Why Iraq’s protests matter
The protests in Iraq may not produce change immediately, but they will affect the country’s ailing system of government in the long run, writes Salah Nasrawi
Iraqis are taking to the streets. Thousands gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on 7 August to protest against corruption and the centralisation of power. Similar protests took place in other cities, including Basra and the two Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Hundreds of Iraqis also gathered in front of several Iraqi embassies abroad in support of the protests.
Friday’s demonstrations, organised by young activists and joined by the disenchanted, were the second in a week in Baghdad and across Iraq, with participants initially calling on the government to address the country’s chronic energy shortages and lack of basic public services.
Temperatures above 50 degrees and power cuts that leave Iraqis with only a few hours of electricity per day coupled with severe shortages in running water and an unhealthy environment have exacerbated the effects of the current heat wave in the country.
The protesters blame the lack of essential services on poor government and rampant corruption. They say the crisis has stalled Iraq’s once-promising economy and contributed to the country’s instability. Many protesters blame corruption for wrecking living conditions and the country’s economic and political turmoil together with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Twelve years after the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime in the US-led invasion, Iraq’s ruling class has failed to rebuild the war-torn country despite receiving nearly one trillion dollars in oil revenues, leaving behind a deeply divided country steeped in ruin.
Leaving Iraq’s fragile political system unfettered, corruption has become deeply entrenched in Iraq’s state bureaucracy, and few Iraqis believe their political leaders are capable or willing to tackle the endemic graft problem.
In its 2014 corruption index, the international NGO Transparency International said Iraq was the fifth-most corrupt country in the world out of the 175 countries surveyed. Over more than a decade Iraq has remained among the top ten worse countries for corruption.
Most of Iraq’s political elite is believed to be involved in one type of corruption or another, plundering the country’s wealth in order to create rents that can be used to secure control of the government and build political and sectarian fiefdoms.
Corruption and the misuse of public office in Iraq is widespread and systematic. It includes bribery, extortion, embezzlement, fraud, legal plunder, money-trafficking and laundering, patronage, cronyism, nepotism and plutocracy.
Iraqis began unprecedented mass protests against corruption and government mismanagement in January 2011, influenced by the Arab Spring uprisings which broke out in several Arab countries to bring down their autocratic regimes.
Though former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki ruthlessly cracked down on the opposition, anti-corruption and pro-reform demonstrators continued to hold small protests every now and then but with no efforts made by the government to accede to the protesters’ demands.
The new wave of demonstrations against the electricity shortages started last month in the southern port city of Basra and was triggered by the killing of a demonstrator protesting against electricity cuts. Angry protesters then called on the local governor and council members to step down.
Late last week, train drivers for the Iraqi Railways Company protested in an unprecedented way at the delay in their monthly salaries when they blocked the main roads in Baghdad with trains. The staff of several state-owned industrial companies held similar demonstrations and cut roads in Baghdad for the same reason.
On 7 August, the security forces were out in strength to discourage protesters from reaching Tahrir Square in the heart of Baghdad, which had been chosen by organisers as the venue for their rally. Intimidation and harassment by the security forces and supporters of the ruling parties were reported to have forced thousands of people to join the demonstrations.
Public frustration has been building after the government announced austerity measures this year because of the severe budget deficit following a sharp fall in oil prices. However, it maintained the huge salaries and allowances received by senior officials.
Although the protesters have focused most of their anger on deteriorating living conditions and an almost total abandonment by the state of its responsibilities to society, the demonstrations have also highlighted Iraq’s deeper governance problems.
This wave of protests has revealed new forms of political mobilisation in response to ever-increasing grievances against the monopoly of power, political hegemony, cronyism and mismanagement.
Significantly, the protests have been held mostly in Shia-populated cities and towns, marking increasing dissatisfaction by the Iraqi Shia with the political class, mostly Islamic-oriented groups.
In a rare show of disdain for the Shia political oligarchy, protesters slammed what they called its “manipulation” of religion to maintain a grip on power and plunder the state’s resources.
Such sharp public salvos must have rung alarm bells with Shia religious and political leaders who are keen to defend the hard-won Shia rule in Iraq after the US-led invasion, especially at a time when they are being challenged by IS militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq.
The remarks must also have sounded a warning signal to elements of the Shia political groups who support the rule of clerics in state affairs based on Iranian ayatollah Khamenei’s concept of velayat faqih, or the rule of the jurist.
Sensing the danger to the Shia gains he has carefully nurtured, Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was quick to intervene and directed Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to take tougher measures against corruption and name politicians standing in the way of reform.
But criticisms of rising theocracy by the protesters have evoked strong reactions from Shia clerics and religious groups, who have attacked the organisers for being secular.
Sadr Al-Din Qubanchi, a Friday prayer imam in Najaf and a senior member of the Iraqi Supreme Council led by Amar Al-Hakim, called on Iraqis to boycott the demonstrations. Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the radical Assab Ahl Al-Haq, or “League of the Righteous,” militia, warned that the protesters “will be crossing a red line” if they criticise “religious elements.”
The protests have invested new energy in long-stagnating Iraqi politics, however. In an attempt to appease the protesters, Al-Abadi approved a wide-ranging reform plan that would abolish the three vice-presidential posts in the government as well as the office of deputy prime minister in order to slash spending and improve the government’s performance in the face of the mass protests.
Al-Abadi’s seven-point plan which promises anti-corruption reforms, a number of government posts be filled with political independents and drastic cuts in government jobs and some ministries has received parliamentary approval.
Doubts have also arisen about whether Al-Abadi’s package of reforms will be able to assuage the protesters, as many of them have voiced concerns that their demands for real change have gone unanswered.
To many analysts, the crisis would exacerbate if young activists will be able to forge across-nation alliance that will organize a bigger protest movement in case the reform programme falls short of their expectations.
Meanwhile, the protests and the power struggles they have led to have fully exposed the dysfunctional political system in Iraq forged following the US-led invasion and based on a quota system that distributes power among Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian groups.
The system, in theory forged to build a consensual democracy through power-sharing, has turned into the rule of an oligarchy where power resides with a political class controlled by a few religious families or groups.
The question now is whether the new crisis will change all that and allow a new and more viable and functional political system to emerge. This will largely depend on how the protest movement evolves and on whether it can provide a creative leadership and shape a strategic programme with realistic goals.
So far, the biggest weakness in the protest movement has been its fragmentation and lack of leadership. This makes it prone to manipulation by politicians who try to use the protests as a revolving door to go back to dirty politics.
There have already been signs that politicians and media figures with agendas are trying to use the protests to serve their own agendas. Leaders of groups that have been excluded from the government and militia chieftains aspiring for power are also taking advantage of the protests by adopting their slogans.
On the other hand, much will also depend on Al-Abadi and on whether he can deliver on pledges he has made in his reform programme. One of his biggest challenges will be how to deal with the country’s entrenched oligarchy, including vice-president and former prime minister Al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki who is Al-Abadi’s boss in the Dawa Party, is at the top of the protesters’ list of those they want to see stand trial on corruption and mismanagement charges, including by losing some one-third of Iraqi territory to IS jihadists.
While it is too early to judge the pros and cons of Iraq’s nascent protest movement, one of the most complex experiences in the country’s modern history, the effort is certainly being made, and it is worth supporting if it sets in motion a process that will help Iraq change and hopefully for the better.
This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Aug, 13, 2015