The New Middle East of a Post-Sectarian Generation

Middle East USA World

BEIRUT — Her voice broke. Tears overcame Zeinab Mirza, a political studies lecturer at the American University of Beirut. She was crying for Lebanon’s awakening. “In a way,” she said, “We were in a coma before.”

Something is going on in the Middle East. People from Beirut to Baghdad are in the streets clamoring for nations to replace sects. They have been met with bullets in Iraq. They have been met with bluster in Lebanon. They are still there. A new generation is tired of the old ways. The talk is of revolution. Nation here denotes unity, not nationalism.

The Lebanese flag and the Iraqi flag are everywhere, symbols of a demand for individual rights in states of law. A little more than a century ago, the Sykes-Picot British-French carve-up of the collapsing Ottoman Empire yielded weak states with arbitrary borders. Many have paid a colossal price. Syria lies in ruins. People are sick of the sectarian manipulation of politics to mask theft, corruption and state capture by oligarchical elites. They are sick of the manipulation of fear. They are sick of the life being sucked out of them.

Mirza, gathering herself, told students how extraordinary it was to see Sunni Tripoli in northern Lebanon, a bastion of conservatism, standing shoulder to shoulder with Shia Nabatiyeh in the south. “There’s a realization the same pain exists all over,” she said.

Her colleague, Hiba Khodr, an associate professor of public administration and public policy, spoke of children suddenly drawing the Lebanese flag. “We are creating a new dictionary,” she said.

The dictionary of people freed from the chains and cynicism of their forebears. The dictionary of people who are moving beyond sectarian taboos; the dictionary made possible when religion is separated from politics; the dictionary of people throwing off fear.

It is beautiful. It is fragile. It is necessary for the Middle East. It is impossible for the Middle East, home of promise deferred. As with Samuel Johnson’s take on second marriages, any prognostication of success for these movements represents “the triumph of hope over experience.”

It’s a different Middle East. Over a couple of weeks in the region recently, I scarcely heard the United States mentioned. A Lebanese businessman told me the best thing President Trump could do would be to get his pal Vladimir Putin, the new power player in the region, to keep Hezbollah from making trouble with the protests.

Other than that, I heard disgust at Trump’s Kurdish betrayal and his grotesque decision to freeze military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, whose conduct has been exemplary. In general, Middle Eastern leaders have concluded that Trump — if Texas will forgive me — is all hat and no camel, a pawn of Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah II of Jordan, largely ignored by Trump, broods. Jordanians joke: “Look at Lebanon. Their protests are more fun than our weddings!”

Similar cries rise from the streets of Iraq and Lebanon. “We want a homeland,” say Iraqis. That’s what the Lebanese seek by undoing government by sect: a president who must be a Maronite Christian, a prime minister who must be Sunni, a speaker of Parliament who must be Shiite. (In Iraq, it’s a Shiite prime minister, a Sunni speaker and a Kurdish president).

Such identity obsession, which stands in the way of shared citizenship, seems anachronistic to members of a younger Middle Eastern generation raised on a borderless cyber world. They want transparent governments dedicated to their citizens’ well-being, not to personal enrichment.

The road from here to there through such measures as electoral reform, judicial reform and the introduction in Lebanon of civil marriage laws (which would make it possible for citizens of different religions to wed) is long, murky and probably generational. Meanwhile, the Lebanese economy, its banks mostly closed for fear or a run on the currency, could collapse any day.

Nation creation also involves pushing back the power that has benefited most from American war, followed by American retreat, followed by American incoherence: Iran.

“Iran! Out! Out!” say the Iraqis. In Lebanon, the currency of Iran-backed Hezbollah has been devalued. Once untouchable as the “resistance” against Israel, the militant movement and political party is now often seen as part of a failed government, as well as the cynical savior of the butcher of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, is slowly being recast from the untouchable and holy “Sayyed” to just another cynical party secretary-general, who happens to be in the pay of Iran.

“We are a post-sectarian generation,” Hussein El Achi, a young Lebanese lawyer active in the orchestration of the protests, told me. “The country has changed because for the first time a collective consciousness exists. If we succeed, it could have a contagious effect in the Middle East.”

In a way, the struggle is even more universal than that. In Chile, it was a subway fare hike. In France, it was a hike in fuel tax. In Lebanon, it was a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls. The trigger can be small because a lot of struggling people across the world are at the end of their rope, angry at what look like systems rigged for the privileged.

I asked one Lebanese soldier what he thought of the protests. “We have rights,” he said. It was a significant “we” — and a very broad one.

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