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After The Protests:
Is Iraq's Democratic Process is More Secure Than Ever?

Ibrahim Saleh
A strange pairing of activists, threatening violence, and Iraq's highest religious authorities, preaching peace, have finally made the country's political class listen.
20.08.2015  |  Baghdad
Protests in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.
Protests in Baghdad's Tahrir Square.

As flawed as it is, as damaged by corruption, cronyism and security problems as it is, some locals believe Iraq's ongoing political process has been boosted by recent demonstrations.

On the street, the protestors who took part in the last three weeks' worth of demonstrations, seem indifferent to the kind of political system in which they are living. They are far more interested in what their politicians will – finally – be able to do for them. And more specifically they want to know whether the officials and businesspeople who stole what they believe is theirs can be brought to justice. They want to see an end to corruption.

They also want to see if the reforms that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised them last week, during the height of the protests, will be implemented.

“We want to see the prosecution of corrupt people. We want to see better state services. We want an impartial judiciary,” insists Ahmed Abdul-Karim , one of the demonstrators on Baghdad's streets, who was willing to speak to a journalist.

At one stage, the protestors had been threatening to storm Baghdad's famous Green Zone – this is the extremely well guarded area that houses Iraq's politicians as well as foreign embassies – to get what they wanted.

But Abdul-Karim thinks this would have been very difficult to do. The security forces who were guarding the demonstrations were relaxed and even expressed support for the protestors but Abdul-Karim doesn't know what they would have done if there had been any attack on the Green Zone.

From various different corners, there were calls for the government to be removed, for Parliament to be dismissed, the Constitution to be changed and a new presidential system to be brought in. But now, after Prime Minister al-Abadi announced his intended reforms, the demonstrators seem to have mellowed.

“What is most important today is holding those who have stolen the people's resources to account,” Abdul-Karim argues. “That is far more important than changing the system from a parliamentary to a presidential one and it is also more important than amending the Constitution. However,” he was quick to add, “those two options should still be considered if the reforms we were promised do not succeed.”

For the third Friday in a row, the highest Shiite Muslim religious authority in the country has said that it is important for demonstrators to give those politicians with good intentions a chance to prove themselves.

It is only logical to give officials a reasonable opportunity, senior cleric, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, one of the representatives of the most senior Shiite Muslim religious leader in Iraq, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The message from the country's religious establishment – which under al-Sistani has mostly refrained from interfering in politics – is understood by those on the street. The most corrupt officials and leaders may leave the game eventually but they won't hesitate to use their power and influence to try and unsettle the political process and to remain in power. Plunging the country into even more chaos over this should be avoided, the clerics seem to be trying to say.

“The religious authority wants the voice of the people to be louder than all other voices,” says another local cleric, Ayad al-Taei, “but at the same time it also considers the political process – which brought the current government to power – a product of the will of the people. This started in 2003, which saw the birth of democracy in Iraq and this democratic process shouldn't be lost.”

The fact that the highest religious authorities have supported the Prime Minister – saying that he should strike “with an iron fist” against corruption – is important, al-Taie explains. “This makes the political class more willing to listen to the people. And it will not create any kind of political symbol who could eventually become a new dictator.”

Politicians listening to protestors' calls to attack the Green Zone obviously understood the danger they were in. The immediate response of parliamentarians to the al-Abadi package of reforms, which they approved the following day, makes that obvious.

Optimistic observers believe that the current episode can only strengthen the political process in the country. Many MPs are saying that the political process in Iraq is stronger and more secure than it ever was before the protests began. Now, they say, it is important to wait and see what sacrifices the different political blocs are willing to make.

One thing is clear: This new found security for the democratic process has been achieved by a strange pairing, by the popular demonstrations, some of which were inspired by civil society activists, and by the religious authorities of the country. Together the two groups have added real weight and authority to Iraq's nascent democracy and they have also proved themselves heavier than some members of Iraq's political class, who would doubtless have tried to ignore the protestors' demands if they could have.

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