Iraqis are angry, but will protests deliver change?

Iraqis are angry, but will protests deliver change?
Protests have united Iraqis against what they see as a corrupt and divisive political elite, but the challenge is sustain it and affect real change.
6 min read
10 August, 2015
Iraqis have lost their patience with their politicians [AFP]
Events in Iraq have been unfolding at a dizzying rate over the past few days, and could reshape the country's political landscape. 

Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in several cities to protest government corruption and poor services, forcing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to announce a series of radical reforms

Protests that had started in the southern city of Basra against power cuts while the country saw temperatures rise to 54 degrees Celsius, soon speared to other parts of the country, including the capital Baghdad, with demonstrators setting their sights on corrupt officials and political elites.

Last Friday, as Baghdad prepared to host its second protest in a week in Tahrir Square, the protesters received a major boost by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric, who called on the Prime Minister to expose corrupt officials and strike them with "an iron fist".

 In a statement delivered at Friday prayers by Ahmed al-Safi, Sistani's representative in Karbala, the Shia cleric called on Abadi to remove corrupt and unqualified officials "regardless of their sectarian and ethnic affiliation," and to strip government officials of unnecessary privileges.

The statement is seen as authorising the Iraqi PM to conduct sweeping reforms in the face of rampant corruption that has affected all levels of the Iraqi state, which many view as the result of the sectarian and ethnic quota system employed in government appointments.

Unity on the streets 
     We couldn't tell the Sunni from the Shia, because everyone was chanting for Iraq and was there for the same goal

"The protesters were happy to hear Sistani's statement," said Mustafa Saad, an Iraqi blogger who took part in Friday's protests in Baghdad.

"There were many protestors in Tahrir Square and we couldn't tell the Sunni from the Shia, because everyone was chanting for Iraq and was there for the same goal, which will definitely bolster national unity," he added.

Yasser Salem, a journalist and civil activist who also took part in the Tahrir Square protest, echoed Saad's view of unity.

"It is obvious that the demonstrators in Baghdad and other governorates did not belong to one group or political current, but despite their different affiliations were united under the banner of Iraq for a shared goal: the reform of the political system," Salem told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

This unity is perhaps aided by the view that political parties have colluded to exacerbate sectarian and ethnic divisions over the past 12 years for narrow political and economic gains, while the majority of the population was left to suffer the consequences. 

     Iraqis remain sceptical about the ability of protests to change Iraq's current reality.

No political figure or group was spared the ridicule and criticism of the demonstrators, however the ruling Shia Islamist parties such as the Islamic Dawah Party and Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq bore the brunt of public anger with chants like "in the name of religion, the thieves have robbed us" being the most popular. 

"As long as the protests are nationalist in nature, all secondary affiliations such as sect and ethnicity will be overshadowed by the national identity. This unifying identity is what gives the protests legitimacy and power and will encourage those who are hesitant to take part," said Yasser Salem. 

"The growth of the civil and non-violent protest movement will necessarily lead to a decrease in sectarian and ethnic tensions," he added.

Yet, some Iraqis remain sceptical about the ability of protests to change Iraq's current reality.

"While it is great that the Iraqi people have gone out to demand their rights, a large number of Iraqis are influenced by religious, political and tribal authorities that have led us to where we are today," said Haider Ramy, an accounting student from Baghdad who did not take part in the protests.

"Will those Iraqis now stop listening to those authorities?" Ramy questioned.

Running scared

Politicians who had described the protests of past weeks as "matters plotted by the dark of night" to destabilise the country, have this week changed their tune and announced their support for the demonstrators. 

The same politicians are accused of being responsible for large-scale corruption and back room dealings, and their statements are seen as an attempt to ride the wave of public discontent.  

     Political parties were left comically scrambling to voice their support for Abadi's publically mandated reforms

However, Sistani's Friday statement and Abadi's response, in which he declared his "total commitment to the directions of the religious Marjaiya (Shia religious leadership)," seem to have pulled the rug from under the feet of Iraq's political class.

  Political parties were left comically scrambling to voice their support for Abadi's publically mandated reforms, so as not to be seen as out of step with popular demands.

On Sunday, Abadi announced the first in a series of proposed reforms that include dissolving the positions of deputies to the president and the prime minister, which are largely ceremonial jobs that cost the state a fortune in salaries and perks.

Since the formation of the post 2003 political system, the deputy posts have been used as conciliation prizes for the leaders of political parties, with former PMs Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, in addition to former speaker of parliament Osama al-Nujaifi currently serving as vice-presidents.

Other measure proposed by Abadi were a ban on the application of the controversial quota system in senior

     We are witnessing the end of the post-2003 Iraq.

government positions, revisiting old and current corruption cases and rescinding all special privileges allocated to senior government officials.
Aabdi's proposed reforms were unanimously approved by the Council of Ministers during an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday and now only require the approval of parliament, which will convene on Tuesday, to pass into law. 

If endorsed by parliament, Abadi's reforms could lead to further measures that are likely to shake the foundations of Iraq's current political system, to the great detriment of the country's political elites. 

"We are witnessing the end of the post-2003 Iraq," is how Maria Fantappie, the Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group described Abadi's reform measures to the New York Times.

Meanwhile, large numbers of Iraqis returned to Tahrir Square on Sunday, but this time to show support for Abadi's bold reforms and to pledge to continue public pressure until their demands are met.

"While the measures are positive and welcomed, they are not enough to correct the political system," said Yasser Salem, an Iraqi journalist and civil activist.

"Protestors have to keep up the pressure until the system is reformed. Abadi is emboldened by the protesters, but he has to prove that he's worthy of their trust and should know that he does not enjoy blind trust," added Salem.

When Abadi's reforms come against the eventual pushback from Iraq's political parties, he will face the choice of aligning himself with the united Iraqi streets or the divisive political elites.  Iraqis are waiting to see.