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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

Something’s coming undone

Unprecedented Middle East protesters beg to be heard

Someday the postgraduate students will study the protest movements underway in the Middle East the way students a generation ago dissected Africa’s independence movements or South America’s guerrilla warlords. 

The streets in Lebanon and Iraq each marked 100 continuous days of protest in January. Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigned in mid-October, and on day 97 the government named a new head of state and cabinet. Iraq Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi resigned in November, but he has stayed on as a caretaker head of state.

Future students will find these uprisings, along with the sporadic marches in Iran, amply documented via Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms (on Twitter, you can subscribe to my Middle East list to follow along). They’ll have less to work with in the archives of U.S. news media. Consumed these 100 days with impeachment proceedings, those sites have dedicated few reporting resources to anything that can’t be branded “Trump.”

And that’s precisely what’s most remarkable about the ongoing turmoil: It seems no part of any power broker’s plan. If anything, protesters have continued to denounce ruling parties, and in particular interference from Iran, even as the cost of doing so has mounted.

In each country the protests’ leaders are professionals, technocrats, and working-class men and women—ordinary people untethered to the outside forces, including the United States, that for too long have made the region their battlefield. The protesters include Muslims, Christians, and secularists, people who long ago determined that the Sunni and Shiite clerics calling down jihad and the government officers lining their own pockets did not speak for them. 

THE PROTESTERS HAVE taken to the streets, day after day, with banners and songs for weapons. They have persisted through violent counterattacks and mass arrests—and, in Iraq, threat of war. 

By the time a U.S. drone strike outside the Baghdad airport killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3, more than 500 Iraqi protesters had been killed by state forces. Yet Iraqis took to the street before dawn to celebrate Soleimani’s demise. The next day, organizers defied tension and retaliation threats to stand with their megaphones in Basra and Nasiriyah—cities dominated by Shiite clerics closely linked to Tehran. 

Each time the theocrats—Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon—have tried to hijack the protest movement, the organizers have outmaneuvered them. 

In Karbala, a majority Shiite city in southern Iraq closely allied with Tehran, the demonstrators climbed the Iranian Consulate’s walls to plant an Iraqi flag on its roof. In Tehran, where 300 protesters have been killed in recent months and the internet gets shut down, the demonstrators persist—even though shouting a slogan against the government is a capital crime. 

Lebanon’s protests, notable for their songs, dancing, and poetry readings, continue with a new government the protesters say is captive to the old interests—chiefly, Iranian-backed Hezbollah. They too have turned violent, with more than 400 demonstrators injured in late January clashes.

“Something’s coming undone in the region,” said Lebanese author and journalist Kim Ghattas. 

Revolutions are tricky things. Chaos is the last thing this region needs. Yet the months of protests have given rise to new leaders, to robust coordination of marches and strikes among cities, and to a nearly unstoppable will to prevail. Protesters are galvanized by Soleimani’s death, bolstered by their own success, and watchful of others’ mistakes and triumphs.

The four-month protest movement that toppled Sudan’s government is perhaps the unlikeliest success story of all. Organizers overcame violent crackdowns and a 30-year dictatorship to win seats in a transitional government. Importantly, they seized the moment for compromise, agreeing to govern alongside the same commanders who ordered their tear-gassing. 

They are realists who’ve managed to hold on to ideals, foremost a state that’s looking out for the interests of the people. What’s next is far from obvious, but with courage and perseverance the protesters have earned a right to be heard.