Unemployment, corruption and lack of services led many of Iraq’s neighbours to the Arab Spring protests. Iraq has similar concerns, there are protestors on the streets. But does the country really need an
The debate was organised by the Iraqi Youth Foundation in London. Pic: Jafar Hassan
Even though the country lost its dictator, Saddam Hussein, a decade ago, Iraq is still plagued by the same kinds of problems that many of its regional neighbours also have. There is widespread youth unemployment, lack of social and other basic services such as electricity as well as high levels of official corruption. One might imagine then that, just as their neighbours did in early 2011, the Iraqi people might also want to unite to protest this sorry state of affairs.
And in fact, there have been plenty of complaints – especially about the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s unequal distribution of powers. Al-Maliki has been described as a dictator by his opponents more than once. And most recently there have been serious demonstrations, mainly made up of Sunni Muslim protestors in their own Sunni-dominated areas who feel that al-Maliki’s policies are favouring Shiite Muslims and excluding them from the political process.
The Iraqi people have sought to reform Maliki’s democratically elected government, but just like the neighbouring dictators faced with protests, Maliki has responded with force. Several sources have reported demonstrators being arrested, beaten and detained for days without explanation. Recently with Prime Minister Maliki authorising political arrests based on sketchy evidence while personalising the control of Iraq’s security forces, accusations of authoritarianism are growing and grievances are being voiced across the country’s diverse communities
So the question is: does Iraq need an “Iraqi Spring”? Should Iraqis be demonstrating in the same way that their neighbours did? And if so, can they achieve anything or are they risking even greater trouble?
These questions and others were the subject of talks at a recent event at Imperial College London, a British university, held last week by the Iraqi Youth Foundation on the 10th anniversary of the 2003 invasion.
One of Iraq’s biggest problems is “trying to share power between people who don’t agree,” Patrick Cockburn, Middle East Correspondent for British newspaper, The Independent, explained. Cockburn believed that the country’s increasing oil output allowed the government some for mistakes and that, despite the current protests, problems and the fact that certain provinces were barred from voting in the next provincial elections, that Iraq was unlikely to descend into violence in the near future.
“Within the current system, you can change Iraq,” Cockburn argued. “If you had a fair distribution of jobs in Anbar and Saladin, would you have sectarianism going on? You bet you would. But you wouldn’t have the same edge of rage that you have at the moment.”
At the moment though, Cockburn said, most disagreements are been “internalised” within government ministries and this is resulting in a broken Iraqi government.
For another of the speakers, Noor al-Bazzaz, from Amnesty International, any “Iraqi Spring” would entail a grassroots movement led by Iraqi youth, who could, theoretically shed the burden of past divisions and unite to protest against the government. “People are isolated from the political sphere,” she said.
And with Iraq’s common lack of electricity, employment and basic public services, the prospect of a united front against the government’s performance should come naturally.
“The record of the Iraqi government has been terrible,” Toby Dodge, a Senior Consulting Fellow for the Middle East, International Institute for Strategic Studies, said. “Unemployment is estimated at 26 percent. And there are only 7.5 hours of electricity for the average Iraqi household per day.”
Dodge, whose recently published book Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism criticises Maliki’s use of power, was also critical of what he called the “new authoritarianism”. The Iraqi people needed more of a voice, Dodge said, but Maliki is using his personalised control of the security forces to discourage this.
Even before the discussion, it was clear that an Iraqi Spring would require a large proportion of Iraqi society to unite and become a legitimate opposition to al-Maliki’s government. But perhaps this is impossible.
The reality is that ethno-sectarian interests are more often than not being placed above the interests of the country. Much of this is due to Maliki’s unwillingness to reach political consensus on major issues, which reinforces a lack of trust among communities. Last month’s budget passed with a slim majority and not without incident as Kurdish members boycotted the vote, demonstrating that the government’s internalised mistrust continues to undermine Iraq’s democracy.
It’s also worth considering that Iraq’s Sunni Muslims are in the minority and are divided among themselves. The government of the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan has demonstrated that it would much rather negotiate and work within the system than take on the risks that come with separation.
So even if a revolutionary uprising were to occur, it certainly couldn’t be sustained. It might also not offer the Iraqi people any kind of unity – which means it wouldn’t be all that different from what the current government is doing.
This point was also reflected in a discussion the panellists then had about the actual term “the Arab Spring”. Several felt the term was a misnomer because it was applied to movements in multiple states, each with their own cultural distinctions and politics. There was also the argument that the Arab Spring should be renamed the “Islamist Spring” because religion-based political parties such as Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Ennahda party in Tunisia have made large political gains, even while voters continued to protest.
“We have to be realistic,” Hayder al-Khoei, a researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi\'a Studies in London, said. “Even if we have a vision of utopian Iraq with a genuine grassroots Spring, it doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.”
Iraq already has the political mechanisms in place that other Arabs across the Middle East are fighting for, al-Khoei argued, noting that some of these mechanisms were on show in Iraq’s so-called “Day of Rage” in 2011. As demonstrations whipped up a frenzy from north to south in Iraq, protesters made it clear to local governments that they were dissatisfied with the levels of corruption and the public services being provided. Amid ensuing chaos, 20 people were killed – despite the fact that the movement had begun peacefully. The demonstrations also encouraged resignations from a few provincial governments.
Ultimately though, such movements are a far cry from what is currently happening in Syria, al-Khoei continued, because they centred on reform, not revolution. And the researcher was concerned that if movements like this kept on demonstrating that the conflicts could quickly escalate into a protracted and very violent conflict just like Syria’s Arab Spring.
Al-Khoei held the view that an Arab Spring in Iraq, which might well begin in the spirit of wanting what’s best for the country, would inevitably get “very messy, very quickly” due to the seemingly ubiquitous availability of arms in Iraq.
The co-ordinated bombings in Baghdad two days prior to the event provided another bleak reminder to everyone of all of these things, as does a death toll that currently stands at around 116,000. Each act, be it a kidnapping, bombing or torture, produces a negative effect, with the capacity to provoke a destructive reaction.
In conclusion, while all of the panellists at the event were critical of al-Maliki’s government they were also keen to end the evening’s debate on a positive note and they did so by focusing on recent advances in Iraq. For instance, per capita income has increased year on year despite high levels of unemployment. In the past ten years, the average monthly wage in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan increased from $300 to $1100. Iraq’s growing oil wealth also gives the country hope for prosperity despite political divisions. And with the machinery of democracy in place, there are the occasionally promising signs for the future – one of which was the debate.