Daily Briefing: Political Unrest and Brutal Crackdowns Convulse Middle East (December 3,2019)

Protesters blocking access to the Ring bridge in Beirut, Lebanon. October 26, 2019. (Source: Wikipedia)

Table of Contents:
With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Is Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years:  Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone, NYT, Dec. 1, 2019

Brutal Crackdown on Iraq Protests Echoes Saddam Hussein Era:  Chloe Cornish, Financial Times, Nov. 24, 2019

Untouchable No More: Hezbollah’s Fading Reputation: Rebecca Collard, FP, Nov. 27, 2019

Protesters in Iraq Topple a Prime Minister But Want More:  The Economist, Nov. 29, 2019


With Brutal Crackdown, Iran Is Convulsed by Worst Unrest in 40 Years
Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone
NYT, Dec. 1, 2019

Iran is experiencing its deadliest political unrest since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, with at least 180 people killed — and possibly hundreds more — as angry protests have been smothered in a government crackdown of unbridled force.

It began two weeks ago with an abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices. Within 72 hours, outraged demonstrators in cities large and small were calling for an end to the Islamic Republic’s government and the downfall of its leaders.

In many places, security forces responded by opening fire on unarmed protesters, largely unemployed or low-income young men between the ages of 19 and 26, according to witness accounts and videos. In the southwest city of Mahshahr alone, witnesses and medical personnel said, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators — mostly unarmed young men — in a marsh where they had sought refuge.

“The recent use of lethal force against people throughout the country is unprecedented, even for the Islamic Republic and its record of violence,” said Omid Memarian, the deputy director at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based group.

Altogether, from 180 to 450 people, and possibly more, were killed in four days of intense violence after the gasoline price increase was announced on Nov. 15, with at least 2,000 wounded and 7,000 detained, according to international rights organizations, opposition groups and local journalists.

The last enormous wave of protests in Iran — in 2009 after a contested election, which was also met with a deadly crackdown — left 72 people dead over a much longer period of about 10 months.

Only now, nearly two weeks after the protests were crushed — and largely obscured by an internet blackout in the country that was lifted recently — have details corroborating the scope of killings and destruction started to dribble out.
The latest outbursts not only revealed staggering levels of frustration with Iran’s leaders, but also underscored the serious economic and political challenges facing them, from the Trump administration’s onerous sanctions on the country to the growing resentment toward Iran by neighbors in an increasingly unstable Middle East.

The gas price increase, which was announced as most Iranians had gone to bed, came as Iran is struggling to fill a yawning budget gap. The Trump administration sanctions, most notably their tight restrictions on exports of Iran’s oil, are a big reason for the shortfall. The sanctions are meant to pressure Iran into renegotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers, which President Trump abandoned, calling it too weak. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Brutal Crackdown on Iraq Protests Echoes Saddam Hussein Era
Chloe Cornish
Financial Times, Nov. 24, 2019

Sixteen years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Iraqis are once again facing state crackdown on dissent — this time from their democratically elected government. The brutal suppression of protests since the beginning of October has seen Iraqi state security forces and unidentified gunmen kill more than 325 people and wound at least 15,000. The worst repression in over a decade, it is the clearest sign yet that the Baghdad government is veering away from its democratic promise, analysts say. “The coercive power of the state has been deployed to suppress valid political expression,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Chatham House. “This bodes very poorly for Iraq’s democracy going forward.”

The government is using tactics common to authoritarian regimes around the world, further undermining Iraqis’ fragile faith in the democratic system installed by US-led forces after the 2003 invasion. From shooting demonstrators dead to policing Facebook for government criticism and blanket shutdowns of internet access, the repressive approach has elicited unflattering comparisons with Iraq’s former dictator. “We are in a so-called democratic country, so why did they take down Saddam if that’s what we will get now?” said Baan Hashem, 49, a civil servant at the education ministry who has been on the front line of the protests.

The state’s repression goes beyond the pitched battles between security forces and demonstrators hurling rocks which have at times left the squares of Baghdad and southern cities resembling war zones. Activists have gone missing, protesters say they have been arrested and then coerced to sign documents renouncing their participation in demonstrations, while others have been jailed after posting support for the protests on social media.

Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher for Human Rights Watch, called it a “multi-tiered approach” to curtailing the freedom of expression Iraqis have enjoyed since Saddam’s ousting, sending a “strong signal that open criticism of the government is no longer acceptable”.

Digital tools of repression have become equally important. Social media access was restricted for 50 days, during which internet access was cut altogether for almost two weeks, according Alp Toker the founder of NetBlocks, an internet freedom monitor. At one point a nightly internet curfew was introduced, while intermittent targeted restrictions are an almost daily occurrence. “It’s Orwellian. You have internet coming up during these speeches [by top politicians] for a matter of minutes then going down again so the public can’t respond,” Mr Toker said. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Untouchable No More: Hezbollah’s Fading Reputation
Rebecca Collard
FP, Nov. 27, 2019

It was the sort of chant that, only a month or so ago, would have been all but unthinkable in Lebanon. “Terrorists, terrorists, Hezbollah are terrorists,” yelled some of the hundreds of anti-government protesters who stood on a main road in Beirut early Monday morning, in a tense standoff with supporters of Hezbollah and another Shiite party, the Amal Movement.

Other protesters told the chanters to stop, but as widespread economic discontent and anger engulf Lebanon—and with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah defending the government—the sanctity around Hezbollah’s reputation is clearly broken.  “Hezbollah is being seen as part and parcel [of] the main hurdle to change in Lebanon,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The demonstrations have been mostly peaceful and unilaterally against the whole ruling class—all sects, all political parties. And until recently Nasrallah, who doesn’t have an official government position, was seen as above the endemic corruption that has helped push the country toward a collapse, particularly among Hezbollah’s Shiite support base. Hezbollah’s expulsion of Israeli troops from Lebanese territory in 2000 earned the group the moniker “the resistance” among Lebanese of all sects and political affiliations. Even after the 2006 war, which left swaths of Lebanon in ruins, the group enjoyed popular support for what many here saw as a victory against Israeli aggression by defenders of the country. In May 2008, Hezbollah fighters took over central Beirut after the government threatened to shut down the group’s telecommunications network and remove an ally in charge of airport security, pointing their weapons inside rather than toward the border for the first time.

And as Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters across the border to fight in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad in 2013, more people questioned exactly whom Hezbollah was defending. The group’s reputation has been fading further since the first days of protests in mid-October, which saw large crowds take to the streets in primarily Shiite areas such as Tyre and Nabatieh. Suddenly, with demonstrators there shouting similar anti-government slogans as protesters in Beirut—who want all the current sectarian political leaders gone and new elections under a new system—Hezbollah found itself part of the targeted establishment. The protests are seen as a direct challenge to the gains made by Hezbollah in the 2018 elections and a threat to the organization’s foreign-policy agenda, said Hage Ali.

This week, facing down two thick rows of Lebanese army and riot police on pavement littered with rocks and sticks, some demonstrators complained that Hezbollah’s agenda is not really about building up Lebanon; instead, it goes through Damascus to Baghdad and on to Tehran. Like some of the rising protests in neighboring Iraq, the often youthful demonstrators are intent on calling out Iranian influence in particular. “Here is Lebanon, not Iran,” some protesters chanted on Monday.

When Nasrallah insisted the Lebanese government should not step down, amid the early demonstrations in October, to many protesters it felt like he was part of the problem. “It was a ‘reality bites’ moment,” Carnegie’s Hage Ali said. “For Lebanese Shiites who joined the protest movement, it was a shock—why is Hezbollah standing on guard for the status quo that is extremely corrupt and taking the country to a financial and economic crisis?”

Nasrallah attempted to discredit the protesters, implying they were funded by foreign embassies. The protesters laughed it off, and several journalists resigned from Al-Akhbar, a publication usually supportive of Hezbollah’s position. “They are just trying to keep the system,” said a protester named Baha Yahya, as he waited on a side road for a barrage of tear gas, fired by the army, to clear. “And all we want is to remove the system. That’s what this is all about.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

Iran and Its Proxies Face the Costs of Imperialism
Hillel Frisch
Algemeiner, Nov. 28, 2019

In a serious jolt to the Iranian regime, recent weeks have seen recurrent attacks on the headquarters of pro-Iranian militia headquarters in Iraq’s southern provinces. This area is populated almost exclusively by Shiites, which the pro-Iranian Iraqi government supposedly represents.

These protests contrast sharply with the quiet that now prevails in Anbar, the exclusively Sunni province in Iraq’s northeast, which had been, ever since the rise of the Shiites to power in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam, the epicenter of revolt against the predominantly Shiite governments that have ruled Iraq since 2003. The Sunnis, living under the harsh control of the Iranian-led Shiite militias that occupied the areas in their fight against ISIS, are now too cowed to join the protests dominated by Iraq’s Shiite majority in the south.

So great has been the wave of anger and violence against the operating arms of Iranian power in Shiite Iraq that in Karbala, one of the two holiest Shiite cities in the country, the headquarters of two major pro-Iranian militias, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq and al-Badr, were evacuated and closed by the police as a preventive measure. Demonstrators even tried targeting the Iranian consulate in the city, though it is protected by thick contiguous cement pillars.

The headquarters were closed to protect members of the organization, but even more to protect the demonstrators. During attacks on other Iranian-backed militia sites, the militias reacted with live fire, increasing the number of casualties and inflaming passions further — which subsequently increased rather than decreased the number of protestors. The police, by contrast, who are an arm of the Iraqi state, try to control protests by responding with non-lethal means (typically tear gas and rubber batons).

In Lebanon, most attacks have been unidirectional, with Hezbollah sympathizers (or members) attacking the demonstrators rather than the other way around. This asymmetry reflects the lethal balance of power in Lebanon, where Hezbollah rather than the national army has been the most powerful military organization in the country for over a generation. The army cannot and does not attempt to compete with it.

Common to both countries is the source of the anger against Tehran and its local proxies. Both the militias in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon have been milking their governments to maintain themselves.

In Iraq, a law was passed integrating the militias into the federal army, making their members beneficiaries of the same salaries and benefits received by soldiers in the federal army. The aim of the law was to bring an end to the phenomenon of non-state militias. The outcome, following considerable pressure from Iran and the militias themselves, was exactly the opposite. Not a single militia was dismantled.

In Lebanon, the problem is of more recent vintage. Until recently, Iran and Hezbollah (which, in Nasrallah’s own words, relies entirely on Iranian financial support) fueled the Lebanese economy. That small but strategic country has long been one whose citizens live beyond their means thanks to monies sent by its large diaspora, oil-rich states vying for power, and ample aid from the EU and member states (especially France, which has historical ties to the Maronites, the largest Christian sect in Lebanon).

This is why taxation rates in Lebanon have always hovered at 10-20% of state expenditures — half the rate of countries at a similar level of development and less than half that of developed states. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

For Further Reference:

Following 3-Week Hiatus, Gaza Groups Announce Resumption of Border Marches:  Adam Rasgon, Times of Israel, Dec. 2, 2019 –– The committee responsible for organizing protests in the border region between Israel and the Gaza Strip announced on Monday that demonstrations would take place Friday following a significant hiatus.

Opinion: Trudeau Shouldn’t Ignore Iran’s Brave Protesters Again:  Kaveh Shahrooz, National Post, Nov. 20, 2019 — International affairs rarely offer do-overs. But the new and increasingly violent protests that have erupted all over Iran in recent days provide Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a unique opportunity to correct one of his earlier foreign policy missteps.

How Iran’s Protests Could Impact Foreign Policy:  Hamidreza Aziz, Al-Monitor, Nov. 26, 2019 — The Iranian administration’s controversial decision Nov. 15 to triple gasoline prices sparked protests across the country.

Tehran’s Assassination Playbook:  Editorial Board, WSJ, Nov. 29, 2019 — As Iran cracks down on mass protests at home, the Islamist regime continues to strike at dissidents who criticize it from exile abroad.