What do Lebanon and Iraq’s protests tell us about the theories of sectarian conflict?

26th Nov 2019 by Bassel F. Salloukh

What do Lebanon and Iraq’s protests tell us about the theories of sectarian conflict?

This piece is taken from the SEPAD report ‘Sectarianism in the Longue Duree’ available here: https://www.sepad.org.uk/report/sectarianism-in-the-longue-duree

What are the implications of recent protests in Lebanon and Iraq on the theoretical literature on sectarianism?

The violent struggles underway in Iraq since 2003 to impose a sectarian order on state and society resonate with the constructivist claim that the emergence of sectarian identities as the main source of political mobilization in a particular context is not rooted in pre-modern primordial essences but rather the result of a long-term material and symbolic process. After all, sectarian identities are always one among many other – sometimes more important – social, economic, and local markers in a fluid identities terrain. This is true of both pre-1861 Mount Lebanon and pre-2003 Iraq. The violence exercised by the sectarian political elite against successive waves of protests in 2011, 2015, 2018, and now is meant to neutralize attempts by those who embrace alternative national and socioeconomic identities as they resist from below the imposition of a top-down sectarian vision over Iraq’s postwar political field.[1]

But if sectarian identities are always one among many other identities, and if sectarian orders are imposed by a combination of local and external actors, then what explains their durability? The anger fueling the protests in Iraq and Lebanon offer important clues: it is not about essential intrinsic cultural or sectarian constants. Rather, it is more about the role played by sectarian entrepreneurs in organizing the institutional architecture of consociational power-sharing arrangements – i.e., a combination of instrumentalism and institutionalism – and a commensurate political economy, both operating in tandem to entrench sectarian incentive structures, thus making sectarian modes of identification and mobilization a type of Gramscian common sense. But here’s where Lebanon and Iraq go separate ways.

The genealogy of Lebanon’s sectarian order may be traced back to the choices and reactions of confessional/sectarian entrepreneurs to the violent convulsions and transformations of 19th century Mount Lebanon, always overlapping with external penetration. This order was later reproduced – but not without resistance – first in Grand Liban in 1920, then in independent Lebanon, and most recently in the postwar period. Unlike the case in Iraq, however, Lebanon’s political system is foundationally sectarian, anchored on a corporate consociational power-sharing arrangement. With time, the sectarian system’s ideological, institutional, and material capillaries of power penetrated deep into and across large swathes of society. It is undergirded by a sophisticated political economy in which the state serves as an archipelago of clientelist networks binding members of the political elite to their sectarian 

protégés. Corruption across different private and public sectors serves to lubricate this postwar political economy at a cost that has brought state finances to the brink of collapse. For example: the postwar public sector[2] ballooned to encompass anywhere between 310,000 to 400,000 employees and retirees. Moreover, public salaries, wages, and benefits amounted to 35% of government expenditures in 2018, the equivalent of $46 billion or 21.29% of a total of $216 billion in government spending in the period 1993-2017.[3] All this in the context of a tax regime that benefits the very rich at the expense of fiscal finances: the lower 50 percent of the population make as much income as the top 0.1%.[4] 

The power of Lebanon’s sectarian system is in great measure a consequence of how the political system’s institutional architecture[5] and political economy work in unison to reproduce docile sectarian subjects. But for this dyad to operate smoothly requires economic growth and financial spoils to finance the political economy of sectarianism and its myriad technologies of corruption. Lebanon’s perfect economic storm in the past years led to the drying up of these spoils and the clientelist swamps, however.  The government’s decision on 17 October 2019 to raise revenues by increasing a range of taxes – even on what should be free WhatsApp calls – rather than clamp down on corruption inside and outside the state, and tax wealth and those who have benefited from decades of monetary policies favoring the rich, unleashed a night of national rage across Lebanon.[6] Economic deprivation, and a deep sense of insult that they are taken for granted by the political economic elite, united many Lebanese across sects and regions, and later classes, the kind of mobilization the sectarian system is supposed to prevent. Lebanon’s protests suggest that the postwar political economy of sectarianism has reached a dead end, and that many – but not all – of those expected to play by the rules of the sectarian order refuse to do so any more.

By contrast, Iraq’s experience with sectarianism is an imposed and recent one – a veritable example of what Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel label ‘sectarianization’.[7] The construction by exiled ethno-sectarian politicians, the US occupying authority, and Iran of a sectarian political order is a post-2003 phenomenon; it runs against the play of Iraq’s non-sectarian political history where the political field was contested by a plethora of nationalist, Arab nationalist, communist, Ba‘thist, and religious visions; nor is it an example of a return to some primordial sectarian essence.[8] The imposition of a new exogenous vision of Iraq based on ethno-sectarian identities comes with its own incentive structures, however: in the form of a liberal consociational power-sharing arrangement – the notorious al- muhasasa al-ta’ifiya system – structuring access to state resources, public office, and political mobilization along ethno-sectarian lines. This power-sharing arrangement is coupled with its own political economy, with access to state resources controlled by the ethno-sectarian political elite and serving to incentivize sectarian modes of identification and mobilization. Consequently, the public sector expanded from 850,000 employees in 2004 to 7-9 million in 2016, with some 25% of public funds wasted in corruption schemes. The sectarian political elite uses access to subcontracts, border crossings, ports, and even gas fields to lubricate their clientelist networks.[9]

Iraq’s leaderless and decentralized[10] protests triggered by cronyism, corruption, joblessness, dilapidated infrastructure, and the heavy-handedness of sectarian militias in the south of the country swiftly metamorphosed into a wholesale call for a revolution[11] against the sectarian system: a predominantly Shi‘a intra-sectarian rebellion against a largely Shi‘a-dominated political order that makes no sense by primordial explanations and brings back the role of socioeconomic drivers of politics. It is countered by inordinate violence from a political elite defending a sectarian political system and its clientelist political economy serving their narrow socioeconomic and political interests and those of their foreign backers, namely Iran. That this political elite is compelled to use substantial violence against co-sectarian protestors resisting the post-2003 order reflects the violence involved in the imposition of sectarian orders. It stands in contrast to the more hybrid[12] but no less disciplinary tactics[13] deployed by their Lebanese counterparts in the context of a harder and more sociologically diverse sectarian order with denser clientelist networks.

 This brings us to another puzzle in the theoretical literature on sectarianism flagged by Melani Cammett: “how to incentivize politicians to pursue more inclusive economic and social policies and patterns of representation”?[14] In both Iraq and Lebanon’s unfolding protests, demands by the post-sectarian subaltern for accountable governance, economic relief, and an end to corruption stand at odds with primordial explanations of political dynamics. Moreover, the repressive response of Iraq’s sectarian elite, and the stubbornness of their Lebanese counterparts to recognize alternative modes of political mobilization, underscores the limits of instrumental and institutional avenues for desectarianization.[15] Rather, the unfolding protests  in Baghdad, Nassiriya, and Basra, and all over Lebanon suggest that the drivers of desectarianization are bottom-up, always already in people’s search for “new practices of coexistence and cooperation”[16] beyond sectarian identities and modes of mobilization. Herein lies the origins of the drivers that can make ethno-sectarian power-sharing arrangements biodegradable[17] beyond sectarian identities and solidarities.


[1] Toby Dodge, “Tracing the Rise of Sectarianism in Iraq after 2003,” Middle East Centre Blog, June 29, 2018, accessed November 24, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2018/09/13/tracing-the-rise-of-sectarianism-in-iraq-after-2003/.

[2] Bassel F. Salloukh, “Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Volume 25, no.1 (2019), doi: 10.1080/13537113.2019.1565177.

[3] Bassel F. Salloukh, “Anatomy of Corruption in Postwar Lebanon,” The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (blog), May, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.lcps-lebanon.org/featuredArticle.php?id=229.

[4] “Lebanon,” World Inequality Database, accessed November 24, 2019, https://wid.world/country/lebanon/

[5] Bassel F. Salloukh et al., The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2015). 

[6] “Anger, frustration drive Beirut protesters,” The Daily Star, October 8, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2019/Oct-18/493788-anger-frustration-drive-beirut-protesters.ashx

[7] Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (New York: Oxford, 2017). 

[8] Toby Dodge, “’Bourdieu goes to Baghdad’: Explaining Hybrid Political Identities in Iraq,” Journal of Historical Sociology, Volume 31, no. 1 (2018), doi;10.1111/johs.12189. 

[9] Toby Dodge, “Corruption Continues to Destabilize Iraq,” Chatham House, October 1, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/corruption-continues-destabilize-iraq

[10] Harith Hasan, “Iraq is Currently Being Shaken by Violent Protests,” Carneige: Middle East Center, October 4, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/79993?lang=en

[11] Monkey Cage, “In Iraq, Demonstrators Demand Change – and the Government Fights Back,” The Washington Post, October 9, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/10/10/iraq-protestors-demand-change-government-is-fighting-back/

[12] Janine A. Clark and Bassel F. Salloukh, “Elite Strategies, Civil Society and Sectarian Identities in Postwar Lebanon,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 45, no. 4 (2013), doi: 10.1017/S0020743813000883.    

[13] Carmen Geha, “Co-optation, Counter-Narratives, and Repression: Protesting Lebanon’s Sectarian Power-Sharing Regime,” The Middle East Journal, Volume 73, No. 1 (2019), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/721754

[14] Melani Cammett, “Lebanon, the Sectarian Identity Test,” The Century Foundation, April 10, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/lebanon-sectarian-identity-test-lab/

[15] Simon Mabon, “De-sectarianization: Some Initial Thought,” SEPAD, August 19, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.sepad.org.uk/announcement/de-sectarianization-some-initial-thoughts

[16] Thanassis Cambanis, “Social Engineering in Samarra,” The Century Foundation, May 2, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://tcf.org/content/report/social-engineering-samarra/

[17] See Matthijs Bogaards, “Lebanon: How Civil War Transformed Consociationalism,” in John McGarry and Allison McCulloch, eds., Power Sharing: Empirical and Normative Critiques (London: Routledge, 2017): 148-165.