era. Now what you see within Shi`ite politics is a lot of variation and diversity. It’s not like all Shi`a are voting for the same guy—far from it. In the south, which is where the protests were at their biggest in 2019, there is a real proliferation and variation in ideas. I do not think it would be right to classify Iraq's politics as completely sectarian right now. The Sunni vote does appear to be captured by one guy mostly now—Awad al-Harbous—but when it comes to the voting in the south and Baghdad, it is not just about sectarian identity now.

That is not to say that the entire system is not still built around these quota systems—it is. That is a great root of frustration for people. It means that the established political parties can keep dividing up the state between themselves by appointing their people into high-ranking civil service positions that help them to keep control of resources. That is still part of the sectarian political order. In terms of politics itself and the parties and the figures who are gunning for votes, I think we have moved past just Shi`ite identity politics.

Jon Alterman: When I was learning about politics and I assume when you were learning about politics, the assumption was that elections allow voters to push out politicians who do not perform and push in politicians who do. Yet, in Lebanon, as you said, the economy has melted down. In Iraq, there have been not only economic problems but also problems providing water, especially in the south, and electricity and all of these problems that you would think push people to either want different politicians or to destroy the entire system. As somebody living in places where you could argue it is surprising that people don't really rise up and shake the government or really force a change, have you begun to think differently about when revolutions happen, how people think about revolution, or how people think about profound change?

Chloe Cornish: There is some important context here. If you are Iraqi and you were going to the street to protest—say you were doing that in October 2019—there were people dying around you the whole time. It was a life-or-death situation in certain aspects, and many of the people that I have interviewed over the years saw horrible things when they went to those squares.

In Lebanon, the violence wasn’t so vast but there was a ton of tear gas used and lots of aggression from the security forces. When you're going out to protest, you're thinking, “Okay, could I lose an eye today? Could I lose a limb?” Then you think, “Okay, I got injured. Now I can't work. There's no state that's going to look after me now.” We can have a lot of romanticized and grandiose ideas about revolution and about the power of people, but ultimately, your body is on the line when you're going out to the streets. And let's not forget about the third country that I look after. Syria had this big revolution that turned into a horrible decade-long civil war that has displaced millions of Syrians, drove millions more out of the country, and killed half a million people. I don't think that was lost on anyone in Lebanon. It certainly was not lost on Iraqis either. Iraqis pushed it pretty far in October 2019, in terms of their attempt to see systemic change, but they were really attacked by the system that they were trying to change. You're saying, “I want to get rid of the system,” but then what?

Jon Alterman: That's the Arab Spring conundrum. In many cases, it was even more unthinkable to rise up against the government in 2011. How much are people talking about the Arab Spring experience, either about the futility of doing it or about the limits that one has to impose for fear of falling into a Yemen, a Libya, or a Syria situation?

Chloe Cornish: Not that many people have brought up 2011 to me. I think that’s because Lebanon and Iraq did not have attempted revolutions in 2011, but the general understanding in many countries that experienced the so-called Arab Spring uprising is that there hasn't been much in the way of an improvement in the lives of ordinary people. That's also definitely not lost on folks in Iraq and Lebanon. Both countries have seen such profound and horrible episodes of civil war or civil strife. I think there's going to always be that fear at the back of everyone's mind that we could always drift back toward that.

Jon Alterman: You also mentioned the Iran thread that runs through this whole area that you cover—that Iran is involved in politics. Do you sense that Iran is trying to draw from its Lebanon experiences as it thinks about its strategies in Iraq, or are there really two different sets of strategies going on?

Chloe Cornish: Certainly, you can see some patterns in the way that analysts say that Iran views the two countries. Hezbollah was, and is, a great success for the foreign policy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Still, it is important to stress that while Hezbollah in Lebanon is deeply connected to Tehran and backed and often funded by Iran, it does make its own decisions. I do think it has its own leeway and it is very much a Lebanese organization. It is wrong to think of it as being like an alien that arrived here on the back of Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah is the most influential and powerful single group in Lebanon right now.

When it comes to Iraq, Iran has been highly involved since 2003. It's often considered that the United States opened the door for Iran to come and live in Iraq, but let's try to remember important context—the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that happened in the 1980s. That was a horrendous war, and Iran never wants to see an Iraq that can mount that kind of threat to its very existence ever again. I don't think Iran wants to see a burning waste pile next door, but it certainly likes to be able to have influence through its armed proxies in Iraq. That's been useful. I think it's going to be very interesting to see how things change after Qassim Soleimani. His relationships were extremely deep in the country. His understanding of those militias was much greater than the current guy, Ismail Qaani, who's coming to the post.

Iran doesn't just rely on these militias. It's got Nuri al-Maliki, the former prime minister—whose State of Law Coalition just did very well in the elections—and it has Sunni allies, as well. It is well-knit into the fabric of the economy of Iraq and politics in Baghdad.

Jon Alterman: There was a way in which the port blast in August of 2020 distilled political issues, distilled the idea of political dysfunction in Lebanon, and provided a focal point. Do you sense that Iraq has a similar focal point for disillusionment with the political system? Could it develop a focal point for disillusionment with the political system that doesn't have one yet? Is there the same sort of focus of discontent in Iraq that we've seen emerge in Lebanon over the last year and a half?

Chloe Cornish: I am not sure that I agree with the premise. There was a moment after the August 4 blast in Beirut where there was so much anger at the political system and what had allowed it to happen. You felt like that might have been the moment where things could have teetered or the moment where the system came crashing down. The government at the time did resign, but the international community came running in, saying, “we're here to help Lebanon. This was particularly true of Emmanuel Macron of France, who came in and legitimized the whole political system by meeting with all the top political bosses in Lebanon, and that really saved them. After that, the sense of vicious anger dissipated. Now, when you are seeing protests in Lebanon it is about much smaller and more specific things—about accountability and justice. It is not the “killin ya` ani killin” anymore. All of them means all of them.

That is not what is happening in Iraq. We have had a bigger chance recently to see the outcome of that disillusionment that you're talking about—disenfranchisement and frustration with the political system—because Iraq just had elections. What we saw was a historically low turnout, even by Iraqi standards. The last time there was an election was only in2018. Then, you had 44 percent of registered voters turned out. 41 percent of voters turned out this time, so it was even worse. The low turnout helps parties like that of Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist cleric who has a big following amongst working class Shi`a. His vote did not necessarily grow, but the other parties got fewer votes. Some of the parties that did better last time, like Haider al-Abadi and Ammar al-Hakeem, really got a kicking from the electorate. The party that represents the interests of the Iran-aligned militias did not do so well. So, you can not only see the frustration with the political system, but also the frustration with the violence and the instability that these militias have stoked at the same time as the inconsequential, unhelpful politics that the moderates had brought. No one saw them as having made any positive change.

Jon Alterman: It does raise the question of whether politics are going to be able to tamp down this deep discontent with the way political systems work. You have elections in both places. The elections are free and fair within the structures that are established, and yet there seems to be a rising sense both of economic disarray and of deep political corruption. I'm just wondering where this goes.

Chloe Cornish: In both situations, you have a very well entrenched political establishment that does not want to give up what it has.

Jon Alterman: No political establishment ever does.

Chloe Cornish: Yes, right. Here in Lebanon and Iraq, the political establishments both have enormous amounts of resources at their disposal to squash and co-opt any dissent that arises. In Iraq, I have talked ad nauseum about the attacks by militias and others on protesters and activists who are seeking to mount their demand for change and organize to try to push forward for change. That makes it virtually impossible, yet people keep trying to do it in Lebanon.

The existing political parties are much better organized and well experienced at co-opting independent movements. This is the second time that Lebanon has had a big protest movement in the last few years. In 2015, there were huge protests—the “You Stink” movement as it was called at the time.

Jon Alterman: The government wasn’t picking up garbage.

Chloe Cornish: Right. We saw those horrifying images of the Litani river being stuffed with trash, but those new parties did not manage to make much penetration when it came to election time in 2018. Hopefully, some lessons have been learned about why that did not work, but I still have not seen much sign of organized opposition in Lebanon that might be able to make a big dent in the elections that are going to happen next year.

It is just so difficult, structurally, to make people-led political change. We talked about Iran's influence, but there is a lot of other countries that have meddled historically in Iraq and Lebanon. There is a sense among so many people whom I speak to that “we can't change anything, because there are all these countries who are ready to upend everything or manipulate us to suit their own agendas.” There's a grain of truth in that. They're not entirely wrong. I don't know if we should be expecting populations to force these sweeping political changes, because they're not armed. They don't have all the money that these politicians have, and they don't have the backing of big international players.

We shouldn’t expect so much. We shouldn’t blame them for not doing this. It's really hard. Living here, I know a lot of people who desperately, desperately want change. You end up chasing your tail. It’s like, “what should we try? We tried going to the street. Nothing happened. There was a huge, massive explosion in the middle of our capital city, and that did not even change things.” You understand the short-term frustrations. Maybe, if you are looking over a longer term or a medium-term—and maybe when we are looking back in the rearview mirror—we will see these moments as moments of profound change where something did shift. It is going to take a lot longer and a lot more of those moments, I think, to make a real change to these rotten political establishments.

Jon Alterman: Chloe Cornish, thank you for joining us on Babel.

Chloe Cornish: Thanks for having me.