Class-based mobilization as weapon against sectarianism: A comparative study of labor unions in Lebanon and Iraq

Name of applicant

Anne Kirstine Rønn


Postdoctoral Fellow


London School of Economics, Middle East Center


DKK 1,020,000



Type of grant

Internationalisation Fellowships


This project is a study of labor unions in Lebanon and Iraq, which emerged from mass protests in the two countries in 2019. During these protests, thousands took to the streets to demand the fall of the regimes and the end of sectarianism (the politicization of ethno-religious identities). The unions were a way for citizens to break with sectarianism by forming new political organizations that unite different ethno-religious groups around shared class-based interests. Building new political organizations, however, is difficult in countries like Lebanon and Iraq, where the elites constantly seek to co-opt and infiltrate challengers to their power. Still, several unions have remained active in the years that followed the protests. By studying what enabled these unions to survive, the project aims to bring us a step closer to understanding the preconditions for reducing sectarianism and promoting peace in Lebanon, Iraq as well other societies that are marked by sectarian conflict and divides.


Sectarianism is a main source of conflict and instability in the Middle East and other parts of the world such as the Balkans. At the same time, the problem of sectarianism is difficult to address, because elites typically seek to keep populations divided along ethno-religious lines to preserve their own power. In recent years, however, we have seen an increasing number of popular protests in countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, where citizens have mobilized against sectarianism. Scholars generally argue that such protests can contribute to reduce sectarianism and promote peace and stability in conflict-ridden societies in the Middle East and beyond. This, however, requires that they can foster new political organizations, which are based on other identities than sect. Existing research has shown how such organizations can emerge from mass protests, and how elites succeed in crumbling many of them later on, but we still know little about how they can survive elite counter-strategies and become viable political players. This is why the project focuses on the survival of unions.


The project will take place at London School of Economics' Middle East Centre (LSE, MEC), which is a leading platform for Middle East studies globally. To investigate labor unions in Lebanon and Iraq, I will draw on different sources of qualitative data such as activist testimonies, social media content and interviews conducted with union members during fieldwork visits to the two countries. Throughout my two-year stay at LSE, MEC, I will conduct four studies. First, I will map the different new labor unions in Iraq and Lebanon to identify their main characteristics. Afterwards, I will conduct in-depth studies of two selected unions (one in each country) to see what has enabled them to survive in the period between 2019 and 2023. Here, I am interested in examining how factors such as organizational structures, network ties within the wider civil society and tactical experiences can enable unions to pursue effective survival strategies in episodes where elite members seek to co-opt or infiltrate them. The final study will explore the extent to which findings from my in-depth studies can be generalized to other unions in Lebanon and Iraq. My study is the first systematic, cross-country analysis of non-sectarian unions and aims to show how class-based mobilization can be a weapon against sectarianism. Besides providing important contributions to the academic literatures, it also generates practical recommendations for how to enhance the viability of non-sectarian organizations in Lebanon and Iraq.

Back to listing page