A New Tahrir Square Moment?

Just as the wild furies of sectarianism threaten to tear apart West Asia, massive protests on a civic basis took place in Baghdad and Beirut. In both cities, the populations rose up out of frustration over a lack of basic services and corruption. During the hot summer, power cuts plagued Baghdad, even as garbage piled up on the streets of Beirut. In both Iraq and Lebanon, leaders of various sectarian groups lived comfortable lives in their gated zones. The gap between their lavish existence and the privations suffered by ordinary people sent millions of Iraqis and Lebanese onto the streets. In Baghdad, a banner celebrated the street’s ethics, “From Baghdad to Beirut — Not Sunni, Not Shia. Ours is a Civil State.” This was wishful thinking, but it was nonetheless brought to life in the demonstrations.

In both Iraq and Lebanon, the political elite acknowledged the frustrations of their public. They could not merely send in their security forces. Few leaders sneered at the demands, even if they snubbed the activists. The lack of civic services is a serious problem across West Asia. Extremist organisations know this well. When Islamic State took Raqqa in 2013, one of the first things it did was to secure garbage removal. Ideology is central, but it is meaningless if basic municipal services are absent. Lebanon’s 1989 ceasefire after its civil war was built on the principle of mutual co-existence of the various sects, whose leaders then divided the spoils of the country. Much the same kind of sectarian constitution was created in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. Contracts for power generation, garbage removal, and telecommunications delivery are parcelled out amongst the warlords. Sectarian corruption is rooted in the system. It will not be easy to dislodge.

Embers of a post-sectarian world are not hard to find across West Asia. They are also found in the Syrian refugee camps. Given the nature of the war in Syria, one would expect that the rancid wires of sectarianism would tear apart the fragile sense of Syrian nationality. But this is not the case, as survival is the main objective.

Nonetheless, sectarianism — the cord that divides Sunni from Shia and from other minorities — remains. Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s worked to overcome social divides and letterstopalestineunite people around the idea of the Arab. It was a powerful device that held sway for at least a generation. But Arab nationalism threatened Saudi ideas of Islamic royalty, which was itself endangered by the Islamic republicanism of Iran. These geopolitical tangles gave vitality to sectarian anxieties, which had been otherwise dented by Arab nationalism. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are mirrored in the rise of IS, whose hatred is much sharper against the Shia than against the West. No wonder then that Saudi Arabia’s current war against Yemen — which began in late March — continues undaunted, fully loaded with sectarian venom and U.S.-supplied weaponry. There is no talk of a ceasefire there, despite the UN’s plea that the country is already a humanitarian catastrophe. Sectarian geopolitics fuels the Saudi jets in Yemen, as it also fires Riyadh’s antipathy to a peace agreement for Syria. Better, for the Saudis, to drag the Arab world bleeding through the ashes of its capitals than to find a way to dial down the sectarianism.

The ashes of sectarianism

Last week, an ill-fated meeting in Doha hoped to find a way out of the volatility in Iraq. The U.S. occupation had banned the Ba’ath Party and prevented its people from entry into the state bureaucracy. This was a gift to Iran’s proxy in Iraq, the largely Shia Islamic Dawa Party. Honed in their Iranian and Syrian exile, the leadership of the Dawa Party saw the world through the lens of sect and revenge. The banned Ba’ath allowed Dawa and its allies to dominate Iraqi politics, now marked by sectarianism thanks to the U.S.-foisted constitution of 2005. Remnants of the Ba’ath, which had helped IS come to power in Mosul last year, have now broken with their improbable allies. The Qatari government invited the Muslim Brotherhood member of the Iraqi Parliament, Salim al-Jabbouri, to sit down with the illegal Ba’ath leadership and discuss the formation of a new anti-IS Sunni bloc.

Initially backed by the Iraqi government, the meeting was then shunned by Baghdad. Old histories of animosity between the Dawa and the Ba’ath are not easy to overcome. They are saturated with memories of torture. The best outcome of the Doha meeting would nonetheless be far from the civic protests in Baghdad. It would merely be along the lines of sectarianism — a new Sunni bloc to ally with the Dawa Party against IS. The protestors in Baghdad are too suspicious of their government to allow Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to throw the Dawa behind them. If he is to reclaim a kind of Iraqi nationalism, he will have to do it through the logic of sectarianism. But that road is blocked by the animosity against the Ba’ath from both the Dawa and Iran. Neither is keen to allow the return of their historic enemy.

The failure of the Doha conference says a great deal about the decline of authority of Qatar in the region. Its foreign policy has floundered as that of Saudi Arabia has come to ascendency once more. Saudi King Salman went to Washington during this Doha conference and during the intensification of the Saudi-UAE bombing in Yemen. The main item of discussion was the Iran nuclear deal. Washington is loath to criticise Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, which is seen by many as a gift to Riyadh for its tacit support of the nuclear deal. King Salman has suggested to his confidants that once his campaign in Yemen comes to a close, he will put more resources into Syria. But what would those resources seek to do in Syria? Saudi Arabia’s proxy in Syria — Jaish al-Islam — is not as audacious as IS but it is as ruthlessly sectarian. More Saudi involvement would not necessarily mean a drawdown of violence. It could mean precisely the opposite. Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, even if this means the annihilation of Syria.

The militarists’ alternative

If the mass demonstrations provide an alternative (and utopian) path out of sectarianism, older forms of authority provide another roadmap. Saudi Arabia finances Egypt’s government led by Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, who nonetheless met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, to consider an anti-IS coalition. Sisi, a man of Egypt’s military, has sympathetic ties to Syria’s military — both are children of the era of Arab nationalism. Fear of the rise of extremism unites them. It confounds the Saudi attempt to keep its allies subservient. Neither Assad nor Sisi carries the promise of Arab nationalism; they are tainted by the ghosts of Daraa and Rabaa. But what draws them together is their antipathy to al-Qaeda and IS. This is the soldiers’ alternative to sectarianism. It is at quite a distance from the mass demonstrations of Baghdad and Beirut, themselves a replica of Cairo’s emblematic uprisings of 2011. In Cairo’s Manshiet Nasser or Beirut’s Ouzai, slumlands of the Global South, hopes vest not so much in “the people want to bring down the regime” as in the people want to survive the wrath of the present. That more radical slogan of Tahrir Square came back to life in Baghdad and Beirut, but it meant less. It registered hope against sectarianism and war. Today, in West Asia, this is a radical idea.

This column originally appeared in The Hindu (India).

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).