Over the past week protests in Lebanon have turned violent. Following months of relatively peaceful demonstrations across the small country anti-government protesters and security forces clashed in the streets of Beirut. The past weekend saw the most violence with over 100 citizens injured. Police and security forces made dozens of arrests, with most coming as protesters attempted to storm Lebanon’s Parliament building. The situation on the ground deteriorated to the point that the Lebanese government called in the military to bolster the ranks of police and security personnel.
Political corruption has been at the heart of the protests. Frustration with the ruling class had been rising for quite some time in Lebanon. As has been the case in other nations across the region, the people have taken to the streets to demand change. Lebanon is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, and the government appears unable or unwilling to address it properly. Inflation and unemployment continue to rise, the national currency’s value is diminishing, and Lebanon’s credit ranking is in the basement.
To make matters even worse, cash is running short in banks around the nation. Commercial banks have placed restrictions on withdrawing dollars, and blocked money transfers abroad. These moves have sparked a number of extreme incidents at banks ranging from scuffles between depositors and bank employees to depositors physically occupying branches.
Unfortunately, even if the government brings on early elections as the protesters have demanded, there’s no guarantee a new parliament and cabinet will be able to stave off the looming economic catastrophe.
Protests in Baghdad today have turned bloody as police clashed with anti-government demonstrators. One person has been killed, and 200 wounded, including 40 members of the police and security forces, according to Iraqi officials. Over one thousand citizens took part in demonstrations against unemployment, government corruption, and poor services for the people. They clashed with security forces who used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons to disperse the crowds. There has been no independent confirmation of the numbers provided by the Iraqi government, however, sources outside of the government claim the death toll is now 4, and the internet is down in Baghdad. Demonstrations were also reported to have taken place in other parts of Iraq, including the cities of al-Najaf and Kirkuk.
It was the largest demonstration against the government since Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi came to power late last October. Unemployment has been a major concern among the populace. Youth unemployment is especially high, running at about 25 percent. Many university graduates took part in today’s demonstrations, claiming the government has not done enough to provide jobs. Lack of public services is also a major complaint. Power cuts, and water shortages have become part of daily life in many areas of Iraq. It appears now that Iraqis are putting Mahdi and the government on notice.
Some of the demonstrators were carrying portraits of General Abdulwahab al-Saadi, a popular general credited with leading the fight against the Islamic State. Last week, al-Saadi was fired from his post by the government, and the move likely helped spur today’s demonstrations. Last summer, similar demonstrations took place in Basra.
The government’s heavy-handed response could backfire and end up galvanize the Iraqi people. Don’t be surprise to see larger, more organized demonstrations cropping up in Baghdad as the week goes on. Whether or not Mahdi realizes it, his troubles are just beginning.
Sunday’s wave of unsanctioned mass protests that broke out across Russia took the Kremlin entirely by surprise. The rallies were the largest in Russia since the pro-democracy protests in 2011-2012 and centered on a dual theme of anti-corruption and anti-government. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in response to Russian opposition leader Alexi Navaly’s exposé on the extravagant real estate holdings of current prime minister and former president Dimitri Medvedev. Navaly urged Russians to go out and protest Medvedev, naming 26 March as the day to do so. The response was greater than Navaly likely expected as people took to the streets in St. Petersberg, Moscow, Vladivostok and many cities in between. Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station, put the numbers at 60,000 people taking part in 80 protests across Russia on Sunday. Over 1,000 arrests were made and Navaly was one of those detained. Today he was convicted of disobeying police, sentenced to 15 days in jail and fined 20,000 rubles (roughly $355) for organizing an unsanctioned protest.
The rallies were labeled a ‘provocation’ by the Kremlin. A Kremlin spokesman even implied that a number of the protesters were in the streets simply because they had been paid to be there. In any event, Sunday’s protests have likely rattled the Russian government. Unsanctioned rallies were made illegal after the 2011-2012 protests. In spite of this, thousands of people defied the law and came out to join yesterday’s protests.
Russia is a large nation and the geographic spread of the protests indicates that the anti-corruption theme has struck a chord with a large section of the population. It is useful to note the lack of a pro-democracy cause in the protests. Democracy has been largely viewed as a sour word in Russia since the 1990s. Russians are content to live with a form of government which does not mirror the liberal democratic foundation of many Western nation-states so long as corruption is kept in check. The economic crisis that Russia has been facing has eased. Conditions are not bad as they were two years ago, but recovery has been elusive. The average Russian citizen is making do with less and to see their political rulers such as Medvedev living a lavish lifestyle is too much for many to overlook.
For Vladimir Putin the stakes are even more significant. The opposition has a face now in Navaly, and momentum on its side. What happens next is unclear, however, if Putin does not tread carefully and a period of unrest descends upon Russia, he will be forced to take action to secure his position ahead of the 2018 elections. That action could come at home or, just as conceivably, abroad.