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Sabah Alnasseri of York University says the non-sectarian and non-ethnic character of these protests are a significant development

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Iraq made headlines this past week, first when an American service member was killed on Tuesday just north of Mosul. Then, this past weekend, two suicide car bombs claimed by the Islamic State killed at least 32 people and injured 75 others in southern Iraq. Then, on Saturday, protesters staged a sit-in at the Iraqi Parliament in the country’s green zone, which is an enclave for US military, Iraqi government offices and embassies. The protesters were demanding political reforms against corruption. These protests were targeting Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi, who is trying to appoint technocrats in ministerial positions as an anti-corruption measure, but the Iraqi Parliament has been in a deadlock on this issue due to ongoing debate. On to discuss these developments is Sabah Alanasseri. He is associate professor and director of the graduate program in political science at York University in Canada. Sabah, thank you so much for joining us. SABAH ALNASSERI: Good afternoon, Sharmini, [inaud.] PERIES: Sabah, so, give us some details as to why these protesters are having a sit-in in Parliament, and I know they have disbanded for the time being, but they have promised to come back. ALNASSERI: Yes. Well, these protests started, actually, last year in July, almost one year, and had three significant moments, ever since these protests started in July. The first one is that the protest movement was spontaneous. It was not organized by a party or a religious movement, or a religious figure. It was spontaneous and people went in on the street in different provinces of Iraq, especially in the so-called Shi’ite majority provinces, in Basrah, An-Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, et cetera, and at first they were asking for better services, for electricity, clean water, et cetera. It coincided at that time, as you remember, with protest movement in Beirut for the same reasons, against garbage collection, water, electricity and so on. So it was spontaneous at that time, and at that time minister president Abadi promised to introduce reform and to fight corruption and deliver better service to the people. Nothing happened, and the demands of the protesters then escalated from better services to anti-corruption. They wanted reform, to get rid of all these corrupt politicians and ministers within the state apparatus. Then, the second significant moment, I would say, the religious and the so-called secular, I mean, I don’t use this term, secular, it’s problematic, but let me just, for the sake of the argument I will use this term secular–religious and secular forces within Iraq were forced, actually, to collaborate, to re-approach each other and side with the protesters. The second significant moment is not only the protester push the government and minister president Abadi to at least start some, or initiate some reform, but they forced all the religious and non-religious political forces in Iraq to come together and [inaud.] the protesters their demands. The third significant moment in the formation of this protest movement is the non-sectarian, non-ethnic character of these movements. You have forces from our Sadrists, of Muqtada al-Sadr, their religious figure, but you have even Khomeinists among the protesters and liberal, et cetera. So, for the first time since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, the urban civil character of the Iraqi society has come to the fore against all these religious and sectarian, ethno-division of the country. And I think it’s significant, because, for the first time, when I was listening to Muqtada al-Sadr’s speeches since March 2016 in front of the Green Zone, for the first time he not only did not differentiate between a Kurd and an Arab, and a Shi’ite and a Sunni, but for the first time he made a statement that there is no difference between a religious Iraqi and non-religious Iraqi, and I think this is significant because he realizes that the nature of the Iraqi societies, which is different than, let’s say, Iran, or Lebanon, for that matter, is so heterogenous, it has such a long history of non-radical, non-extremist, non-religious, mostly civil, urban character, that this is the only way forward against the entrenched interests of corrupt political parties and politicians. These are three significant moments and I think they can help us understand that why, for instance, for the first time the protesters were actually protected by the Sadrist militias. This is the first time you have such a massive mass movement in Iraq, probably since 1958, since the revolution in Iraq, where the militias of the political parties and the interior ministry didn’t dare shoot at the people just like they used to before because they were protected this time by the Sadrist militia. And the second thing which also indicates cracks within the security apparatus of the state is that when the people tore down these concrete walls, which reminds me, by the way, of 1989 in Germany when people tore down the wall between east and west, a similar moment happens in Baghdad last week. So, when people tore down these concrete walls, the security forces not only, especially the police, not only did not stop them or shoot at them. They de facto supported them to enter the Parliament, occupy the Parliament and other offices of the ministers and the MP. This is significant, when you have a crack within security apparatus. Think about Tunisia and Egypt when the army refused to shoot at the people, and so on. It was significant that it contributed to the momentum of the protest movement. PERIES: Right. Sabah, there’s a lot to be discussed here, particularly Muqtada al-Sadr and– ALNASSERI: –Yes– PERIS: –His back story, in terms of why most of the reporting that has been taking place on what happened in terms of the sit-in. A lot of the media outlets reported that this was enticed by him and a speech he gave, quite contrary to what you’re saying. But we would like to have a back story on who he is, but let’s do that in our second segment, enticing people to continue to listen to us. Thank you so much for joining us, Sabah. ALNASSERI: My pleasure. PERIES: And thank you for joining us. Please come back to part two with Sabah Alnasseri.

Part 2

SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Sabah Alnasseri from York University in Toronto. We’re talking about Iraq and the most recent developments there. So, Sabah, when we were speaking in the earliest segment we were speaking about Muqtada al-Sadr. Now, a lot of the media reported, as at the sit-in in the Green Zone and in front of the Parliament was being agitated by him, and that after listening to a speech he had given people just, you know, crossed the Green Zone, jumped over walls to get to the Green Zone and occupy the Parliament. How accurate is that reporting? SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, the movement started spontaneous and of course, as I said, this spontaneous movement forced not only the MPs and the government to debate some reforms, but also imposes on the existing and non-religious forces in Iraq a form of [reapportionment] because they realized if they don’t associate themselves with this protest movement they will be marginalized, so you can see Muqtada al-Sadr and other political forces in Iraq, they are [riding] on this wave of this protest movement. They did not cause them, nor they initiated them. But, it’s true that when the al-Sadrists joined the movement [inaud.] enormous potential on supporters of all of Iraq so, yes, Muqtada al-Sadr became a significant figure within the movement and that’s for a good reason. What we are witnessing in Iraq with this protest movement is an intra-Shi’ite conflict of a political power, because what Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to push back. He’s against other Shi’ite forces within the Parliament and within the government, especially [the al-Da’wa Party], and here we can see that that’s why Muqtada al-Sadr actually invoked an Iraqi nationalist card and not a sectarian and Shi’ite one. So– PERIES: –And tell us about Muqtada al-Sadr and, sort of, his bloody history in Iraq as well. ALNASSERI: Yeah. Well, you know, al-Sadr family is totally one of the most prominent Shi’ite, Arab families in Iraq, and that’s why you can see Muqtada al-Sadr, just like his father and grandfather, he’ll always invoke the Arab nationalist card compared to other religious figure in the religious institution in Iraq like al-Sistani and so on, who have a different ethnic background. So he come from an Arab Shi’ite families within these religious institutions, and that’s why even Saddam Hussein in 1990 appointed his father to be the head of the religious institution in Iraq precisely because he’s an Arab, because of this nationalist card. And, historically, this other family, if you compare them, let’s say, to an [inaud.] family, they were always closer to the popular classes in Iraq, especially the peasants, the unemployed and so on, whereas other Shi’ite families and religious figures within the institution, they were the speaker and the intellectual of their own classes, at that time the landlords, so you can see the al-Sadr family, historically, has much more credibility among the popular classes, the peasant worker and the unemployed, than other Shi’ite forces. And the third movement, I think why al-Sadr became so significant and has much more credibility to be a prominent figure within the movement, because he distanced himself in the last three years from Iran and he opposed the US occupation, and he is invoking a united Iraq against the fraction of Iraq in ethnic-sectarian terms, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. And he can rely on this historical, you know, record of his family as being a national, popular force within the Iraqi societies, so he has much more credibility when he talks to the people and gives a speech in front of the Green Zone saying that, if the government will not implement the reform, will not respond to the demands of the people, then people would occupy the Green Zone, and he starts speaking of a popular revolution. So there are historical, social and, especially since the occupation of Iraq, political, ideological movements that give much more credibility to Muqtada al-Sadr and his, you know, speeches to the popular classes in Iraq than other Shi’ite political parties. Think, on instance, one of his rivals, al-Maliki, the ex-minister president. Al-Maliki, when he saw the protests and saw al-Sadr, you know, heading the protests in the last few weeks, he starts speaking of an attack on the Islamic project, and the forces, he did not name al-Sadr, but he implies that al-Sadr is trying to bring back the secular, urban, civil character of the Iraqi societies against the Islamic project, and he starts threatening with some kind of civil war rhetoric. So, you can see there’s an inter-Shi’ite conflict of political power about which we, by the way, we talk many times on the Real News since years that the main struggle in Iraq is not inter- but intra-sectarian. PERIES: Right. And, Sabah, the crisis in governance is going on, but add to that the massive budgetary deficit also being experienced as a result of the declining oil prices giving away to further instability. What impact is that going to have on what’s happening, in terms of the political destabilization going on? ALNASSERI: Yes. Partly, you know, affected and caused, but only partly, the protest movement and the conflict within the Parliament and the ministry itself, because the almost 20 percent reduction in states’ income due to the low oil prices, which we talked about in January of last year, we anticipated on the Real News that this will happen. That created not only difficulties for the government to introduce reforms, but and also, and worse still, to introduce austerity measures which created a lot of conflict within the state ministries because most of these bureaucrats are the client list pf the Shi’ite political parties, so it creates conflict among these ministries, who gets what and how much? How much reduction to this ministry vis-a-vis the other. That created internal conflict over the redistribution of income and, of course, makes difficult for the government to introduce services for the people. So it caused, partly, the protest movement but it’s not the real cause of the protest movement. As I said, we have this wave of protests in Iraq since years, but for the first time, and due to the different circumstances, this, you know, sporadic, spontaneous protest moment evolved into a massive popular force that present as a serious crisis, not only for the political regime but for the whole state itself, because I think people start realizing, and that’s why their demand escalated compared to July 2015. People realized that even if al-Abadi introduced reform and he reshuffled the cabinet and, you know, bring in independent politicians not affiliated with party, et cetera, this will not change anything of the current situation because all the ministries, all these apparatus of the states are occupied according to this so-called muhassasa, the quarter system, the ethno-sectarian system. That means if you bring an independent minister, even if he, you know, he or she is a good person, try to introduce reform, the whole ministry, the undersecretaries, the managers, the bureaucrat are all affiliated with the Shi’ite party, so they’ll make it almost impossible for any government to introduce any reform under the current structure of the state. And I think this is becoming much more clear to the people, that, you know, a simple reshuffling or personal shifts or changes will not change anything on [inaud.] on ground, will not satisfy the demand of the people, and I think the demands of the people will get more radical in the next few weeks and month. PERIES: All right. We’ll be looking out as I’m sure you will be, Saba. Thank you so much for joining us, and we hope to have you back very soon. ALNASSERI: My pleasure, and thanks for having me. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.