Iraq has witnessed over the past few weeks a growing mass protest movement with demonstrations held every Friday since July 31 at Liberation (Tahrir) Square in central Baghdad, as well as eight other major cities. The protests were triggered by severe electricity shortages during an exceptionally hot summer and the death of a young protester in Basra. But they turned into a popular uprising against rampant corruption, the corrupt ruling elite and its anti-democratic sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system that has been in place over the last 12 years, since the invasion and occupation of Iraq which led to the fall of Saddam’s dictatorship.
“Lebanonization” of Iraq
The popular uprising may seem spontaneous but it is actually a result of the accumulation of tragic consequences of successive crises produced by the sectarian-ethnic power-sharing setup implemented by the U.S. occupation authorities – leading to a general crisis engulfing all aspects of life. U.S. occupation chiefs set up a governance system based solely and divisively on religion and ethnicity. The sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system in Iraq ensures power distribution in the state according to sectarian (Shia and Sunni) and ethnic (Kurdish) affiliation, rather than considering Iraqis as equal citizens irrespective of their sectarian and ethnic affiliation (as would be the case in a democratic civil state).
This is similar to the Lebanon-style sectarian formula which plunged Lebanon into civil war (thus the term “Lebanonization”). In Iraq too this system exasperated sectarian tensions, resulting in sectarian war during the period 2006-2007, and has pushed Iraq to the brink of division along sectarian-ethnic lines.
Islamic parties therefore compete to monopolize leading posts in government in accordance with this formula. These parties falsely claim to represent the so-called “constituents” of an Iraqi society which is reduced to Shia, Sunni and Kurds, glossing over the country’s social structure (and class divisions). In order to maintain their hegemony and monopoly of political power, these parties agitate and stir up sectarian divisions to serve their political agenda.
Rampant corruption and paralysis
This flawed power-sharing system is one of the main causes for the rampant corruption and cover-up scandals through deals between the big political blocs.
The sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system has also led to the paralysis of the parliament and the lack of independence of the judiciary. This is why reforming the judiciary is currently one of the main demands of the protest movement.
The struggle among the ruling groups over power and wealth has been intensifying, even inside each political bloc. Deep divisions, for example, continue to plague the “National Alliance” which groups Islamic Shia parties. Even the Kurdistan bloc has not been spared such inner conflicts, as recent developments in the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan testify. As a result, the pace of implementing the “Political Agreement,” which was the basis for the formation in September 2014 of the current government led by Haider al-Abadi, has been slow, failing to carry through important legislative measures.
Meanwhile, the living conditions of the people have continued to deteriorate, with the miserable failure of the state to provide basic services especially electricity, in addition to the worsening security situation, as a result of rampant corruption in all state institutions.
The ISIS factor
One of the most important factors that contributed to deepening the crisis and intensifying the suffering of the people is the ferocious the war against ISIS (also known by its Arab acronym “Daesh”), since the fall of the city of Mosul on June 10, 2014, and the subsequent loss of government control over one-third of Iraq’s territory. It was a result of the collapse of a military and security institution that was built on a sectarian basis and suffered corruption and mismanagement. Although some significant gains were made against ISIS in Diyala and Salah-al-Din provinces, the fall of the city of Ramadi, the capital of Al-Anbar province, west of Baghdad, in May 2015 has revealed that the lessons of Mosul have not been properly drawn.
Poverty growing, wealth for a few
The political crisis was further aggravated by the worsening economic situation after the recent sharp fall in oil prices, leading to the fall of Iraq’s oil revenues by half. The existence of more than 3 million internally displaced people, as a result of the war with ISIS, has also created an enormous humanitarian and economic problem that exceeds the capabilities of the state. All this has led to an increase in the proportion of people under the poverty line to over 30% of the population. Meanwhile, a small social stratum of parasitic nature and a corrupt political elite have continued to accumulate enormous wealth and enjoy extravagant privileges.
All these factors confirm once again the conclusion highlighted by the Iraqi Communist Party that the existing political system, based on sectarian-ethnic power-sharing, cannot tackle the fundamental problems facing the people and country, or achieve decisive victories on the military and security front.
The mass protest movement
This situation resulted in growing popular resentment and big protests all over Iraq during recent months. The most outstanding example has been the continuing protest movement, since November 2014, of tens of thousands of workers in the so-called “self-financing” companies of the Ministry of Industry demanding the payment of their wages and resisting privatization plans.
The recent mass demonstrations which erupted against corruption, lack of electricity and basic services, and have continued in recent weeks, should therefore be viewed and analyzed against this political, social and economic background.
The ongoing peaceful protest movement, with demonstrations every Friday in Tahrir Square in Baghdad and other major cities, has a dominant civil and democratic character. It has now attracted hundreds of thousands of people, with a significant participation of youth and women, and from various social strata. The government headed by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has so far responded positively to the demands of the demonstrations, announcing a number of reforms and promising some more. These reforms have so far included abolishing three vice presidential positions as well as two posts of deputy prime minister. This meant that Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, who is Abadi’s predecessor and main rival, lost his position. Maliki is still the leader of the Da’wah party, a major Shia Islamic party, while Abadi is a member of its political bureau. Other reforms have included reducing the size of his government by a third.
Some victories, but the people want and need more
Abadi’s decision to abolish the three vice presidential positions and the two deputy prime minister posts was an important step against the harmful power-sharing system. But far more radical changes and legislation are needed to destabilize the foundations of this system and put an end to it. It is a big challenge. Just to give an example, Maliki is still holding on to his position as vice-president despite the elimination of his post and the parliament’s endorsement of Abadi’s decision!
If the reforms begin to seriously undermine the power-sharing system, it is expected that the ruling groups (Shia, Sunni and Kurdish) will begin to bury their divisions and unite to preserve their positions in power and privileges. There are already signs of this process beginning.
Iran is also trying to rebuild unity among the major Shia Islamic groups, with the aim of maintaining the cohesion of the Shia alliance and its dominant position in power.
But the demonstrations are pressing for the speedy implementation of these reforms and voicing more demands, including the reform of the judiciary, combating corruption and demanding that those responsible for squandering public money be brought to justice. The momentum of the protests has recently extended to targeting local governments in central and southern provinces, including Basra in the south, demanding the dismissal of several governors and abolishing provincial and municipal councils.
These important developments prove that when the people act in unity, in word and deed, they turn into a powerful force that compels the rulers to comply with their legitimate demands. The parliament was forced to endorse Abadi’s proposed first batch of reforms without any debate, and even presented its own additional list of reforms!
The Iraqi Communist Party has declared its full support for the mass protest movement and its demands. It welcomed Abadi’s decisions and called for effective measures to turn the promises into real action and to rid the bodies that are charged with implementing the reforms of corruption and incompetence. It voiced its support for the demand of reforming the judiciary. In addition, it has stressed the need for popular oversight, through the participation of representatives of the demonstrations and civil society in the new bodies that are responsible for implementing the reforms. This is essential to monitor implementation and expose those who attempt to impede or obstruct the reforms.
On August 7, when the second big demonstration took place in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, the top Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani announced his support for the demands of the demonstrators and called on Prime Minister Abadi to take firm measures against corruption and corrupt politicians. Sistani’s position has so far helped to shield Abadi against his critics and opponents within the Islamic Shia political camp and also against external pressures.
It is now clear that the growing peaceful protest movement is being targeted by political forces that are hostile to the popular demands as well as the civil and democratic character of the demonstrations. During the third massive demonstration in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on August 14, an organized group of thugs armed with knives attacked young protesters. The attack was repulsed but a few people were injured, including a young female activist. In recent days, armed groups have attacked peaceful protesters who had camped out in front of the offices of the provincial government in the cities of Basra and Hilla in southern Iraq.
Prime Minister Abadi has given assurances that the security forces are committed to ensuring the safety of demonstrators and enabling them to exercise their constitutional right to free expression and peaceful protest. However, judging by previous experiences, including attacks on the mass protest movement in February 2011 during the reign of former Prime Minister Maliki, such assurances are not enough.
Achieving the aims of the popular protest movement, and determining how radical the reform measures are, will depend on the unity of the forces participating in the movement and their ability to consolidate it. This is crucial for deterring hostile forces and also resisting external and foreign interference that aims at sabotaging the protests or diverting them away from their objectives. In this respect, it will also be very important to exercise utmost vigilance against attempts to stir up sectarian strife.
Iraq at a crucial turning point
The continuing mass protests have demonstrated once again the tremendous potential for changing the balance of political and societal forces through building a mass popular movement. Only through this change can the root cause of the crisis be tackled, by getting rid of the sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system and laying the foundations of a civil democratic state and social justice.
It is a crucial juncture in our Iraqi people’s struggle.
“When the Iraqi People Have Spoken” – a short film about the mass demonstrations in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Baghdad:
Photo: A scene from the huge demonstrations happening weekly in Iraq. Salam Ali/Facebook