Iraq's young Kurdish protesters are desperate, a violent crackdown could spark a full uprising

Iraq's young Kurdish protesters are desperate, a violent crackdown could spark a full uprising
Comment: The brutal crackdown on anti-government protests is a dangerous way to react to the desperation of young, jobless people who have lost all trust in politics, writes Judit Neurink.
7 min read
17 Dec, 2020
Eight protesters have died this month in anti-government protests [Getty]
Sixteen years old. That was the age of the youngest of eight protesters who died earlier this month due to the brutal force employed by the authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to quell the latest wave of demonstrations. 

His youth added to the frustration and rage of the thousands of mostly young men who took to the streets in protest against the non-payment of civil servants, corruption, and a lack of jobs. As they fought with police and the army and set buildings on fire, dozens were wounded and hundreds arrested.

Human rights groups such as the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor and Amnesty International spoke out against the excessive force, and the use of live ammunition against the protesters along with tanks and other weaponry sent to Kurdistan to help in the battle against the terror group, Islamic State (IS).

TV channels were ordered to stop covering the unrest on threat of closure, and the popular opposition Kurdish NRT broadcaster was ordered to close for two weeks. Journalists have been harassed and arrested. The internet has been cut.

This is not the first time protesters have taken to the streets in Kurdistan since it became an autonomous region within Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Not by any means. The main protests here were in 2011, when demonstrators camped out in the centre of Sulaimaniyah for months demanding change. Known as a cultural hub and a city where the largest Kurdish party, the KDP, does not dominate as it does in most of the Region, Sulaimaniyah has long been the centre of dissent.

The young people of Kurdistan have almost equalled the protesters in Baghdad in their desperation

Those protests were aimed at the KDP and its rule, and only began in earnest after clashes outside the KDP headquarters in Sulaimaniyah. They eventually fizzled out. Back then, people still expected the political and social change they wanted to come about through the ballot box. And back then, money was not an issue, as economic growth in Kurdistan had hit 10 percentage points and many Kurds enjoyed a share in the new-found wealth.

But a lot has happened since 2011. IS has come and gone, killing Peshmerga fighters, kidnapping and killing thousands of Yazidis, but also leaving the Kurdistan government with empty coffers. The war was costly, as was caring for the millions of refugees who fled the Sunni territories captured by IS.

On top of that, the oil prices collapsed just as the Kurds became entangled in a conflict with Baghdad which blocked the payment of Kurdistan's share of the federal budget. When the regional government in Erbil could no longer pay its civil servants' salaries, its bloated public sector - fed during the good times with a constant stream of new jobs to bind people to the main parties - nearly bankrupted the region. Only loans from Turkey secured against future oil shipments brought some relief, but at a high price. Erbil now admits to debts totalling 27 billion dollars.

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In Sulaimaniyah, teachers stayed home for about a year. No wages, no work. With the loans and some money from Baghdad, the government started paying partial salaries. But these stopped again when Baghdad blocked the payments because the Kurds had not kept their part of the deal: they were supposed to have routed part of their oil production through the official Baghdad channels, but never did.

Read more: A decade of Arab protest caps a century of erratic statehood: Part I

Even more importantly, the mood has changed. After IS was defeated, the Kurdish president Massoud Barzani took a risk and held a referendum about Kurdish independence. When the move backfired, it set the Region back decades, as well as angering Baghdad, neighbouring Iran and Turkey, and even the international community. As a direct result of the referendum, Kurdistan lost its hold over the oil city of Kirkuk, as well as most of the areas disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.

The question of who was to blame for this painful loss caused enormous animosity between the main Kurdish parties, further widening the split between Erbil and Sulaimaniyah which has been all too obvious since the civil war of the 90s. It also robbed Kurdish civilians of hope, as well as their trust in the political system.

With coronavirus leading to lockdowns, and poverty on the rise, many blamed the political elites for enriching themselves and putting their own interests before those of the Kurdish people. They no longer expect the ballot box to bring about change, as the opposition parties they voted for failed to act any differently from the elites they accused of corruption and self-enrichment when they joined them in government.

Most of those taking to the streets today are so young they were not even born when Saddam Hussein was toppled. For them, the Kurdish resistance is just history. They see the hardships facing their parents and compare it to the wealth of the corrupt elites, with their bloated foreign bank accounts.

The youth of Kurdistan will not go quietly if their needs are not met

And even if this is partly only their perception, they still torched the offices of each and every political party. Someone even raised an Iraqi flag. Many are calling for the salaries from Baghdad to be paid directly to them, instead of to the government in Erbil which they no longer trust. Before, many at least respected Massoud Barzani for the role he and his father played in the resistance. Now, with Massoud's son Masrour in power and beating down dissent, even that respect has gone.

The young people of Kurdistan have almost equalled the protesters in Baghdad in their desperation. They no longer believe politics can bring about change. They do not have the common enemy their parents had. They have been educated to a higher level and know what the world outside looks like. And they are demanding jobs and their share of the cake.

With the majority of the population under 30, and 35 percent under 15 years of age, this is a reality the Kurdistan government has to deal with. Beating it down is not the way. And not only because - like in Baghdad - it will do nothing to stop the protests or the frustration and anger that drive them.

Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has shown that he is not up to the job he was given in the light of his father's legacy. Even though he is in a hard place, with Baghdad withholding money and demanding oil that's needed to pay debts and so many Kurds losing their trust in the government, he cannot take it out on them. He needs to listen to their complaints and their demands.

Before he does anything else, he has to find the policemen responsible for the protesters' deaths and punish them; their impunity will only worsen his problems. He needs to find the money to pay their parents, even if it means emptying the bank accounts of corrupt family members and political elites. Even if it means sending oil to Baghdad. Reforms that require taxes from people who have no money will have to wait, while businessmen who have never paid tax in their lives need to pay up now.

He needs to appease the Kurds and work hard to reunite them, instead of increasing the divide still further. Remembering the black years of the 90s, when Kurd fought Kurd, should give him all the motivation he needs. And the youth of Kurdistan will not go quietly if their needs are not met. When the response to desperation is violence, it only deepens and incites more violence. Especially in a land born out of resistance, like Kurdistan. 

Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist and author specialised in Iraq. Her latest book, Geweld is nooit ver weg, (Violence Recycled) about her decade in Iraq, was recently published in the Netherlands.

Follow her on Twitter: @JuditNeurink

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.