Conflict and Fragility

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Iraq and Lebanon’s Tortuous Paths to Reform

22 Dec 2020 - 09:33
Source: A mural painted by Roula Abdo on one of the new walls erected in downtown Beirut to block access to the Parliament building, by Abby Sewell/Al Arabiya English

The recent protests in Iraq and Lebanon are driven by the effects of inadequate governance, which itself is a result of years of corruption, nepotism, and the appropriation of public authority and resources for sectarian purposes and self-enrichment. The governance model of both countries – sectarian quasi-democracy – is increasingly proving to be a long-term dead end. Both countries stare into the abyss of public bankruptcy, crumbling social services, growing poverty levels, and the lingering threat of renewed violence. Yet, the Lebanese and Iraqi political elites are stubbornly refusing to make more than token concessions to the protesters’ demands. The reform protesters seek are ambitious due to the many mechanisms that have entrenched elite capture of public authority and budgets in both countries over the past decades. These include, in particular: (1) the deep institutionalization of consociationalism that prevents more radical reform; (2) the pervasiveness of public/private arrangements that political elites use to dominate socioeconomic interactions to their benefits; and (3) the steady courting by many domestic political parties of foreign alliances that sustain the sectarian status quo.

Notwithstanding the roadblocks to reform thrown up by these three mechanisms, this paper argues that today’s mix of political and economic crises offers opportunities bring about change. This is because these crises starkly expose the deep failure and unsustainability of current governance and development mechanisms in Lebanon and Iraq. Faced with resilient, stick systems that feature many veto players, reform is inevitably bound to be a gradual, long-term process that slowly and painfully strengthens and changes political structures. Key ingredients of such a path are the capacity of civil society structures to influence and guide decision making, the extent to which the international community is ready to challenge the status quo via conditions and incentives for genuine reform, and the ability to protestors to keep pressing for and prioritizing domestic agendas despite geopolitical tensions.

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