The heat of protests in Iraq forces government reforms

The heat of protests in Iraq forces government reforms
Comment: Demonstrations over the lack of services have resulted in the most far-reaching government overhaul since the US-led invasion of 2003.
6 min read
17 Aug, 2015
Mass protests have given Abadi the opportunity to make his move [Getty]

Since 2003, the federal government in Baghdad has failed to provide basic services, build infrastructure or establish independent institutions. This had led to a vulnerable state, incapable of coping with its people's needs.

After Ramadan, the temperature soared above 50 degrees Celsius in Iraq and across the Middle East, close to surpassing meteorological records. Iraqi people sweltered. Power outages were frequent and the state only guaranteed a few hours of electricity.

Additionally, across the country, the water supply is poor, and often cut. The scorching heat has riled Iraqis who blame the ruling elite and the failure of the state in conducting its duties for their continuing discomfort.

Mass protests under the heat

Protesters took to the streets at the end of July in Baghdad, Basra, Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriyha and Diwaniya - many of which are strongholds of the Shia community.

Protesters demanded basic services - mainly electricity and water; political reform in the removal of the minister of electricity and other allegedly corrupt ministers; the removal of the informal sectarian quota system established in Iraq since the 2003 invasion; an end to corruption and cronyism, as well as improved employment and security, and reform of incompetent governorates' councils.

More than a decade after the US-led invasion, and, despite the spending of billions of dollars by successive governments, basic services have not been restored.

In recent weeks, protesters in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, particularly in Sulaymaniyah governorate, have demanded services from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) such as power and water, which have been cut frequently since the heat wave.

This shows the extent of the service deficiencies across the country.

When the most recent wave of marches began on the Iraqi streets, politicians and officials of all backgrounds declared their support for the demonstrations - despite the fact that the protests were against them.

Beyond legitimate demands of the masses, the demonstrations became a scene of political competition between various factions.

     Beyond the legitimate demands of the masses, the demonstrations became a scene of political competition.

Qais al-Khazali, who heads the powerful Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shia militia and has close ties with former Prime Minister Maliki, applauded the demonstrations.

In a televised statement, Khazali challenged the political system and its elite, and demanded the replacement of Iraq's parliamentary system with a presidential system.

Nevertheless, the peaceful protesters have shown maturity in their approach to march and share a common cause in their desire to change the corrupt government.

The demonstrations became more significant after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential religious Shia Marja in Iraq, backed the angry public - and asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, on August 7, to "strike with an iron fist" those who engage in corruption.

This bolstered protesters, and gave a green light to Abadi to endorse his reform plan, thereby strengthening his position and weakening his rivals, who include Maliki.

The move shocked the idle political class and changed the political calculations within the green zone.

Reshaping the Iraqi government

Abadi took steps to reshuffle the government, with a proposed reform plan in response to protesters' demands.

On August 9, Iraq's Council of Ministers approved Abadi's proposals, including the scrapping of vice-president and deputy ministerial positions.

On August 11, the Council of Representatives nearly unanimously voted for Abadi's reforms without discussion or objection.

The session was attended by 297 MPs and all, save one, approved the plan. The extent of the demonstrations and Sistani's announcement had a profound effect on the voting.

Abadi's agenda, in addition to activating the role of the Anti-Corruption Council and abolishing the quota system, also consisted of reforms in the administrative, financial, economic and service sectors.

Abadi's plan also grants him further executive powers. It authorises the prime minister to dismiss governors or heads of councils in cases of faulty performance.

Moreover, the project includes cuts to officials' security retinues - sending officers to assist the ministries of defence and interior - and slashing senior officials' state privileges, bringing them to a moderate standard.

Mergers will also take place between the ministries of health and environment, ministries of finance and planning, and ministries of water and agriculture.

"The reform plan, especially eliminating vice-presidents and deputy ministers, will save the Iraqi budget around $30 million this year," said Awad al-Awadi, an MP from the Ahrar bloc.

Beyond the accuracy of his assessment, how will this help Iraq - where a shortage of billions of dollars, a costly war against the Islamic State group and the absence of infrastructure - is curbing basic state functions?  

Scrapping posts that have been occupied according to political consensus and the ethnic sectarian quota system will pose persistent political challenges for Abadi.

This will not be a straightforward process. Maliki still holds influence and has ties with some Shia militias; on the other hand, Sunni leaders such as Vice-President Usama al-Nujaifi and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq will be stripped of their posts.

This shows a reduced Sunni participation in Baghdad by Iraqi Sunni political forces.

"Abadi's reform agenda is unconstitutional and he is unqualified to give orders," said Vice-President Ayad Allawi, an Iraqi nationalist and secularist with close Sunni ties.

The major Shia forces - the Harar bloc loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Supreme Council of Iraq Mowatin bloc loyal to Ammar al-Hakim - repeated their support for Abadi's anti-corruption plan.

Furthermore, the Kurdish presidency also announced its support for Abadi - providing the plan falls within the constitutional framework.

This illustrates, to some extent, the reservations that exist about Abadi's project, as some of the reform plans apparently require constitutional amendment.

Demonstrations over the lack of services have resulted in the most far-reaching government overhaul since 2003.

     Demonstrations over the lack of services have resulted in the most far-reaching government overhaul since 2003

The change of the Iraqi political system and its survival is a complex path that mirrors its reality.

Therefore, it requires consensus among its major communities and their representatives: Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Critically, providing services and fulfilling popular demands have become a political football played between Iraq's factions.

This disunity challenges any immediate concrete solution - and distracts from the fight against the IS group.

However, there are questions that should be tackled: to what extent are Iraq's political forces and elite ready for this change - as corruption has become systematic? Would they give up their share for the national interest?

There is scepticism that Iraqi politicians in Baghdad who are set to lose their power and privileges will genuinely accept their fate.

Will Abadi secure Sunni and Kurdish rights when the power balance shifts in his favour?

Zana Gul is a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield, researching Iraq's politics, security and foreign relations. He has spent years working with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Follow him on Twitter: @ZanaGul1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.