Abstract: Predatory governments in the Middle East have survived despite widespread popular revolt and epic governance failures. Only a new governing compact can end this destructive but sustainable cycle. Using the examples of Lebanon and Iraq, we show how hybrid reform efforts that recognize the weakness of the state can renew approaches to citizenship, stability, and security.

The latest iteration of protests in Lebanon and Iraq, which began in fall 2019, suggests a profound conundrum. The popular uprisings are comprised of loosely organized individuals who are willing to die in pursuit of minimal, apolitical demands for basic services and governance. At the same time, the rulers of Iraq and Lebanon see these protest movements as a radical threat to their order, which relies on patronage and power sharing within the political elite, and which is, by design, incapable of effective governance or even of the most elemental reforms.

People have turned to the politics of protest due to systemic failures in states that are incapable of incorporating the input of the governed. It is especially revelatory to study the rigidity and authoritarianism that undergirds the governing compacts of Lebanon and Iraq, both of which are pluralistic hybrids of sectarian warlordism and electoral democracy. Both countries have democratic and pluralistic political systems that, while deeply flawed, are designed to produce consensus. Theoretically, both countries enjoy greater chances to address their root governance crises than the autocracies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Iraq, Lebanon, and other regional states should expect continuing cycles of state failure, public grievance, and unresolved conflict unless they can craft new governing compacts that redefine citizenship, security, and stability.

The ruling order will only change tack if it believes the status quo is unsustainable. In the near-term, the popular protest movements—no matter how brave—have not posed a sustained threat to the ruling coalition of sectarian warlords and organized crime bosses. There are at least two conceivable paths to systemic change. The first is a protest movement that transforms into a viable claimant to power, most feasibly by persuading significant state institutions or hybrid power centers to defect from the ruling order en masse. The second is systemic collapse. Both options are plausible outgrowths of the current explosive situation; while the status quo is increasingly unbearable for a great many residents of both countries, systemic change entails real risk. It is conceivable that a decisive shift by a critical mass of political actors could create a new, more humane system of governance. It is equally conceivable that a shock to the current awful order could catalyze an even more violent or destructive disorder. The epic governance failures and civil violence experience in Lebanon and Iraq, which occur in regular cycles, offer a cautionary parable: unscrupulous militia leaders can survive in power even if the communities they rule suffer immeasurable loss. Communal destruction does not always lead to renewal of communal leadership, a sad pattern seen among most of Lebanon and Iraq’s sectarian leaders. Only a new compact, forced upon the ruling elite, has a chance of ending this vicious cycle.

One key precursor to change is the military’s withdrawal of active support for the ruling order. Another is a galvanized opposition that can obtain the loyalty of powerful segments of the social order. The catalyzing event might be a catastrophic failure, like the rise of the Islamic State, the global financial collapse, or the explosion in Beirut port. Or it could be a shift in the calculus of a key patron, be it a local warlord, a regional government that finances and arms a critical hybrid actor, or a surge in international aid to targeted institutions in the government and security sector, contingent on a quick shift in behavior. Critically, change will not come from a full top-down makeover, nor, most likely, solely from a widespread uprising. What will be required is a partnership between elite and popular forces, which targets specific sectors of the power structure and takes advantage of the porosity of the weak state.

Stepping back and taking a broad look at the cycle of misrule and popular anger, we make several related arguments about the conditions for viable systemic change. First, opposition movements need to be more organized and incite systemic shock; this is a necessary precursor to change, but also one that could lead to total collapse. Second, a meaningfully improved new compact must be built on more inclusive notions of citizenship, security, and stability. Third, opposition movements may find success by mimicking hybrid actors and functioning alongside the state. Fourth and finally, key political actors in the state need to recognize that their long-term interest lies in defecting from the current regimes. These conditions must operate in tandem to break the paralyzing stalemate in these troubled polities, knowing that great dangers face the people living in these countries whether under the status quo or in a transformation.

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