Across Iraq successive mass protests have been erupting against the self-serving and cynical elite – on a scale not seen for decades, writes SALAM ALI
OVER more than seven weeks now, since the end of July, Baghdad and other provinces in central and southern Iraq have witnessed the rise of a broad popular movement that has not been seen for many decades in our country.
It has culminated in successive mass protests, the most important of which were demonstrations and strikes by workers and employees of “self-financing” companies of the Ministry of Industry.
This popular movement has gained momentum with the participation of hundreds of thousands of citizens of various social and political affiliations in all provinces.
The political base of the protests, which were launched mainly by civil and democratic forces, has broadened and also received the support of the highest Shi’ite authority in Najaf.
The popular uprising has come as an expression of the explosion of people’s anger as a result of the failure of governments of the sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system, both at the federal and provincial levels, and the inability of governments to run the country, serve the interests of the people and the country and provide the bare minimum of security and services for a decent dignified life, as well as failing to effectively combat terrorism and its instruments.
One of the most important factors that helped deepen the crisis and intensify the suffering of the people is the ferocious war against the terrorist organisation Isis (also known by its Arab acronym “Daesh”) since the fall of the city of Mosul on June 10 2014 and the subsequent loss of government control of over a third of Iraq’s territory.
This was a result of the collapse of a military and security institution that was built on a sectarian basis which suffered corruption and mismanagement.
The political crisis was further aggravated by the worsening economic situation after the recent sharp fall in oil prices, leading to the fall of Iraq’s oil revenues by half.
The existence of more than three million internally displaced people, as a result of the war with Isis, has also created an enormous humanitarian and economic problem that exceeds the capabilities of the state.
All this has led to an increase in the proportion of people under the poverty line to over 30 per cent of the population.
Meanwhile, a small social stratum of parasitic nature and a corrupt political elite have continued to accumulate enormous wealth and enjoy extravagant privileges.
The deterioration of electricity supply in an exceptionally hot summer may have sparked the first protest demonstrations, but the people’s demands soon deepened towards pressing for resolute measures to combat corruption and hold the corrupt to account, especially those who hold leading positions in the state.
The mass demonstrations that have been held every Friday in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Baghdad, and also in 10 other major cities, recognise that combating corruption strengthens the battle against terrorism, as one feeds the other.
They have also called for political reform and for urgent measures to reform the judiciary, without which it would not be possible to implement the required reforms.
The mass popular movement, which has been continuing for seven weeks, has attracted hundreds of thousands of people, broadening its social and political base.
Demonstrations and protests have now extended from major cities to districts and rural areas in some provinces.
They are organised by many co-ordinating committees with the participation of civil and democratic activists and groups.
There has been a significant participation of youth, estimated to constitute over 80 per cent of the demonstrators. Women have also played an important role. As the protests escalated, more social forces joined, including several professional bodies and trade unions.
It is very important to note the predominant peaceful, national, popular and civil character of the mass protest movement, which surpasses the sectarian and ethnic divisions and secondary identities, thus fostering the Iraqi national identity.
The protests have focussed on combating corruption and bringing the corrupt to account, achieving political reform and getting rid of sectarian-ethnic power-sharing, and providing services.
Thanks to the national and popular character of the demonstrations, and the legitimacy and realistic nature of their demands and slogans, as well their peaceful and civil nature, they have exerted enormous popular pressure which forced both the government and parliament to respond quickly by presenting packages of reforms.
The first, announced by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on August 9, included abolishing three vice-presidential positions as well as two posts of deputy prime minister.
Subsequent reforms have included reducing the size of his government by a third, reducing the security details of government officials and members of parliament, as well as reducing their salaries.
But far more radical changes and legislation are needed to destabilise the foundations of sectarian-ethnic power-sharing system that was implemented by the US occupation authorities after the war in 2003 and put an end to it. It is a big challenge.
If the reforms begin to seriously undermine the power-sharing system, it is expected that the ruling groups (Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish) will begin to bury their divisions and unite to preserve their positions in power and privileges.
There are already signs of this process beginning. After recovering from the initial “shock” as a result of the mass protests, they are now waging a counter-attack.
They possess enormous power and wealth, including their influence over the economy.
Civil activists have therefore criticised the slow pace of reforms and the lack of effective mechanisms and a clearly defined timetable for their implementation.
Abadi’s reforms have not yet touched the essence of the deep political crisis engulfing the country.
There is increasing evidence of attempts to sabotage the peaceful protest movement, including physical attacks and direct threats against activists and independent media workers.
In the city of Hilla, in Babylon province, special security forces attacked peaceful protesters who marched to the offices of the provincial government.
Despite intimidation and threats by the media linked to ruling groups, thousands of people came out to Tahrir Square in central Baghdad on Friday September 11.
In addition to repeating the main demands for political reform, they called for “a civil state and social justice.”
Once again, the civil and national character of the demonstrations in Baghdad and 10 other major cities was predominant.
After seven weeks of mass demonstrations, and more than a month since the announcement of Abadi’s reform packages, what has been achieved on the ground is very small and modest.
The very limited reforms which have so far been announced need to be complemented with deeper reforms.
Popular pressure and oversight are therefore essential to ensure the proper implementation of the reform process in the interests of the Iraqi people.
•Salam Ali is a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist Party.