For over a week now protests have been shaking Iraq, with massive police repression, leading to over 100 dead. The protests are an outgrowth of discontent over corruption, poverty, and an ethnic quota system, says Sabah Alnasseri.
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.
For over a week now, Iraq has been engulfed in massive protests. The demonstrators are demanding income and bread, as they say. And the governments, police, and military are violently repressing the protests. State forces have shot live ammunition at demonstrators, killing more than a hundred and injuring over 6,000 according to Iraq’s own interior ministry. Also, the government imposed an internet blackout and raided several media outlets, severely hampering media coverage of the protests. Despite the repression, the government is also seeking to appease protesters by making far reaching promises for improved social programs. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi issued a 13 point reform plan, promising subsidies and housing for the poor, as well as educational programs for unemployed youth. Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi also announced new legislation in response to the protests.
MOHAMMED AL-HALBU.S.I: To recognize civilian and security casualties of protest as martyrs, and therefore their families will be compensated, and so will the wounded. To follow the investigation procedures, to uncover the events that have affected the protestors, and to release all prisoners immediately. Establishing a monetary grant to the employment development program. It will be funded by the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, until a fund is established to employ the unemployed students, and develop them, which would be included in the 2020 federal budget. I am calling on the House to vote for the decisions taken to be established in the 2020 budget. It has been approved.
GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to analyze what is going on in Iraq is Sabah Alnasseri. He was born in Basra, Iraq, and teaches Middle East politics and economics at the political science department at York University, Toronto, Canada. Thanks for joining us again, Sabah.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Good to be with you, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: After the U.S. forces invaded Iraq and dismantled Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, the U.S. government sought to address Iraq’s ethnic divisions with a system known as muhasasa, which allocates quotas for each ethnic group or religious faction for jobs in the government. Now, some of the protests seem to have been focused mainly on their opposition to this muhasasa system. Now, why is that, and is this really the main reason behind the protests?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Greg, I think at the core of the current protests is a class war. But in order to understand the difference of the current protest movement, and the significance of it for the next few days, weeks, we need to recap three sets of events since last year. The first one was the election in May last year, where as I argued on The Real News, both Iran and the U.S. actually lost the election because they bet on different horses. The Saairunists, which is a combination of the Communist Party and the Sadrist movement, won actually the election. But what happened after that? The problem was, of course, it was the least turn out since 15 years. Most of the young people didn’t vote.
You can see since last year, there was a problem with the election, and the outcome of the election. Not only the problem of the formation of the government, but even until today, some of the ministerial posts, like the education ministry, are not filled, because all these blocs, and lists, and parties want to have their candidate. They want to push through their candidates, so there’s muhasasa, or power sharing–ethnosectarian power sharing formula of the U.S. is destroying the whole political system. That was the first set of it.
Then the second setup event happened actually in the last three months, when the conflict between the U.S. and Iran escalated. There were some suspicions and doubts that the oil tankers in the gulf, but even around in Saudi Arabia, the last attack on them were actually from Iraq. Militias that are the military arms of Iran and Iraq actually launched these attacks. There was a pressure on Adil Abdul-Mahdi from the United States to restructure the militia as the so called popular mobilization unit, the PMUs, to be under the justification of the interior ministry. For the first time since 16 years, since the occupation of Iraq, an army general, in a way, became so popular among the population, they feared he might be a crystallization figure in a coup against these Shiite parties, and so on, so they have to dismantle him.
Now we come to the third set of events. This triggered a bit of protest in the eastern and northeastern provinces of Iraq, but the other moment was the resignation of the Minister of Health in Iraq. He was an expert and a decent guy, and he tried actually to reform the health ministry, but he resigned three weeks after he was nominated. Because he was saying there was a lot of corruption, and he was threatened, that they went on the street in protest in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, protesting the current situation. The unemployment, and the devaluation of their knowledge, and graduation, et cetera. They were met with a brutal force of the Interior Ministries, and some of these militias or the PMUs; young men and women. A lot of people in Iraq were outraged to see how these young graduates were humiliated in front of the whole Iraqi people.
A few days after that, in Baghdad, the biggest chunk of the population live in the so called shanty towns, or the slums of Baghdad. Millions of people live in the slums. They are extremely poor, unemployed, day laborer, etc. Their slums, or shanty houses, in a way were dismantled by the government. Most of them were street vendor, poor street vendors. Their properties, be it a cart, or whatever, were confiscated. We should remember that about 50% of the Iraqi population are under 24, and the unemployment rate among the young graduate, young people in Iraq, are more than 40%, double the national average of the employment in Iraq. These young people, unemployed, poor graduate, without any future, without any support, without any social benefits, or housing, and so on. When they saw these scenes, they start mobilizing on the social media to stage a spontaneous protest, without leadership or party support, or any political or religious movement in Iraq.
GREG WILPERT: Sabah, so the Iraq parliament recently also passed a law that recognizes the casualties and the people that had died in the protests as martyrs, or shahada in Arabic. Now, this carries a significant economic reward, because the families of martyrs are compensated, but it also carries a religious meaning, because shahada means people who in their death honor God. Does that mean that the parliament is, and the government, in effect, is recognizing the protests as being somehow justified? Did you think that this would appease the protests?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Appease the protest? No. Because such promises were made in 2015, in 2011, and 2006, and ’07, and so on. The same promises to initiate some social project, housing project, unemployment project. To create industrial and culture, commercial public supported project, to implore the young graduate people. It didn’t happen. I think the parliament and the government were taken by surprise by these protests. Because normally, and that’s the difference between this protest movement and the previous one, normally protest movements are supported by either religious or political figures, or blocs, or by the current secular movement. This time around, none of these movements, nor the religious institutions, were actually supporting nor knew about this protest movement. That’s why everybody was taken by surprise. This explained, too, the brute force, that I would call state terror, because the way this protest movement were brutally attacked, and massacred.
GREG WILPERT: Sabah, what do you think is going to happen next in Iraq? That is, how do these protests also fit into the regional context? That is, we’ve seen protests happening in Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan, which we’ve covered here at the Real News Network in the past two weeks or so. Have these protests, movements in the area, had an impact on what’s happening in Iraq? Also, is there anything else going on in the region that would be affecting what’s happening in Iraq?
SABAH ALNASSERI: All right, these are three questions. The first one is in regard to the… They current protest movement in Iraq, and what will happen next. What’s happening now, there are protests, but all the medias, and the newspapers and everything, were intimidated. Some of the offices were destroyed and equipments were confiscated so that they would not cover the protests. The ongoing arrests and incarceration of the activists and the protestors is going on. At the same time were the government making promises to the protestors, actually using a very harsh hand against the protester. This is because of two reasons, I think. The first one is tomorrow. Tomorrow is the FIFA World Cup game between Iraq and Hong Kong, two countries witnessing protestors at the same time. It will be in Basra in the southern of Iraq. I assume the protestors would use this event, A, to make the world aware of the protests in Iraq, and B, to mobilize people to use this event against the government.
The second, and the most important one, are the Shiite parties and Shiite militias in Iraq, and by extension Iran, is on the 19th of October. Next week, there will be a Shiite religious observance. The 40th day of the commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed. This is one of the biggest religious events in Iraq, and they expect up to 5 million people to come. 5 million Shiite, to come to from all over the world. They want to make sure that they quash the protests before these events happen. Because they assume, and rightly so, that the protestors would use these religious ceremonies, and rituals, and so on, to turn it into the government, and make people even more aware of the progress. That’s why the harsh hand of the state against the protester.
The second thing, yes. You see, there are many protest movements in the wider Middle East. In Sudan, and in Egypt. On the 20th of September, for instance, and Algeria, and Lebanon, et cetera. Of course the young people in Iraq, the new generation of the social media, they are aware of this movement, and of the success of this movement. If you look at Sudan, and Algeria, they were originally successful. Especially in Sudan, by bringing down the Bashir regime. People are empowered that they can do a peaceful transformation, a radical transformation of the system.
The third thing, of course, these protest movements come at a time where you have an escalation of conflicts in the region. Between Iran and the United States, between Israel and Iran, between the Gulf countries themselves, and the war in Yemen. For Iran, it’s a matter of survival to have Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, in order to manage the crisis, the serious crisis Iran is going through, because of this action. Iran is trying to create a crisis in Iraq, and Lebanon, and Syria, and Yemen, and escalate the conflict, in order to manage the serious crisis in Iran. Any protests at this time against the government in Iraq, the allies of Iran, create a dangerous and threatening scenario for Iran to cope with these developments in the region. Yes, I expect things probably will intensify the next few days and weeks.
GREG WILPERT: Finally, would you say that this, what’s happening here in Iraq, is sort of a second wave of the 2011 Arab Spring? Especially given that this is all happening in so many different regions. In Iraq, it never really caught on in the first place, if I remember correctly. It looks like just the fact that it’s been such a regional conflict, or that is a regional movement, really, could this be considered a second wave?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, not 2011, but 2015. With a time lag of four years, you’ll have more than a million people in Baghdad alone occupying the green zone and the parliament. At that time, the government made promises, but as usual, nothing happened. Yes, if we think about the two days before the protests started… Remember Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2011. The poor, working class street vendor, whose existence was destroyed, and humiliated publicly, which triggered, actually, the Arab revolution. The same thing happened in Iraq, few days. As I’ve said before, the protest movement started… The poor people in the slums of Baghdad were displaced. Their existence was destroyed, because most of them are street vendors. They, in a way, triggered this class conflict, and the state, of course, reacted with a class war. Yes, you can say this is an Arab revolution part two, or something, though I always look at the Arab revolution as a process. I was saying what we witnessed in 2011 is just the first act of the revolution, and not the final one.
GREG WILPERT: Okay, well we’re going to have to leave it there, but I’m sure we’ll come back to you again as the situation develops. I was speaking to Sabah Alnasseri, associate professor of political science at York University. Thanks again, Sabah, for having joined us today.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Thanks for having me, Greg.
GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.
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