Iraqi Protests: Deep Anger and Simple Demands
Darya Najim and Krekar Mustafa.
Editor’s Note: Below we print an opinion article submitted by two Iraqi Kurdish activists. In this and future “opinion articles”, we aim to present debate/discussion and not necessarily an organizational position statement of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists.
Every summer, Iraq witnesses waves of protests over the lack of simple yet different services, including water and electricity. However, the protests this year are different and have attracted more attention from the international media compared to previous years. Nowhere has been hit harder by the protests than Basra, a city of four million with 30 percent unemployment rate and 22 percent of the whole population living under the poverty line. The protests left at least 16 people killed and hundreds wounded. The protestors have simple demands but demonstrate a lot of anger manifested in the burning of political parties’ headquarters and government buildings. Despite its problems, these protests show a complete failure of the state. The low turnout of voters in the May elections was a clear-cut proof that it was going to be followed by some form of violent protests.
The protests, however, have some drawbacks. Most of the protesters on the streets of Iraqi cities are young fresh graduates with no organizational skills or concept of an alternative to bring their own demands into efficient expression. Due to the lack of leadership and organization, these protests have not been able to formulate an agenda or an alternative to the current political system. Hence, they have failed to turn the protests into a movement that can lead demand radical change that the country needs. Hence, the protests are another chain of complaints in which some are killed followed by very little change if any. As a result, they are slowly coming to an end and probably reduced to Friday meetings. Though one might think violent protests might finally force the government to act, Iraq’s recent history of violence has turned violence to normal, and probably even a “natural” form of events.
People are angry at the political elite, and at the government, but especially those whom they accuse of being Iranian and US puppets. This year’s protests standout in terms of representation because sectarian conflicts and the whole rhetoric of even if they are horrible at least they are my horrible is long dead. People are no longer amused at their leaders who make promises that they never fulfill. The years of people placing faith in political elites have gone. As the past fifteen years have shown that these promises are empty, people’s rope of patience has finally been worn out. However, the impact the sectarian war has created is still here. The division among the three largest groups, Shia, Sunni and Kurds are still in effect. When the Shias started protesting, the Sunnis and the Kurds did not join in protests. The same is true for the other two groups. The protests cannot become country-wide for this particular reason. Each group wants peace under its own terms. The aftermath of the ISIS war and the aggression towards the Kurdish referendum intensified the sectarian division. The anger is not fueled by sectarian divisions, but has scattered the protests and have made them less productive and impactful.
Although the political elites are the face of corruption, the roots of the problems are deeper. The problems lie at the failing structures that have been put in place especially following the 2003 US invasion. They lie in the lack of transparency regarding the oil revenues that Iraq sells worth billions of dollars when the answer of what actually happens to the money is still blurry. They lie within this unending patriarchy that has established a mentality amongst people that some blindly accept as the ultimate truth and the view that though corruption and unequal distribution of wealth are destroying the country, there is not much one can do about it.
The problems are structural and have always been there since Iraq became a state. These problems are due to the complete failure of not only the existing government but also of the state and the political system. This failure of the political system has also been external intervention along with its ethnic and sectarian conflicts. The United States and Iran have been the face of external intervention, and people are no longer tolerating it. The constant contradictions and the ongoing wars have made people skeptical of everyone involved; and have also contributed to the rise in tensions in the country. Even though the US has been selling the idea of a democratic and secular government, it turned its back on Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya Bloc in 2010, a secular block that won the elections. The US finally agreed to the appointment of Maliki, a sectarian and corrupt politician who engulfed Iraq in ethnic and sectarian conflicts over his eight-year rule. This step caused much damage to secularism in Iraq and secular movements as a whole in Iraq, from which it has never recovered and might fail to recover from for a long period of time to come. Had this secular movement come to power in 2010, one third of Iraq might have not fallen to ISIS.
The misfortunes that colonialism caused is still lingering and safeguarded by the political elite for economic interests. One of the main reasons for Iraq’s problems over the last century is its centralized state and governance, yet the political elite of the “new Iraq” has been taking Iraq in the path of even more centralization. This form of nation-state has not worked and will not work in Iraq. It is time to rethink the political system as a whole. Iraq as a state has reached complete dysfunctionality. Millions of people are angry at corruption, but this political elite can maintain its power and survive only through corruption. In fact, corruption is an essential part of the state and the system. The government has silenced dissent with the pretext of the war against the so-called Islamic State. Now that the terrorist organization is defeated, people point to another failure of the state, its inability to provide public services. If this inability lingers on, Iraq may face the rise of another wave of violence and protests.
Darya Najim is a Master’s candidate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. She is currently writing her thesis on the women’s movement in Rojava, Northern Syria.
Krekar Mustafa completed his Master’s at the Political Science department of the Free University of Berlin. His thesis was on state failure in the case of Iraq.