Reidar Visser on Iraq’s Day of Protest

The following article was published on Friday by Reidar Visser, an historian of Iraq educated at the University of Oxford and currently based at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

This was not what Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had wanted to happen. Yesterday he announced that the big demonstrations across Iraq that had been scheduled for today should not go ahead since they were “suspicious”. For more than a week, Maliki partisans in government (Amir al-Khuzai, the “national reconciliation minister), parliament and in places like Dhi Qar have made references to neo-Baathism and even al-Qaida in order to cast a slur on today’s planned events.

But the protests went ahead across Iraq today, and, frankly, if the protestors were all “suspicious Baathists” then Maliki is in for a challenge. True, there were protests in some areas that have sometimes been accused of being hotbeds of supporters of the former regime of Saddam Hussein, like Bayji near Kirkuk. For sure, there were expressions of support for the demonstration by politicians who have been branded Baathists by Maliki and his allies, like Zafir al-Ani of Iraqiyya. But the protests today – and indeed the growing wave of discontent in Iraq over the past few weeks – were spread across the entire country, from Sulaymaniyya in the Kurdistan Regional Government area to Basra in the south.

Indeed, the striking aspect of today’s demonstrations was their national character. For one thing, we have seen Kurds rise up against the dominant Kurdish parties, Shiites challenging the hegemony of Maliki’s own “all-Shiite” alliance, and Sunnis complaining against their Sunni local politicians. The cries for better services and employment conform to a universal pattern that has been in emergence over the past few weeks. But more importantly, in terms of slogans and demands, there are signs of a true synthesis of genuine nationwide opposition to the supposed “government of national partnership” that was formed, tentatively at least, in December 2010.

The signs were there already some weeks ago, when Shiites in places like Hamza (Qadisiyya), Kut (Wasit), Dhi Qar and more recently Rumaytha (Muthanna) rose up against governors closely allied with Maliki and the other leading Shiite Islamist parties, in some cases even burning down government offices. Today’s reported resignation of Shiltagh Abbud, Maliki’s ally and governor of Basra, just highlights the descent of Maliki’s State of Law since they won an outright majority in the local council there in the January 2009 governorate elections. Not that leaders described by some as solid “Sunni” leaders escaped censure by the protestors either: Today, Mosul is in revolt despite having been something of a political fiefdom for parliament speaker of Iraqiyya, Usama al-Nujayfi, and his brother Athil, the local governor, for the past couple of years.

But there is more to this than that. In Dhi Qar, demonstrators demanded better services, an end to corruption, and, importantly, criticised the system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing that forms the basis for all of Iraq’s post-2003 government and that is supported by the United States and Iran alike. In Baghdad, protestors are trying to destroy the concrete blast walls put up by the United States since 2007 in its own attempt to engineer “sectarian” reconciliation, American-style, and are calling for a unified Sunni–Shiite political project, with echoes from the uprising against the British in 1920. Again, this seems to indicate a desire for more profound reforms and system change. Some of the activists are highlighting the absence of properly elected local councils at the sub-governorate level across Iraq as one very immediate grievance.

What this all shows is that the internationally sponsored “consensus” and “power-sharing” project in post-2003 Iraq is in crisis. Power-sharing between leaders is of limited value if assumed “community leaders” do not enjoy support in the constituencies they are supposed to represent, and indeed if those constituencies begin attacking the ethno-sectarian quota-sharing concept as such. Ironically, part of the problem with the new Maliki government could be that there are simply too many on the inside and no healthy opposition on the outside.

As of today, the only true opposition party to speak of in parliament is the Kurdish Gorran as well as some independent deputies. Perhaps today’s protests could induce more Iraqi politicians to think carefully about the virtues of taking part in a government that seems to care more for itself than the Iraqi people. Today’s demonstrations appear to have involved thousands rather than tens of thousands in the affected areas, so there is still some way to go before we reach Tunisian and Egyptian proportions. Still, after the initial protests in Baghdad in early February seemed somewhat quixotic and marginal with their Che Guevara posters, today buildings were burnt and shots were fired. The Iraqi government and its international supporters should understand that what we saw today is an attack on some of the very principles underlying the deal-making that led to the formation of the current government, despite its so-called “democratic” façade.


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