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

In Iraq and Lebanon, different events sparked current mass demonstrations, but protesters in both countries believe their governments are broken. Journalist Pesha Magid, reporting from Baghdad, and special correspondent Jane Ferguson, in Beirut, join Nick Schifrin to discuss economic and political instability in Iraq and Lebanon and how proximity to Iran is looming over both nations.

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  • 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:

    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:

    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:

    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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