Iraq: Basra Protests Evolve, Confuse And Have The Potential To Change Everything

Mustafa Habib.

The process to install new governors in Basra and Baghdad is proving almost as chaotic as the formation of the federal government. In Basra last weekend, the process also become confusingly entangled with ongoing anti-government protests.

The current governor of the province of Basra, Asaad al-Eidani, was elected as an MP to the parliament in Baghdad. This means that it would be unconstitutional for him to retain his job as governor – however he has yet to officially give up the post. This is why, last week, around two-thirds of the province’s council members made their way to the council offices to elect a new governor.

As the council members arrived, they found dozens of protestors outside who wished to prevent the meeting. The councillors made it inside but were unable to come to any kind of conclusion as to who the new governor should be. When they eventually left the building again, they found many more demonstrators outside.

The protests were the result of an organic and unexpected alliance between three different parts of Basra society. 

The sitting governor, al-Eidani, claimed that the demonstrators were all there to support him. But, as one of the activists involved, Mohammed al-Hajaj, explains, this simply isn’t true. It was only the first batch of protestors who were there for the governor. The later demonstrators, which were much larger were there for the usual reasons.

“We are against the governor and the provincial council too,” al-Hajaj told NIQASH. “They are all responsible for the failures in this city and the bad conditions. But now because of the success of last summer’s protests and the politicians’ fear of these protests, they have started to use the protests for their own ends. But we will not let this happen.”

Just a few weeks earlier, the same politicians who now appeared to support the protests or want to be associated with them, were firmly opposed to them. Since the protests began, many of the organizing participants and activists have been arrested. Still, the local politicians don’t want to see a repeat of the chaos the city experienced earlier in the year and appear to believe that if they align themselves with the protestors, they may be able to hinder this.

The protests in Basra first began this summer, as locals in southern provinces had to simultaneously deal with a ack of state services, drought and contaminated water that poisoned hundreds as well as electricity shortages and blackouts. At one stage, it was almost as if the city of Basra had been taken over by the protestors. Demonstrators were so angry they set fire to various party headquarters, regardless of who they were affiliated with. The population in southern Iraq is mostly Shiite Muslim and some segments are close to the neighbouring Iranian government. But the demonstrators also vented their anger on the headquarters of parties considered close to Iran. No quarter was given, all officials were seen as culpable.

This came as a surprise to some observers because as a city, Basra had always been politically closer to Iran and a stronghold of the armed militias who pledge allegiance to Iran. Many of the fighters in those militias came from these parts of Iraq. The protests also spread to other parts of southern Iraq and that level of dissatisfaction has continued to this day. 

How did this come about? The protests were the result of an organic and unexpected alliance between three different parts of Basra society. Firstly, they involved lower-income locals, who tend to identify themselves first and foremost as members of the larger tribes and clans in the area. A lot of these families live from agriculture and the water shortage had an extreme impact on them. For the first time, some Basra tribespeople decided to move to other areas where there was more water. This resulted in fighting between them and the tribes already in those areas. 

The second group is comprised of civil society activists and organizations – many of them established around 2015 as part of well-funded international efforts to inspire more democracy in Iraq. They have undertaken many pro-human rights campaigns and were particularly effective in their use of social media to organize and communicate with other demonstrators. These individuals tended to invent hashtags and share pictures of the protests online but they did not themselves get involved in the violence or arson.

The third segment of the Basra population involved in the protest were the city’s liberal-leaning businesspeople, who have become frustrated with the inefficacy of the local government. They perceive the continuous wheeling and dealing and sharing out of fees and contracts among the political class as a major problem, one that has caused much of the current breakdown in state services and is responsible for the lack of progress on important infrastructure projects. This group participated more quietly in the demonstrations and played a role in starting a dialogue with local politicians.

Despite unusually high poverty in the city, Basra remains one of Iraq’s most important cities. It is the third largest metropolis after Baghdad and Mosul and also home to Iraq’s only and all-important shipping ports. Additionally the province produces over three-quarters of Iraq’s oil, the proceeds of which keep the country running. It is also an area widely considered loyal to the Shiite Muslim-led government.

All of this is why the protests in this area are so important and why they have the potential to change Iraq’s political landscape in the long run. The protests have already had a significant impact on the federal parliament in Baghdad, forcing politicians to speed up the selection of the Speaker of parliament.

There is no doubt that Baghdad will continue to make the protests in southern Iraq a focus, no matter how confusing the situation becomes.

Image: Basra protestors don the same yellow vests as French anti-government protestors.

Posted on Niqash September 2019

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