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by Qassim Qassir

With the popular demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon during the past two months, we are witnessing a new political phenomenon in these two countries, which both suffer from major sectarian, regional and party-based divisions.

For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime following the US occupation of Iraq, this country has witnessed popular demonstrations which transcend sectarian divisions. Political and party forces were not the drivers behind these movements. Despite attempts by some political currents to exploit them to settle internal political scores, the main theme of the popular movements has been social and economic concerns and the demands of the youth for the tackling of unemployment, the provision of jobs and improvements in living standards. It is true that some have tried to give these demonstrations a political dimension, suggesting that they are directed at internal or regional parties, and are part of the struggle for the future of Iraq and its role in the region. But this does not detract from the fact that the main motivation of most of these movements is socioeconomic. Social media sites and civil society organizations have played a key role in mobilising the street, even if some Iraqi domestic political parties and external actors have become involved in trying to use and benefit from the events in their struggle for power, or in the context of the regional and international conflict over the future of Iraq.

In Lebanon, the picture is clearer and more vibrant. For the first time in many years, the Lebanese people have taken to the streets and public squares to protest against the performance of the rulers, the government, parliament, and all political and fiscal authorities, without party, political or civil society institutions behind this great popular movement. The first spark of the demonstrations was the introduction of tax charges for the use of the application WhatsApp, which caused some observers to name it the "WhatsApp revolution." Despite the government's backtracking on the implementation of this new tax and the announcement of a comprehensive reform paper, the movement and demonstrations in most of Lebanon have only increased. Subsequently, certain internal political parties and international powers, notably the USA, have entered the fray and tried to exploit the movements to gain advantage in their internal and external conflicts.

It was clear that the popular movements in Lebanon started without a clear leadership and were spontaneous, with calls to mobilise spread on social media, and that criticisms were directed at all political and party forces without exception. What was remarkable was the presence of this large popular movement in the north, south and Bekaa regions, which have historically taken certain partisan or sectarian sides. Subsequently, however, civil society institutions, the American and Jesuit universities, and certain partisan and leftist forces have become active in these movements and have created frameworks for coordination and cooperation in order to organize and direct popular movements to achieve political goals.

For the first time, the Lebanese flag and the unified Lebanese slogans have taken precedence over all party banners and sectarian slogans, and despite efforts by some parties to suppress the movement or interfere in it, the people have succeeded in continuing and facing up to all forms of repression. As in Iraq, the voice of the people has been stronger than all sectarian and regional divisions, and this has forced the governments of both countries to take swift action to address the crisis and make some concessions to the people. But the crisis in both countries appears to be deeper, and this could impose sweeping changes to the foundations of the political system in both countries.

But what is the most important conclusion to draw from what has happened in the two countries during the past two months? We can say that we are faced with a new political and popular scenario, and that people have been able to overcome their sectarian and partisan divisions, even though Lebanon and Iraq are among the most diverse countries in the region and suffer the most from sectarian and partisan divisions. Therefore, we are confronted with a new scenario and a new political reality, through this interaction and cooperation between the people, social networking sites and new media in addition to the traditional media, especially television stations. It is no longer possible to silence the voice of the people through oppression, and the only option to address these crises is to respond to their voice and find comprehensive solutions to the problems. The most effective option is a return to citizenship and a civil and just state. This is the most direct way to deal with crises throughout our Arab and Islamic world. The Tunisian experience has given us repeated proof that the choice of true democracy and a civil state is the best way to ensure change.

Civil society organizations which transcend sectarian divides and are active in the promotion of citizenship and dialogue can play an important role in guiding these grass-roots movements for the better, and pave the way for promoting a culture of citizenship, fighting corruption, and encouraging dialogue, diversity and respect for the law. In this context, we should mention the importance of initiatives launched in the two countries in recent years in order to promote dialogue and mutual knowledge, and overcome sectarian divisions, as well as training in the public interest. But one must underline one fundamental issue: accusations against some civil society institutions for their dependency on foreign support. Therefore, there is a need to differentiate between, on the one hand, institutions that benefit from international experience and cooperate in a transparent and open manner with international dialogue and democratic institutions, which is a natural and necessary tendency between countries, peoples and societies, and on the other hand institutions working with political and western agendas to advance their internal, regional or international conflicts.

Finally, it must be said that in the age of social media, the electronic revolution and the changes taking place in the world, it is no longer possible to repress peoples and that it is imperative to work vigorously to establish the civil state, combat corruption, overcome sectarian divisions, strengthen the culture of citizenship and dialogue, recognize the other, reject injustice and tyranny and work on the basis of alternating power, accountability, and the rule of law. This is the only way to save people from their social, economic and political problems.