Violent protest movements have erupted around the world in 2019, making it perhaps the most chaotic year since 2011, when the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East toppled several governments in quick succession.
Not just Hong Kong, Venezuela, Syria but dozens of countries have been rocked by destabilizing riots and protest movements, including Lebanon, Chile, Argentina, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Egypt – the list goes on. An increasingly violent protest movement in Chile recently prompted the cancellation of the APEC conference, where the US and China were supposed to iron out “Phase One” of their trade deal (now the two sides need to find some other neutral territory for their meeting).
Though the Middle East hasn’t exactly been the most stable region in recent years, 2019 has been particularly troubled. After two years of relative calm, protests that started in Baghdad one month ago have spread across the country. Roughly 250 people have been killed in the chaos that has ensued.
Meanwhile, over in Lebanon, a wave of anti-government protests has swept across the country, motivated by many of the same factors: The controversial influence of the Iranian government in local affairs, economic mismanagement and endemic poverty, and a political establishment that’s widely seen as corrupt.
But in Lebanon, earlier this week, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet resigned. Hariri said he had “reached a dead end” following nearly two weeks of brutal protests that have convulsed the tiny nation and led to bloody clashes with the militant wing of Hezbollah, which is the junior partner to Hariri’s party in the Lebanese government.
Something similar almost happened in Iraq. According to an exclusive Reuters report, Iran stepped in to prevent the ouster of Iraqi PM Abdel Abdul Mahdi, who was reportedly on the cusp of being ousted by two of the country’s most influential political figures as the anti-government protests worsened.
The two men are themselves political rivals: Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri, both of whom control Shiite backed militias
Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded this week that Abdul Mahdi call an early election to quell the biggest mass protests in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The demonstrations are fueled by anger at corruption and widespread economic hardship.
Sadr had urged his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri, whose alliance of Iran-backed militias is the second-biggest political force in parliament, to help push out Abdul Mahdi.
But a surprise visit by Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC international offshot Quds Force intervened by asking al-Amiri and his Iranian-backed militias to continue supporting Abdul Mahdi. Several senior Iraqi officials have told reporters that Soleimani showed up at a secret meeting in Baghdad on Wednesday that was supposed to be run by Abdul Mahdi, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Soleimani and many of the militia leaders who are loyal to Amiri raised concerns at the meeting that ousting Abdul Mahdi could weaken the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of mostly Iran-backed Shiite militias who have allies in the Iraq’s parliament and government.
As commander of the Quds force, Soleimani helps coordinate Tehran-backed militias across the region in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He is a frequent visitor to Iraq, and, much to Israel’s chagrin, his growing influence within the Iraqi government is emblematic of Iran’s growing influence not only in Iraq, but in Lebanon and elsewhere. And if Iraq slides into chaos, Iran risks losing all of the influence it worked so hard to build. At times it seems as if Iran is an even larger powerbroker in the Shiite majority country than the US.
Abdul Mahdi’s fate remains unclear – despite the maneuver behind the scenes to keep him in place. He took office a year ago, but the protests that have rocked his government are unlike anything experienced by either of his predecessors who have ruled since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Sadr, the populist cleric, was less than pleased with Soleimani’s intervention and Amiri’s decision to go back on his pledge to try and topple the PM. “I will never enter into alliances with you after today,” Sadr reportedly said to Amiri after the meeting, according to Reuters.