In Iraq and Lebanon, economic needs push protesters past sectarian divide

In Iraq and Lebanon, economic needs push protesters past sectarian divide


JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight in Baghdad, security
services killed at least two and wounded hundreds of protesters who are challenging the very
foundation of the government. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, there is a caretaker
government today, after the prime minister resigned yesterday. Nick Schifrin is here with a look at the protest
movements and what’s next. NICK SCHIFRIN: Iraqi and Lebanese protesters
each took to the streets for local reasons. But they are united in arguing that their
governments are broken. In Iraq, the spark was the firing of a popular
general. But listen to this Iraqi demonstrator demand
fundamental change. MAN (through translator): The Iraqi people
are not looking forward to reforms. We want the resignation of this government. NICK SCHIFRIN: In Lebanon, the spark was a
lack of services and a tax on a popular app. But the protesters’ catchphrase is now “All
of them,” as in, they want all politicians to go. WOMAN (through translator): From the beginning,
we said, all of them means all of them. We are staying in the squares until they all
go down. NICK SCHIFRIN: Meanwhile, the presence of
Iran looms large in both countries. For more, we’re joined by journalist Pesha
Magid in Baghdad and special correspondent Jane Ferguson in Beirut. Thank you very much to both of you. Pesha, let me start with you. We have now seen a month of protests and extraordinary
violence on the streets, 240-plus killed. What’s keeping people in the streets, despite
all that violence? PESHA MAGID, Journalist: I think that people
have just gotten to a breaking point in terms of the corruption of the government and the
poverty that is present throughout Iraq. Twenty-five percent of Iraq’s youth are unemployed. And for them, you know, it’s either they protest
or there’s nothing for them in their future, they think. NICK SCHIFRIN: So, Jane Ferguson, we have
fundamental calls about economic fears in Baghdad. We certainly have seen very similar aspects
in Beirut. We saw the prime minister, Hariri, resign
yesterday. Does that answer protesters’ demands? JANE FERGUSON: It answers the protesters to
a certain extent, in the sense that they are jubilant that they have been able to bring
down the prime minister himself. But politics in Lebanon is very complicated,
because it’s not just one person. And that’s why, as you say, the protesters
have been saying, all of you, all of you. What they mean is, they want all of the political
elites to step down in this country, because it is a complex web of sectarian and divided-up
power here in the country. And getting rid of one leader will not bring
down the system that people here really want dismantled, a system that has caused widespread
corruption, a financial crisis, and for basically the quality of life in Lebanon to be extremely
low for many people. So, it’s a start. But the protesters are saying that they will
come back out onto the streets if they don’t see cabinet ministers replaced with technocrats. They want to see those old faces that they
consider symbolic of their past removed, so that they can be replaced with people they
see as less corrupt and more representative of the population. NICK SCHIFRIN: Pesha, some of what unites
these protesters across these two countries are the economic fundamentals that both of
you have been talking about, but also that they go beyond traditional sectarian divisions,
including some that Jane was just talking about. Why have economic fears in Iraq become more
important than sectarian loyalty? And why does that mean that so many are calling
for Iran’s influence to decrease in Iraq? PESHA MAGID: Well, I think we have to look
at who the main people who are protesting. They’re very young. They’re from a generation that don’t see themselves
as ruled by sectarian differences. The main thing that concerns them is that
they don’t really have any opportunities. They don’t have a good education. They don’t have any work. So, for them, they say, we don’t care if you’re
Shia. We don’t care if you’re Sunni. We just someone who is Iraqi to govern Iraq. And when it comes to Iran, Iran influences
the current government very much. And many people believe that Iran’s influence
on the government has led to some of the corruption which has created the economic situation within
Iraq. So, throughout the protests, you see people
saying, get out, get out, Iran. We want someone Iraqi to come and rule Iraq. NICK SCHIFRIN: Jane, you talked about the
complicated system of government in Lebanon. Of course, sectarianism, as you suggested,
is written into the government itself. How do the protests and Prime Minister Hariri’s
resignation going to affect Iran in Lebanon and the Iran-backed Hezbollah group? JANE FERGUSON: Officially, what the group
has been saying and what we have been hearing from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah,
is that they support the protesters in principle. They support their calls for less corruption,
their calls for reform in the country. But they have also been saying that they shouldn’t
be blocking roads, that they shouldn’t be causing disruptions. And what we saw yesterday were extraordinary
scenes in Beirut, where hundreds of Hezbollah and their allies Amal supporters pouring into
the streets, defying the police, racing towards these protesters here and attacking them with
sticks, bottles, even rocks, beating people up, and essentially tearing apart the protest
camp that had been set up. Hezbollah has a lot to lose if this government
were to collapse completely, because those protesters keep saying, all of you. That include Hassan Nasrallah, the head of
Hezbollah. Now, he’s not technically in the government
in Lebanon, but people want all of those political leaders to step down. For Hezbollah supporters, that’s a step too
far. Hezbollah are experiencing to a certain extent,
you could even call it something of an identity crisis because of these protests. They have always viewed themselves as a party
of the people, of the working man, of the downtrodden. But now they are — whether they like it or
not, they’re seen by the people as a political elite. Hassan Nasrallah is seen as a political elite. NICK SCHIFRIN: Pesha, some of the fundamental
reforms that the experts say are necessary in Iraq, cutting public sector payrolls, nurturing
the private sector, liberalizing oil profits, is the government capable and willing to actually
institute some of those reforms? PESHA MAGID: That’s a hard question to answer. I would say that what a lot of protesters
here have been saying is that the government has had about 16 years to institute those
type of reforms, and have utterly failed up until this point. And many of the people in government have
been the same politicians in different positions for around a decade or so. And they have not yet been able to institute
reforms. And despite Iraq being a very, very oil-rich
country, the basic services are still lacking. And it doesn’t seem likely that, as you said,
the very bloated public sector could go away any time soon. NICK SCHIFRIN: And Jane, just quickly, in
the time we have left, expand out a little bit out for us. For the region, what’s the impact of these
protest movements and that these two governments are being fundamentally challenged right now? JANE FERGUSON: It’s a big statement for the
region, Nick, in terms of what people want, and the fact that they are defying sectarianism,
they’re defying traditional politics. And what we’re hearing is a louder and louder
voice that is, to a certain extent, reminiscent of the Arab Spring of 2011 and 2012, but different,
in the sense it’s more focused on economic reform. What we’re seeing now is a younger generation
that have lost patience with the results of corruption and sectarianism. And they’re a lot more focused on what they
want, which is a more modern and acceptable standard of living for young people. NICK SCHIFRIN: Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Pesha
Magid in Baghdad, thank you very much.

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