Lebanon’s largely peaceful “Arab Spring” is a model in civic activism for the greater Middle East. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s offer to resign in response to the country’s popular uprising, which has been devoid of bloodshed and mayhem, is starkly different from the response of regimes to the first Arab spring in 2011. It’s also different from the Iraqi government’s bloody response to protests in Baghdad even though following the killing of hundreds of demonstrators, the Iraqi prime minister has also offered to resign.
Yet, the Lebanese uprising, peaceful as it is, poses a serious challenge to the very existence of the Lebanese state. It has also shaken the clerical regime in Iran and is an ominous harbinger for the neighboring Arab rulers. Lebanon is a precarious state in which trash has been piling up, public services and utilities have been sporadic, and the desire to leave the country has been the overwhelming concern of so many Lebanese.
Attaining a new political order free of sectarianism and corruption in Lebanon is a tall order, rendering the likelihood of success minimal. The Beirut demonstrations are patently indigenous and locally-driven. The demands for justice and dignity have targeted corruption and all corrupt politicians regardless of their sect, religion, and social status. “All means all,” shouted the demonstrators. Not just the Prime Minister, but all politicians, including the Hezbollah-supported Maronite President Michel Aoun, all the ministers, and other high-level officials who have benefitted from corruption through partisan patronage positions and other shady deals. Eight years ago, the popular revolts were opposed by Arab rulers but supported by the Iranian regime. The on-going uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq are opposed by Iranian and Arab regimes.
Although the Lebanese popular movement is not religious, its key demand for a new secular and corruption-free order strikes at the very existence of Lebanon, which also makes the current protest movement so unique in the modern annals of the Arab world. The previous Arab Spring aimed at regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, but street protests in Lebanon have attacked the religious edifice of Lebanon.
Arab autocratic regimes are worried that the protest virus will inflict their societies and threaten their hold on power. Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq, including Hezbollah and the Da’wa Party, are concerned because any serious change in the existing power alignments in the two countries will seriously undermine Iran’s political influence in both countries. This fear is what has driven Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to denounce the protests as the work of “foreign hands,” presumably the United States and Israel.
Qasem Sulaimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, recently urged Iraqi leaders to respond to street protests as harshly as the Iranian leadership did in suppressing the “Green Revolution” of 2009 in Iran. What he has discovered on his recent visit to Baghdad’s Green Zone is that 2019 is vastly different from 2009. Iraqi youth stayed in the streets despite the government’s violent response.
Iran’s clerical regime and Arab autocrats seem incapable of halting Arab publics’ rejection of humiliation, and their persistent demands to root out corruption from their societies and hold their leaders accountable. Instead, Arab and Iranian autocrats and their proxies have been impugning the motives of the demonstrators and belittling the objectives of the new “Arab Spring.”
In Lebanon, Nabih Berri, leader of the other Shia party Amal and Speaker of the Parliament, much like Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, has also hued the Iranian line in denouncing the protest movement. He and his ilk are worried that they might lose the sectarian golden goose that has hatched and nurtured corruption in Lebanon in the past half century. A bit of history is illustrative.
A brief history of Lebanon’s “confessionalism”
Lebanon was established as an independent state in 1943 with a “confessional” or religious system of government in which senior leadership positions were allotted on the basis of religious or sectarian affiliation. The so-called National Charter prescribed, for example, that the President of the Republic will be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. In the early years of independence, the minister of defense was always a Druze, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs was always a Greek Catholic. The Christian community, which according to the 1932 census was a majority, wanted to preserve its status as a privileged majority. Of course, the demographic make-up of the population has dramatically changed since then, with Muslims now accounting for more than 50 percent of all Lebanese.
Sectarianism and the 1975-1990 civil war have contributed to systemic instability and government paralysis. The confessional basis of the political system was reaffirmed following the civil war with the Ta’if agreement of 1989, which also extended Lebanese sovereignty to the southern part of the country that was occupied by Israel. The Israeli occupation that began in 1982 ended in 2000. The Syrian occupation that started in the early years of the civil war ended in 2005.
The Ta’if accords allowed Syria to extend and deepen its military and security hegemony over Lebanon and indirectly empowered Hezbollah to emerge as the most powerful political party and king maker in Lebanese politics. Although the Syrians left Lebanon a decade and a half ago, Hezbollah continued to dominate the political landscape. In fact, President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri came to power only with the acquiescence of Hezbollah.
Unlike other militias that were forced to disarm following the Ta’if accords, Hezbollah has refused to disarm. Hezbollah has maintained that its ability to thwart Israel’s military assault in 2006 and to protect the border between Lebanon and Israel justifies its continued build-up of a credible weapons arsenal. Sadly, Hezbollah, at Iran’s behest, decided to participate in the Syrian civil war on insistence in the battle to keep Assad in power. Assad serves Iran’s interests in the Levant, and therefore it was logical for Hezbollah, as Iran’s regional proxy, to send its fighters to Syria to shore Assad up.
Much to the consternation of regional autocrats and corrupt governments, the popular upheaval across the region continued unabated. Although the focus has been on Lebanon and Iraq, massive street protests also have been occurring in Algeria, Sudan, and elsewhere. The movement is indigenous, and the demands are for a better life, a more hopeful future, good governance, accountable leaders, and an end to humiliation are genuine. They stem not from a foreign instigation but from local conditions. The gap between the small excessively wealthy minority and the ever growing poorer, unemployed, and underemployed majority has increased exponentially.
Social media has played a significant role in mobilizing the crowds but not in starting the protest movement. Arab youth are keenly aware through social media of the economic and social conditions in their respective countries. Again, the reach of social media has made their deprivation, by comparison with their counterparts in Western societies, more stark, more intolerable, and less unacceptable.
If the Arab and Iranian regimes hope to survive, they should implement a new social contract with their peoples that would enshrine the people’s right to hold their economic and political leaders accountable. The days of banking and financial leaders as untouchable gnomes are long gone. Wealth accumulation should become transparent. The new social contract should delineate new rules for legitimate and illegitimate means of amassing wealth. Street protesters will tell you that there is no way on God’s earth that a cabinet member could become so wealthy overnight from his monthly salary. Acquiring of opulence through shady deals is the handmaiden of corruption, social and economic divisions, injustice, humiliation, and political instability.
This is what has driven thousands of people to the streets. If regimes do not understand this phenomenon and act on it, their security states and services will not be able to save them, and they will be swept away.
Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.