Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1300, (16 - 22 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s protests continue

Street protests in Iraq could provide the dynamic needed to dismantle sectarianism in the country and provide the opportunity for change, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Anti-corruption demonstrations in Iraq took another surprise turn when protesters attacked the offices of the ruling Shia parties across the country this week, sparking fears of an intensified power struggle and even armed clashes.

Thousands of angry demonstrators stormed the offices of the main Shia groups in Baghdad and several other Shia-populated cities over the failure of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to fulfil his promises to combat corruption and implement political, economic and financial reforms.

The protesters, mostly followers of powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, kicked out officials and employees and ordered the offices to be shut down. Most of the offices belong to Al-Abadi’s Da’wa Party and fellow Shia politician Ammar Al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq.

Since the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan demonstrators have been holding nightly sit-ins in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to protest against the government’s failure to uphold a reform programme it had promised to carry out. The protesters have defied calls for calm from Al-Abadi and other Shia leaders to halt the demonstrations in order to give the security forces the opportunity to focus on the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitaries started an offensive to seize back control of the city of Fallujah on 22 May. The operation has stalled over concerns over the safety of thousands of civilians trapped inside the city and fierce resistance by IS militants who took it over in early 2014.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been carrying out demonstrations against Al-Abadi’s government since last summer in street protests, but the rallies swelled earlier this year after Al-Sadr threw his weight behind the protesters.

On 30 April, protesters stormed the fortified Green Zone, the heart of the government district in Baghdad, entering the elegant parliament building compound and assaulting politicians they accused of being corrupt and incompetent.

Three weeks later, they stormed the cabinet building in the secured zone, prompting Iraqi security forces to open fire on the protesters. Four people were killed and dozens of others injured. The escalation drew calls from Al-Sadr for a “popular revolution” against the “corrupt members of the current government,” who he compared to “Da’esh terrorists,” a reference to IS.

By turning their attention to local and provincial party offices, the protesters have restated their aim to “uproot” corrupt officials, or more specifically the leaders of the main Shia factions who control the government.

Al-Abadi condemned the attacks on the offices as “criminal acts,” especially at a time when “government troops are busy fighting terrorism.” His interior minister, Mohamed Salim Al-Ghaban ordered the security forces to “take the necessary measures” to protect the party offices and warned that the attackers would be arrested.

The stakes, however, are higher than ever as Al-Abadi’s reform promises remained unfulfilled. Al-Abadi has pledged a reform package that includes replacing his cabinet with one of non-partisan technocrats. He has also promised a sweeping reform programme that will weed out corruption and mismanagement in state institutions.

Yet almost nothing has actually been done to the satisfaction of the protesters, including the firing of some top government officials in a move that was widely seen as cosmetic.

Al-Abadi has failed to form a government of technocrats to replace ministers who were appointed according to a power-sharing quota system that is based on their ethno-sectarian affiliation. The system is widely seen as being behind the country’s lingering political crisis, its broken governance and rampant corruption.

On Tuesday, Al-Abadi sacked the chief executives of the six state-owned banks, part of his much-talked-about reform programme. His office said the move had come as part of a plan to reactive “the banking sector and the national strategy that aims to create jobs and provide loans to industrial, housing and commercial projects.”

Al-Abadi also sacked the country’s intelligence director and ordered the director of the state-run Iraqi Media Network to go into retirement. All those who have been sacked have been facing allegations of corruption or incompetence.

But Al-Abadi has also come under fire for the replacements he has made. Critics have voiced scepticism about their professional skills, as well as their political independence. Some have also raised concerns about their connections to Al-Abadi, his family and his senior aides.

Both Minister of Finance Hoshyar Zebari and the parliamentary Finance Committee have accused Al-Abadi of not following due constitutional and legal processes in choosing the new officials.

Al-Abadi is also facing increasing discontent over the lack or shortages of basic public services. Iraqis have been suffering from a brutal heatwave and have also had to face frequent power cuts and shortages of drinking water.

Another key criticism of Al-Abadi has been his government’s failure to stop the terrorist attacks in Baghdad more than two years after he assumed office promising to restore stability. Dozens of people were killed and scores more were wounded in bombings targeting a commercial street and an army checkpoint in Baghdad this week.

On 8 June, a blast in the holy Shia city of Karbala killed three people and wounded 33 others. It was the first car-bombing in Karbala in more than two years, and the attacks were claimed by IS. The deadly attacks in the capital and beyond are seen as part of a larger failure by the Iraqi security forces to end the terror in Iraq.

Al-Abadi and other Shia leaders may have hoped that as long as they let the protesters roam around without doing serious damage the protests themselves would eventually run out of puff. But first came their breaking into the parliament and cabinet buildings, and now there have been the attacks on the party offices, both of which have alerted the ruling Shia elite of further spasms of street politics and probably violence.

Al-Abadi’s Da’wa Party said it would consider any further attacks on its offices as “armed robberies,” a veiled threat that party members would be ready to use firearms to thwart further attacks on its buildings.

The Badr Organisation, a powerful militia group fighting IS on several fronts, also warned that it would treat the attackers on its offices as “Daesh terrorists.” These threats, along with the warnings from the security forces, have probably led Al-Sadr to order his followers to halt their attacks on the party offices for now. But he has also warned against using violence against “peaceful protesters”.

Al-Sadr vowed that the protests would also be escalated with a one-million-man demonstration after the holy month of Ramadan, which ends in the first week in July.

The ongoing war to take back territory in Iraq from IS has been claiming the spotlight, with far less attention being given to what has been happening inside the Shia camp. Nevertheless, the escalation has further exposed the Shia political rift that has widened since Al-Sadr’s followers joined the anti-government protests in March.

The Shias now face a leadership split that could haunt Iraq’s largest community well into the future and after the IS defeat, when the Shia-led government will face the daunting challenge of getting the country back on its feet.

This will need to include efforts to create a new political system that is not only functional but also inclusive in order to satisfy the country’s minority Sunnis who have been demanding greater power-sharing and equality.

Yet, after nearly a year of sit-ins and rallies over corruption and mismanagement in the government, a struggle between the majority of the country’s disgruntled Shias and their political leaders looms large. One result of these protests is obvious. Those Shias who are discontented with their oligarchs are growing in number, and so is their appetite for confrontation, as has been displayed recently in the bursts of street politics.

This is one reason why the street protest movement that is taking shape today could get out of hand if the Shia ruling elite continues to cling to power in order to secure its privileges against the will of the majority.

But the appeal of the “popular [Shia] revolution” and of Al-Sadr himself is that of Iraqi nationalism and not sectarianism, and this could provide Iraq with the long-awaited opportunity for a new direction after the defeat of IS.

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