Eight years after the outbreak of the Arab uprisings, a new wave of protests is sweeping the region. A surge of popular demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon is particularly notable given the wave of violence that has engulfed neighbouring Syria, as well as the associated role of Iran, which has asserted itself as the dominant external power in both countries. Protesters in Iraq and Lebanon are now demanding the dismemberment of sectarian political systems that have hollowed out the state’s ability in each country to meet the needs of the local populations.
To Europeans, the situation offers potential opportunity, but also peril. Europeans have long identified the need for better functioning and more representative governing systems able to meet popular demands and provide stability. There is a strong European interest in now seeing a reform drive address key structural deficiencies. But the stark reality is recent years have seen repeated cases across the region of calls for better government actually delivering worse outcomes – scenarios that could now be provoked by a combination of institutional and economic collapse, but also the looming risk of conflict. Keenly aware of the violence of recent years, Europeans are wary of new instability, which could provoke spillover effects into Europe. In Iraq, more than 250 protesters are already alleged to have been killed by security forces. There has been limited violence in Lebanon so far, but the more contested nature of the Lebanese state means this violence could also grow.
European member states must now carefully consider how to respond. While understandably cautious about getting involved, they should aim to encourage much-needed reform while working to prevent deeper instability. In this context, Europeans should respond to these new protests in four ways.
1. All politics are local. (Not all politics are about Iran.)
Protests in Iraq and Lebanon reflect an accumulation of local grievances, generated by failing political systems that the population no longer see as legitimate or effective. European governments should remain focused on allowing the Iraqi and Lebanese people to address – and on getting governments to respond to – the core domestic challenges articulated by protesters. Ultimately both Iraq and Lebanon require significant reforms if they want to meet the needs of their populations and lock in meaningful stability.
But the acute danger facing both countries is not only that these grievances go unmet, but that protests become entangled in wider geopolitical ambitions that could condemn them to failure and, possibly, violence. Here, the central issue revolves around the role of Iran. Given its powerful role in both Iraq and Lebanon, some protesters are partly framing their ambitions through an anti-Iran lens.
But there is a thin – and potentially dangerous – line between domestic discontent, only partly channelled against Iran’s role and an international position that seeks to use these protests as a vehicle for wider geopolitical aims. Europeans should do all they can to ensure that anti-Iranian governments, whether Western or in the Middle East, do not frame this as a new battleground to take on Iran. Doing so would be counterproductive, and almost certainly provoke Iran to double down against the street. Tehran may seek to block reforms demanded by protesters, regardless of external positioning, but Iranian allies will find it harder to dismiss demands that are rooted in legitimate domestic concerns. This is a smarter path towards securing desired reform, rather than feeding a scenario in which protests becomes tied to wider international ambitions focused on weakening Iran.
2. European mediation to facilitate viable reform
European governments should actively look for openings where they can facilitate inclusive dialogue to advance necessary reform measures. In both Iraq and Lebanon there may be space for European on-the-ground mediation, particularly given the fact that the United States’ fierce anti-Iranian position excludes it from playing this role. Indeed, the US should be actively encouraged to not involve itself, given the risks that its actions could be used to delegitimise protesters.
Multiple actors across the two countries view Europeans as more impartial players who are better positioned to offset local and regional polarisation. Europeans should, therefore, seek to facilitate ongoing dialogue between protesters and governments. They should maintain a sustained focus on supporting a domestically owned reform track in order to narrow the space for coercive responses. European ambassadors in the two countries should press incumbent elites to recognise the dangerous disconnect between the ruling system and the wider population – and to engage in meaningful dialogue and reform steps; the protesters should, in turn, be encouraged to accept the need to engage with the ruling elites that they want to sweep away. At base, Lebanon and Iraq need to address inherently political questions, but Europeans can also try and smooth the way with technical support to help advance proposed reform measures.
Europeans should work to maintain support for state institutions, to ensure that chaos does not engulf these countries
As part of this approach, Europeans must avoid laying down zero-sum ambitions. Protesters in both countries may already be demanding a structural transformation of their states, but Europeans should not offer false promises, instead encouraging protesters to lock in and widen realistic gains, including by preparing themselves for the challenges that will come with developing actionable plans and viable electoral platforms. In Lebanon and Iraq, the prospect of new technocratic governments and electoral reforms ahead of new elections can be encouraged, but Europeans should not be naïve in thinking that dominant domestic players – with strong power bases – will accept steps aimed at dismantling their positions. This reality needs to be factored into any undertakings.
3. Buttress stabilising institutions
Some are tempted to believe that the withdrawal of international support to the two countries now represents an opportunity to further weaken Iran’s position. Questions over whether the US will continue its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) reflects this thinking. Europeans should actively resist this approach, working instead to maintain support for state institutions which are needed, not just to ensure that chaos does not engulf these countries – a role played in part by the LAF given the trust in which it is held by competing groups – but also that the two states maintain the institutional structures still needed to act as vehicles for positive change. Without a semblance of domestic stability, these protests risk failure, and Europe’s worst-case outcome will come more firmly into view. While state institutions have been politicised and internal reform is needed to ensure they act as legitimate service providers to the Iraqi and Lebanese people, the lesson of recent years is that the further hollowing out of these states will only impede positive change (while, also providing further ground for exploitation by Iran’s non-state allies). In this context, Europeans should look to fill gaps created by any US withdrawal of support – while also seeking to leverage existing relationships in both countries, including with security institutions, given recent support arising from the anti-ISIS and Syrian conflicts, to ensure that they play a positive role.
4. An economic package to incentivise necessary reforms
Given the socio-economic frustrations driving the respective protest movements – and the increasingly dire economic situation in both countries, most acutely and immediately in Lebanon – European governments could look to incentivise an inclusive reform process by laying out an economic support package. There may be limited time in which to do this, but European countries should quickly mobilise increased funds that can be put on the table to provide much-needed economic support – if governments and protesters can agree on a package of meaningful political and economic reforms. An economic package, alongside increased technical expertise, could be a useful incentive to all actors to avoid a slide towards deeper confrontation.
After weeks of protest both Lebanon and Iraq now face extremely delicate moments. Careful European support, aimed at facilitating an inclusive process to advance necessary and viable reform, could make a positive difference. This is not a challenge Europeans should shy away from
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.