Thursday, 2nd August 2018

Iraqi demonstrators call time on their politicians’ glaring failures

A long period of government stasis following a general election is nothing new for Iraq, as politicians haggle over which factions will feast off which portfolios. Adding to the delays in forming a government following the 12 May poll have been allegations of voter fraud which have exacerbated Arab/Turkmen and Kurdish tensions. Ballot papers have been lost and a partial recount was called, further reducing public confidence in an election which had anyway seen a record low turnout of 44.5% (GSN 1,060/14). It has been widely noted that, despite his victory over Islamic State (IS or Daesh), Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s stature has been diminished, even if – as many in the west would like – he remains head of government.

Many of those who made significant gains at the election – such as Muqtada Al-Sadr and Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Units) strongman Hadi Al-Ameri – have the backing of paramilitary militias with considerable potential for violence. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) observed in a 30 July report on Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups, “the Hashd challenge the state’s cohesion and monopoly on legitimate violence”. The unexpected announcement in June that Ameri and Sadr would create a ‘national alliance’ to underpin a new government did not go down well with their many enemies. As well as the militias’ menace, they are widely believed to be involved in formal, informal and downright criminal business, with PMU taking over some of Daesh’s racketeering networks.

How much more of this will the population take? Hugely put-upon Iraqis have come back onto the streets this summer to protest government graft and inefficiency with even greater intensity – and violence – than before. The message from the streets of Basra and an increasing number of other cities has been that Iraqis will be short-sold and duped no more.

Protests began in Basra on 8 July and spread to other locations in the south, where populations feel they have received few benefits of the region’s oil wealth at a time when exports are rising (GSN 1,063/5). They have spread to Baghdad, where politicians dine out while most citizens grind out a living. Many countries with dysfunctional utilities have experienced protests as electricity and water have run out during this exceptionally hot summer, but Iraq’s ‘proto-revolution’ is notable for galvanising citizens cowed by decades of repression and violence. They have attacked state infrastructure, government buildings and political party offices – including, on 14 July, Al-Ameri’s Badr Organisation headquarters in Basra. Parties of all persuasions have been hit, even the Sadrists who more usually seen demonstrating, rather than acting statesmanlike. All this points to deep popular alienation which will not be solved by Abadi’s decisions to dispatch policeand counter-terrorism forces to the south or to allow PMU militias to attack demonstrators and introduce curbs on internet access to undermine dissidents’ organisation. Indeed, Abadi’s response has been found wanting from the early days of the crisis, with his comment that “there is no water crisis” just days after Turkey had cut off the Tigris River’s flow, inviting ridicule. A PM elected on an anti-corruption platform has fallen short on overhauling governance, while his government has struggled with the anger generated by corruption and failed service delivery.

Abadi and his ministers have been announcing plans to try and address some of the country’s shortcomings. Examples include the promise of a IR3.5trn ($2.5bn) investment in electricity, water and health projects in Basra, a IR800bn boost for the state housing fund and a promise of 10,000 new jobs in Basra’s oil industry. However, many of the announcements look like sticking plaster solutions, including energy imports from Kuwait and increasingly close friend Saudi Arabia.

Iraqis have heard their government make and break promises before and many will likely remain militant even after the summer heat subsides. The protest movement does not yet seem to have the momentum necessary to create a revolutionary situation, but dozens of martyrs are being created by government and militia violence and their ghosts may yet haunt the political class.

The new government, when it is eventually constituted, will likely represent the same old forces and their familiar leaders. They will not follow the advice of former ambassador to Washington Rend Al-Rahim, who in a 20 July tweet recommended “all current/former PMs, ministers, deputies and governors step aside, be barred from office for two CoR [Council of Representatives] terms. Since they failed the nation for 15 years (not to mention plundered it), this is the least they should do. In Japan they normally commit suicide.”

An increasingly militant population must be persuaded that, this time, it will be different. Baghdad has its own Tahrir Square with its own protest culture where, for the first time on 20 July, police used water cannons to disperse the crowds and were captured on film by citizen reporters. Iraqi politics seem frozen but in the twittersphere the times they are a-changing.

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