Mass up­ris­ings do not erupt with­out a trig­ger and in Iraq there was more than one

The National - News - - OPINION - SAAD ABDULRAZZA­K HUS­SAIN Saad Abdulrazza­k Hus­sain is a re­searcher for the Iraq Stud­ies in­sti­tute in Beirut and a for­mer mem­ber of par­lia­ment in Iraq

The mael­strom of fac­tors lead­ing to Iraq’s upris­ing, now in its sixth week, have been brew­ing for a long time. Some go back years and have their roots in the calls for re­form dur­ing the gov­ern­ment of Haider Al Abadi, which were sup­ported by some par­lia­men­tar­i­ans but, as of­ten hap­pens in the po­lit­i­cal arena in Iraq, as soon as the rul­ing par­ties sensed a lull in the rage of the masses call­ing for change, they ig­nored their de­mands. Then, the pro-re­form move­ment was lim­ited to Fri­day gath­er­ings in Bagh­dad’s Free­dom Square, rather than the throngs of thou­sands that now fill the streets daily. The ma­jor­ity of those crowds were act­ing on the or­ders of the cleric Mo­q­tada Al Sadr, who has spo­ken in sup­port of this protest move­ment.

In the face of wide­spread crit­i­cism in 2015, Mr Al Abadi pro­posed far-reach­ing changes, in­clud­ing hold­ing an in­quiry into cor­rup­tion and scrap­ping sec­tar­ian and party quo­tas in the ap­point­ment of top of­fi­cials. Yet those prom­ises went un­ful­filled.

The ma­jor­ity of the demon­stra­tors to­day are young, some of them were born af­ter the 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq, or were chil­dren at the time. So far, the protest move­ment has not nom­i­nated lead­ers through whom to chan­nel its de­mands, per­haps be­cause of the spon­tane­ity with which the upris­ing be­gan. But their in­dig­na­tion is clear, prompted by the cor­rup­tion that has plagued a suc­ces­sion of ad­min­is­tra­tions since 2003. It has man­i­fested in or­gan­i­sa­tions that over­ride state in­sti­tu­tions and in the fail­ure to try cor­rupt of­fi­cials.

Pro­test­ers have also been mo­bilised into ac­tion by state bu­reau­cracy; the fail­ure to pro­vide ba­sic ser­vices such as elec­tric­ity, drink­ing wa­ter, ed­u­ca­tion and health care; and high un­em­ploy­ment, par­tic­u­larly among young peo­ple.

They are de­mand­ing the dis­so­lu­tion of par­lia­ment, the im­me­di­ate hold­ing of free and fair elec­tions, su­per­vised by the United Na­tions, and changes to the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, en­abling them to se­lect can­di­dates in­de­pen­dent of the ex­ist­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Their cry for re­forms go fur­ther than ever be­fore: they want a new con­sti­tu­tion for the coun­try that en­shrines the sep­a­ra­tion of re­li­gion and pol­i­tics, the for­ma­tion of an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary coun­cil, the dis­band­ing of mili­tias and the use of weapons to be con­fined to the state. And they want to abol­ish all priv­i­leges en­joyed by the pres­i­dent, par­lia­ment and prime min­is­ter. Crit­i­cally, they want to en­sure Iraq is pro­tected from Ira­nian in­ter­fer­ence.

So far, more than 260 peo­ple have been killed and thou­sands in­jured. There ap­pear to be forces tar­get­ing the demon­stra­tors with live am­mu­ni­tion and tear gas. While the gov­ern­ment has pub­licly re­nounced the killing of demon­stra­tors, who are ex­press­ing their le­git­i­mate right to protest, there are sug­ges­tions that el­e­ments linked to the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps are be­hind the shoot­ings.

That has not stopped demon­stra­tors in­creas­ing their de­mands. Ini­tially they fo­cused on job op­por­tu­ni­ties but that quickly swelled to calls for a change in gov­er­nance. This was il­lus­trated by the re­jec­tion of all fig­ures of the regime. Prime min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul Mahdi of­fered his res­ig­na­tion, which was ac­cepted by pres­i­dent Barham Salih con­di­tional on find­ing a re­place­ment, but that has not been enough to quell pub­lic out­rage. Amid shift­ing al­le­giances, Mr Al Sadr’s at­tempts to forge an al­liance with Hadi Al Amiri, head of the Fateh bloc, to un­seat Mr Ab­dul Mahdi re­sulted in him be­ing ex­pelled from demon­stra­tions in Na­jaf last month. Even the coun­try’s most se­nior Shi­ite cleric, Ay­a­tol­lah Al Sis­tani, has been in­ef­fec­tual in es­tab­lish­ing calm.

When Mr Ab­dul Mahdi first took up his post a year ago, there was hope of some of th­ese prob­lems im­prov­ing be­cause he did not be­long to a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal party. He as­sumed power as a re­sult of the bloody upris­ing in Basra, which saw Mr Al Abadi ousted as prime min­is­ter. Mr Ab­dul Mahdi was cho­sen as a re­sult of an un­der­stand­ing reached by Mr Al Sadr’s Sa­iron bloc, the largest bloc in the Iraqi par­lia­ment, and Mr Al Amiri’s Fateh front. How­ever, the ma­jor mis­take made by Mr Ab­dul Mahdi was se­lect­ing his min­is­ters on the ba­sis of quo­tas, in the same way pre­vi­ous min­istry ap­point­ments had been made. Mr Ab­dul Mahdi should have cho­sen his own min­is­ters on the ba­sis of com­pe­tence. He should have re­jected any re­quest from the rul­ing par­ties in the quota sys­tem, even if this had led to his own re­moval. He would have gained the sup­port of the peo­ple as a re­sult and might have had more suc­cess in in­sti­gat­ing re­forms.

In­stead, the progress of his gov­ern­ment has been very slow and it has fallen into the trap of once again mak­ing empty prom­ises. Mr Ab­dul Mahdi’s lead­er­ship has been marked by a fail­ure to ef­fect any change.

De­spite the abun­dance of mo­tives for re­volt, the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of the masses has come rel­a­tively late. For some, the lack of ear­lier ac­tion was a re­sult of sec­tar­ian in­flu­ence. The ab­sence of a mid­dle-class cul­ture has also been a con­tribut­ing fac­tor. The peo­ple who need to see an im­me­di­ate change in their sit­u­a­tion are mainly Shi­ite, be­cause the poor­est prov­inces in Iraq are the nine Shi­ite dis­tricts in the cen­tre and south. This has led to con­flict be­tween Shi­ite fac­tions. Divi­sion be­tween Shi­ite par­ties has long been a re­al­ity in Iraq, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for those par­ties to en­ter elec­tions un­der a sin­gle elec­toral list. Dis­agree­ment has also erupted among par­ties whose first pri­or­ity is loy­alty to Iran. That con­flict be­tween Shi­ite cit­i­zens and par­ties reached its zenith in the Oc­to­ber 1 upris­ing.

Mass up­ris­ings do not erupt with­out a trig­ger. Iraq’s protests dif­fer from Le­banon’s as there was no sin­gle clear trig­ger, un­like in Beirut, where the pro­posed taxes on What­sApp proved a tip­ping point. Yet even those who called for demon­stra­tions on so­cial me­dia can­not have an­tic­i­pated the ex­tent of what has tran­spired in Iraq.

The im­por­tant thing that has un­folded over the past few weeks is the per­sis­tent call - even in the face of vi­o­lence – for the sep­a­ra­tion of re­li­gion and the state, and pro­tect­ing Iraq from sec­tar­ian, tribal and re­gional af­fil­i­a­tions. Al­though the ma­jor­ity of the protest­ing masses are Shi­ite, their de­mands do not play to sec­tar­i­an­ism. The demon­stra­tors have also crit­i­cised the pres­ence of armed groups and Iran’s in­ter­fer­ence in Iraqi af­fairs.

The big­gest ques­tion for many re­mains: what can this upris­ing achieve? The an­swer is not easy be­cause the par­ties that have ruled Iraq since 2003 have man­aged to en­rich them­selves by ac­quir­ing the best gov­ern­men­tal com­mer­cial con­tracts for their own ben­e­fit. Fi­nan­cial and ad­min­is­tra­tive cor­rup­tion is en­demic in all its forms and the deep state, made up of Shi­ite, Sunni and Kur­dish par­ties ben­e­fit­ing from the coun­try’s oil ex­ports, will fight all at­tempts to dis­rupt it.

Nor will Iran give up Iraq eas­ily. Iraq rep­re­sents a po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and ide­o­log­i­cal part­ner and it will want to con­trol Iraqis will­ing to do its bid­ding, as long as it can. Many of the upris­ing’s de­mands can­not be achieved im­me­di­ately. It will take years to undo the ill ef­fects of in­sti­tu­tion­alised cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment.

It is dif­fi­cult to pre­dict how the upris­ing will end. There are a num­ber of sce­nar­ios that could take place: an un­der­stand­ing could be reached be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the demon­stra­tors by find­ing a mid­dle ground. This could be the best out­come. Al­ter­na­tively, the upris­ing could be met with fur­ther force, which will se­verely iso­late the gov­ern­ment.

That is not to undo the achieve­ments of the upris­ing so far: namely, that it has raised aware­ness among Iraqis, ce­mented the idea of a na­tional pride among the peo­ple of Iraq, and raised the pro­file of fe­male cam­paign­ers. Above all, it has de­stroyed the idea that the gov­ern­ment can do as it likes, de­spite the will of the peo­ple.

Ab­dul Mahdi’s lead­er­ship has been marked by a fail­ure to ef­fect change

Reuters

Demon­stra­tors gather for anti-gov­ern­ment protests in Bagh­dad

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