Iraq’s unrest could pave the way for profound political reforms
More than two months after Iraqis headed to the polls to elect a new parliament and as Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose reformist-nationalist bloc emerged as the biggest winner, was busy hammering together a coalition that represents all Iraqis and promising to put the country on a new track, sporadic protests broke out in the oil-rich southern province in Basra on July 8 that quickly spread north, reaching Baghdad on Friday. Initially, protestors in mostly Shiite provinces were complaining about poor services, power and water shortages, unemployment and official corruption. But as the economic unrest, which turned violent at times, entered its third week, there are now fears that it could spiral out of control.
This is the biggest challenge facing the government since the Sunni protests of 2008 and 2013. The caretaker government of Haider Al-Abadi has tried to stamp out the protests by force – 14 protesters were killed by Sunday – only to change course and commit to carrying out ad hoc reforms. Senior officials in the provinces were fired, and Abadi promised to release millions of dollars to boost public services. But by Monday the demonstrations were spreading farther north, reaching Kirkuk, as angry Iraqis shouted anti-Iran slogans and denounced political parties and their armed militias.
Iran may have triggered the protests in Basra when it cut the power supply to the province, alleging that the Iraqi government had failed to pay overdue bills. Tehran may have tried to reshuffle the political scene in Iraq since its proxy, Al-Dawa Party, had little chance of joining Al-Sadr’s new coalition. It may also have wanted to send a message to the Trump administration, which was about to impose new economic sanctions after the United States had withdrawn from the nuclear deal.
The protests have suspended political negotiations in Baghdad, while the election committee was still carrying out a manual vote count amid allegations that the voting process last May was fraudulent. Adding to public anger was the curious incident when flames destroyed a central depot last month where original ballots were stored. Meanwhile, Parliament’s term had expired, resulting in a dangerous power vacuum.
Public pressure is essential in empowering Iraqi nationalists who are the country’s last chance.
Osama Al Sharif
The protests underline growing frustration with a dysfunctional and corrupt political system which the US had installed after its 2003 invasion. It is a system that had allowed Iraq’s historic nemesis, Iran, to infiltrate the country and eventually manipulate its political system through pro-Iran religious parties. The miserable reality today is that Iraq has been robbed of its fortunes by a corrupt ruling elite while ordinary Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, are denied basic services as they endure sectarian violence, poverty, unemployment, lawlessness, cronyism and official corruption.
It was interesting to note that at one protest in Baghdad last week, demonstrators called for a secular state that is neither Shia nor Sunni. They also condemned political parties that are anchored in religious dogma and run armed militias.
As the protests gain traction it is impossible to predict how and when they will end. The government can do little to meet the street halfway as demands now shift towards fundamental political reforms. The political elite have no stomach for such deep-seated changes in the system, one that may make them accountable for the tens of billions of dollars that went missing in addition to possible culpability in sectarian incitement. Former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki is yet to answer for how Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, fell in a matter of days to Daesh fighters in 2014.
Aside from the war on Daesh, which has displaced millions of Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom are yet to be repatriated, Iraq faces the tall order of the reconstruction of mostly Sunni provinces. But for that to happen, Iraqis must achieve national reconciliation after years of civil strife and internecine fighting. Iraqi nationalists, such Al-Sadr, were trying to build the foundations for such a lengthy and arduous process. Now the country is in turmoil yet again.
The biggest achievement that could come from the ongoing unrest would be to limit Iran’s influence in Iraq, dismantle the Popular Mobilization Units, which had emerged as a major pro-Iranian political and military power, and end the rule of religious parties. That is easier said than done. But public pressure is essential in empowering Iraqi nationalists who are the country’s last chance.
The way forward should entail adopting major constitutional reforms that do away with the sectarian quota system and put the country along a secular path. That is the only way Iraq can emerge from a vortex of crises that have crippled a country that is rich in resources but is failing and struggling to stay intact. Unless such a process is launched, Iraq will quickly turn from a failed state to a failed non-state.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.