Only genuine, radical and deep-seated reform can save Iraq
In 1381, ordinary people in many parts of England rose up. They were angry about jobs, pay, oppressive taxes and the corrupt influence of foreigners over government decisions. One of their leaders, Wat Tyler, is said to have lived in a village just a mile from where I write this. At Smithfield, just outside London, on June 14 that year, the king, the ill-fated Richard II, promised wholesale reform. The next day, Tyler was invited to meet the king in person and was murdered by members of his entourage, the revolt suppressed and all concessions revoked.
It’s an old story. Think of the Peasants’ War in Germany in 1524/5, the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace in England, and the 1848 revolutions in Germany and Austria. Reactionary or incompetent governments faced with popular anger and demands for reform will say anything to get people off the streets, then recant and use brutal force to quash dissent.
It’s something we have also seen across the Middle East and North Africa over the last decade. And now we’re seeing it again in Iraq. I say “again” because there’s a recurring pattern. Nouri Al-Maliki used the Iraqi security forces (ISF) — largely controlled by his appointees — to suppress demonstrations in Baghdad in 2011 and, most notoriously, in Hawija in 2013. These were largely Sunni-led and were exploited by Daesh. Since then, we have seen broader-based popular discontent grow and metastasize in the largely Shiite southern governorates of Basra, Al-Muthanna, Dhi Qar, and Maysan, with major outbreaks in each of the last four years.
Read more about the protests here: Death toll climbs as Iraq unrest hits Baghdad’s volatile Sadr City
The current protests are perhaps the most serious so far. They seem to have erupted spontaneously and drawn in a wide variety of unaligned individuals and groups, often new to protest, without any visible central leadership. They began to snowball in Baghdad but spread like an avalanche, with significant levels of violence, attacks on buildings reportedly belonging to Da’wa, Al-Hikma, Fadhilah, the Communist Party, Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq and even the government, and a massively heavy handed reaction by the security forces, which have so far killed about 100 demonstrators and wounded thousands more. And it’s not even summer, when protests over inadequate electricity provision have been the norm for years.
From everything we know — the postings, comments, chants and placards of the demonstrators and the sort of things their invited representatives have been saying to the Council of Representatives — the reason for all this is much the same as it was for Tyler 700 years ago: Anger at a corrupt, oppressive and exploitative ruling elite, whom no amount of elections has managed to displace, and a demand for real reform that delivers services, housing and jobs. The Cabinet in emergency session has issued a long list of decisions designed to demonstrate that they finally understand all this. But these commitments are unbudgeted, uncosted and entirely unrealistic given the dysfunctionality of Iraq’s government machine, constructed as it is out of intertwined patronage networks closely linked to the major political parties, who govern in the interests not of the nation or the people but themselves.
People have lost faith in a system that claims to be democratic and progressive but is, in reality, in hock to factional and external interests.
Sir John Jenkins
Iran — whose perceived malign influence has been a focus of much popular anger in the past and is again this time — has tried to blame the protests on Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. Perhaps to distract attention, they claim to have thwarted an Israeli plot to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose lieutenants in Iraq more and more brazenly micromanage affairs to suit Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) through carefully constructed networks of influence and sometimes simply through unvarnished threats. Others around Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi have suggested the Ba’ath Party is responsible. This is ludicrous. Criticism of journalists for reporting the facts and the provocative attacks on them and the emergency services conducted by unidentified armed men (no prizes for guessing who they might be) are simply dangerous folly. The real problem, as we have repeatedly seen with rapidly declining turnouts in elections across the region over the last five years, is that people have lost faith in a system that claims to be democratic and progressive but is, in reality, oligarchic, deeply regressive and in hock to factional and external interests.
As we have also seen in Libya and increasingly in Lebanon, this system represents not primarily state but resource capture. It is control of resources that has enabled those who have really benefited from the destruction of the Saddamist state — self-serving ethno-sectarian elites and the major Iran-aligned militias of Badr, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, As’aib Ahl Al-Haq and so forth, plus their IRGC handlers — to colonize state structures. The government itself is a fiction designed to disguise the realities of where power lies and is exercised.
I heard a senior US official complain the other day that, while Iran was good at following people around with bags of cash, the US could not and would not stoop to the same level. But that is to confuse features and functions. Corruption is not a feature: It’s the whole point of the exercise, how real power works. And it is precisely this that has aroused popular anger — a sense that casting a vote in a national or provincial election is meaningless because the people for whom you vote simply participate in a democratic shadow play while decisions are made elsewhere. And none of these decisions serve the interests of ordinary people.
One young demonstrator last week was quoted as saying that he didn’t want parties; all he wanted was a country in which to live. Al-Maliki used his two terms as prime minister (one of them stolen from Iyad Allawi) to divide Iraqis and rule in the interests of a closed circle. Haider Abadi was a bit better but still claims that everything that went wrong on his watch was someone else’s fault. Meanwhile, Abdul Mahdi seems to think that the government can resist calls to quit — most notably from Muqtada Al-Sadr — by blaming hidden hands or making grand statements that all those demonstrators killed by the ISF will be given Shahid (martyr) status; land, housing and jobs will be produced by magic; and social order will be restored. But the political sickness in Iraq goes far deeper than this.
You can seek explanations in the flawed foundation of the Iraqi state in the early 1920s, the bloody revolution from above of 1958, the long agony of Ba’athist rule and its deeply compromised ending in 2003. But, in the end, it’s not just about Iraq. The same pathology — presenting differently in different places — is visible in Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and many other places. The cure can only be a new approach to governance that prioritizes not illusions but reality. Iraq should be a rich country. It has oil, gas, water, agriculture and should have tourism (just like Libya, apart from the water). But the money keeps being stolen or diverted to suit the purposes of others. Basra, which should be at the heart of the economic revival, remains a dump. Mosul, with its twin Aleppo, the economic and cultural hub of the Levant, is in ruins. In the south, salination spreads. And that’s what we mean when we talk of corruption. That’s the sickness. The cure needs to be more radical than simply fine words or a new election.
Berthold Brecht, in his great poem “Die Losung” (The Solution) on the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin, satirically mused that, if the government did not like the sort of things the people were demanding, perhaps they should simply elect a new people. That didn’t happen in East Germany. And it’s not going to happen in Iraq. But the protests aren’t going to die down either — this year, next year or whenever. Iraq needs clean, determined, effective and committed leaders who want to govern for Iraqis, not for themselves, Iran or indeed the US. People, for example, like the admirable Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab Al-Sa’adi, who Abdul Mahdi sacked last week — allegedly at Iran’s instigation — to popular outrage from Shiites and Sunnis alike.
The prime minister has a brief chance to seize the initiative and promote genuine, radical and deep-seated reform that actually means something. He has Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani with him. He could probably gain Sadrist support if he plays his hand cleverly. He needs to show real courage. I hope he does. But resistance will be fierce. The flashpoint of Arba’een approaches, with its millions of Shiite pilgrims. Time presses.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015