Iraq and Gulf Analysis

A Day of Protest in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Friday, 25 February 2011 14:58

This was not what Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had wanted to happen. Yesterday he announced that the big demonstrations across Iraq that had been scheduled for today should not go ahead since they were “suspicious”. For more than a week, Maliki partisans in government (Amir al-Khuzai, the “national reconciliation minister), parliament and in places like Dhi Qar have made references to neo-Baathism and even al-Qaida in order to cast a slur on today’s planned events.

But the protests went ahead across Iraq today, and, frankly, if the protestors were all “suspicious Baathists” then Maliki is in for a challenge. True, there were protests in some areas that have sometimes been accused of being hotbeds of supporters of the former regime of Saddam Hussein, like Bayji near Kirkuk. For sure, there were expressions of support for the demonstration by politicians who have been branded Baathists by Maliki and his allies, like Zafir al-Ani of Iraqiyya. But the protests today – and indeed the growing wave of discontent in Iraq over the past few weeks – were spread across the entire country, from Sulaymaniyya in the Kurdistan Regional Government area to Basra in the south.

Indeed, the striking aspect of today’s demonstrations was their national character. For one thing, we have seen Kurds rise up against the dominant Kurdish parties, Shiites challenging the hegemony of Maliki’s own “all-Shiite” alliance, and Sunnis complaining against their Sunni local politicians. The cries for better services and employment conform to a universal pattern that has been in emergence over the past few weeks. But more importantly, in terms of slogans and demands, there are signs of a true synthesis of genuine nationwide opposition to the supposed “government of national partnership” that was formed, tentatively at least, in December 2010.

The signs were there already some weeks ago, when Shiites in places like Hamza (Qadisiyya), Kut (Wasit), Dhi Qar and more recently Rumaytha (Muthanna) rose up against governors closely allied with Maliki and the other leading Shiite Islamist parties, in some cases even burning down government offices. Today’s reported resignation of Shiltagh Abbud, Maliki’s ally and governor of Basra, just highlights the descent of Maliki’s State of Law since they won an outright majority in the local council there in the January 2009 governorate elections. Not that leaders described by some as solid “Sunni” leaders escaped censure by the protestors either: Today, Mosul is in revolt despite having been something of a political fiefdom for parliament speaker of Iraqiyya, Usama al-Nujayfi, and his brother Athil, the local governor, for the past couple of years.

But there is more to this than that. In Dhi Qar, demonstrators demanded better services, an end to corruption, and, importantly, criticised the system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing that forms the basis for all of Iraq’s post-2003 government and that is supported by the United States and Iran alike. In Baghdad, protestors are trying to destroy the concrete blast walls put up by the United States since 2007 in its own attempt to engineer “sectarian” reconciliation, American-style, and are calling for a unified Sunni–Shiite political project, with echoes from the uprising against the British in 1920. Again, this seems to indicate a desire for more profound reforms and system change. Some of the activists are highlighting the absence of properly elected local councils at the sub-governorate level across Iraq as one very immediate grievance.

What this all shows is that the internationally sponsored “consensus” and “power-sharing” project in post-2003 Iraq is in crisis. Power-sharing between leaders is of limited value if assumed “community leaders” do not enjoy support in the constituencies they are supposed to represent, and indeed if those constituencies begin attacking the ethno-sectarian quota-sharing concept as such. Ironically, part of the problem with the new Maliki government could be that there are simply too many on the inside and no healthy opposition on the outside.

As of today, the only true opposition party to speak of in parliament is the Kurdish Gorran as well as some independent deputies. Perhaps today’s protests could induce more Iraqi politicians to think carefully about the virtues of taking part in a government that seems to care more for itself than the Iraqi people. Today’s demonstrations appear to have involved thousands rather than tens of thousands in the affected areas, so there is still some way to go before we reach Tunisian and Egyptian proportions. Still, after the initial protests in Baghdad in early February seemed somewhat quixotic and marginal with their Che Guevara posters, today buildings were burnt and shots were fired. The Iraqi government and its international supporters should understand that what we saw today is an attack on some of the very principles underlying the deal-making that led to the formation of the current government, despite its so-called “democratic” façade.

15 Responses to “A Day of Protest in Iraq”

  1. GB said

    Be careful not to project your personal vision for Iraq’s political future onto an amorphous group of demonstrators spread throughout the country. How many people protested in Dhi Qar? 500? 1000? That a tiny fraction of Iraq’s 30 million people “criticised the system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing that forms the basis for all of Iraq’s post-2003 government” is hardly significant. In fact, not only is it insignificant, it entirely misses the point- the one common grievance articulated across Iraq is the lack of essential services. Indeed, this is the primary motivation of today’s demonstration. Viewed in this context, the protests did not start a few weeks ago- they began last summer, when a few thousand people in southern Iraq demonstrated against the dreadfully inadequate electric grid. Today’s demonstrations, like those of the past few weeks, are a continuation of what started almost one year ago.

  2. Reidar Visser said

    And be careful not to ignore the voice of the Iraqi people. As long as the protestors against the system are more numerous than those politicians that benefit from the system, there is a problem. How many Iraqis are shouting “Yes to quotas and muhasasa” these days?

  3. GB said

    I do not have privilidged access to the “voice of the Iraqi people.” To the best of my knowledge, neither to do you. My knowledge of the siuation derivies from open source information, and my contacts throughout Iraq, both of which fall short of providing me with anything approximating the voice of 30 million people. That said, my sources in Sulaymaniyah tell me some participated in the protests there simply because there was nothing else to do. Is boredom included in the voice you speak of? If not, it should be. Or what about some of the lawyers that protested in Baghdad on February 10? They demonstrated in front of the Company Registry building, calling for a more efficient and less onerous process of forming a business in Iraq. They also demanded better basic services for all Iraqis. This seems to suggest that if the current government could effectively provide better essential services and minimize the bureaucratic burdens in the system, then many Iraqis would be satisfied.

  4. Reidar Visser said

    No one is disputing the complexity of people’s motivation for taking part. But again, where are the jubilant defenders of the system of ethno-sectarian quotas?

  5. GB said

    The absence of an affirmative defense of X does not imply a rejection of X. Suppose a person in Najaf demands better access to potable water. In making this demand, there are many things this person is not defending: e.g., he is not defending his right to a fair trial. But it does not follow that he rejects his right to a fair trial. In much the same way, the lack of “jubilant defenders of the system of ethno-sectarian quotas” does not imply people reject that system. Some surely do- but one cannot validly argue that because the people demonstrating are not affirming ethno-sectarian quotas, they reject them.

  6. Mohammed said

    Hi Reidar:

    I admire your good intentions, and coupled with your incredible knowledge base, I hesitate to disagree with you, but I feel that I must. To directly answer your question: “where are the jubilant defenders of the system of ethno-sectarian quotas?” It is hard for me to defend a “system” that I don’t believe exists in the first place. I believe Iraqis voted along sectarian lines, and today’s government is a reflection of the free will of the iraqi people.

    I do not see the west as imposing an ethno-sectarian formula on Iraq today. Under Bremer, yes, they surely did. But the government of Iraq today is a result of fair elections (according to the United Nations). All the evidence points to the fact that people by and large voted along sectarian lines not because they were forced to, but because they chose the party or politician that felt represented their best interest.

    Allawi is the only politician that was able to attract some shiite and sunni votes, but almost every other politician (including al-Maliki) received votes along sectarian lines. There is no quota for that (as in the Lebenese constitution), people just voted that way.

    There is no magic here, it is easy to explain based on the politics of the different figures. Allawi used the “right words” and promoted policies that appealed to enough sunnis and secular shiites to get the votes that he got. But, those same positions (such as his close relationaship with Saudi Arabia, close relations with ex-baathists/current neo-baathists) is what prevented him/Iraqiya from getting any further shiite votes.

    Just look at Iraq today during Ashurah and Arbayeen. As much as I think bashing one’s head with a sword or chain is pretty barbaric and backwards (mutakhalaf as they say in Iraq), there are large segments of Iraq’s shiites who relish their new found freedom to express themselves. They are going to vote for the party or individuals who will protect their freedoms. Most shiites don’t believe that “Allawi is really one of them..” For 30+ years they suffered under baathism. They are not about to put in power people who think “baathism” was great (like many in Iraqiya do). The sectarian civil war dominated the narrative for the last few years, and that is what motivated people’s votes. That is why sunnis by and large hate al-Maliki (they see Dawa party to be stooges or Iran)…

    I think you are holding Iraqis and Iraq’s politicians to unrealistic standards. Eventhough the USA has the separation of religions and church as a foundation of its constitution, then do you really think that a politician in America could be elected president if he says that he is an atheist? Maybe some liberal elites might vote for him, but he would lose the heartland (church-goers) and never win a popular election. Similarly, Allawi cannot win when most shiites view him to be an alcohol-drinking (btw, I have no idea if Allawi drinks alcohol), buddy of many baathists, buddy of the saudi king (hater of shiites)…

    I am not telling you if this is right or wrong. I would rather that a just Jew was the PM of Iraq than a corrupt shiite, but the Iraqi masses dont think like me..Similarly, I wouldnt trust a baptist president in the USA any more than an atheist president, but most Americans dont think that way either.

    Now, I agree that there was some ethno-sectarian “quotas” with deputy prime ministers, VP, but as you have said, those positions are powerless anyways…

    Now moving forward, and on to today’s “day of rage,” as people are less concerned with civil war, they are going to be more concerned about having a government that can provide them electricity, bribe-free services, jobs, transportation, etc. When my family has traveled back and forth to Iraq, they have encountered so much corruption, that it makes me “enraged” too. This corruption has nothing to do with sectarianism, you go to mosul, they will ask for bribes…you go to Najaf..they will ask for bribes…

    I see all the evidence in the news to suggest people are protesting the incompetence of the government, not “how” the government was formed.


  7. GB,
    You don’t understand how an Iraqi thinks. Iraqis believe that the position of prime minister is powerful, to attack him the way the demonstrators did is dangerous, and when coupled with religious fatwas, banning the demonstrations or calling for 6 months postponement, then the demonstrators are taking risk of opposing their own religious leaders. I hope you noticed that the demonstrators are mostly young males with few very resentful older men and women. These are the brave and desperate people who dared to come out and challege the state security apparatus and lost many dead and injured.
    So you think that the protester are not representative of Iraq’s population. With all due respect, who cares what you say when the action of the government says they are?

  8. Reidar Visser said

    Mohammed, thanks for sharing your thoughts, I think I remember you didn’t like my story about the Iraqi soccer team either! I think this is more than a criticism of ethno-sectarian quotas; it is also about the basic ideas of quotas not merit as basis for forming the government.

  9. Mohammed,
    I agree with a lot of what you said but voting along sectarian lines is not the point. Let me explain.
    I read somewhere that the recent vote pattterns in German elections is along sectarian lines as defined three centuries ago: Most Roman Catholic districts voted for the Christian Democrats, yet the policy of the Christian Democrats is not sectarian. What I am saying is: There will always be voting along sectarian lines but the policies and actions of all ruling parties in Iraq cannot be sectarian anymore.

  10. I wouldn’t expect anyone to openly defend the ethnosectarian system, even among people like ISCI who clearly believe in it. I think it works subtly the way Faisal describes; it’s mostly subconscious, but it shows itself there on election day. This is true in any democracy where the society is heterogeneous. For example, I don’t think many Americans walk into the voting booth thinking “we need more people of my race in office,” but voting is affected by racial identity to a significant degree.

    Perhaps the most significant story related to Maliki’s treatment of the protests is his decision to remove Othman al-Ghanami, commander of the Central Euphrates Command. Some sources – perhaps speaking to Ghanami off the record – are saying it was because he disobeyed orders to clamp down on protests. The other theory I can think of is that it is related to the Sadrists efforts to get rid of him, and Maliki’s need for their support right now. I can’t think of any explanations for this move at this time that don’t reflect badly on Maliki. Ghanami has been in that position for several years.

  11. Santana said

    Mohamed- just a small correction about King Abdullah of Saudi…he does NOT hate Shiites and this is a fact…..he is by far the most impartial King to date and has done more for them then his predecessors -the Shiites of Saudi love him and many of them told me so….the late King Fahad was a big “shiite-hater”.
    If the current King is gone then his brother Prince Nayef will take over (mark my word) ……. then it’s a whole new ballgame and the Shiites may not get the same treatment from what I have heard.

    As far as Sectarianism goes – I think Iraq has only marginally improved since 2006-2007 – it is live and well with no real indication that it’s gonna change anytime soon… There is discrimination in gov formation still…For example- Iraqiya submits 5 names for the Defense Ministry last Wednesday and Maliki turns ALL 5 down and won’t even give a reason.

    Also you mentioned Iraqi Jews and I liked your example…and actually the Iraqi Jews that I have met in the USA and Europe are sill very Patriotic and love Iraq dearly. Kicking them out of the Country was a big mistake and a tragedy in my opinion.

  12. sk said

    Who has been helping to organise the protests, and have they been planned on a national scale i.e. not a series of local protests but a genuine national movement?

    You could see how people could say that given Kurds are protesting against Kurds, Shia against Shia and Sunni against Sunni, the imposition sectarian fragmentation has worked. Do you see cross-sectarian or anti-sectarian rhetoric and genuine attempts to bring together all of those disenfranchised?

  13. Samir Abdallah said


    I do agree with most of what you had to say. The issue is the priorities. Oppressed people for decades, oppressed for their identity and beliefs, had an opportunity for the first time to assert that after 2003. That was the topic of the first general elections and the second, but to a lesser degree. Many people are realizing more and more that asserting their identity in the elections is not a priority any more. Their identity is already respected and preserved. The priority is to elect those who better serve the people.

    It is a transitional period from oppression and dictatorship to democracy. who expects that to happen without a transition period.

    Our problem is that politicians are not realizing that peoples’ priorities are changing. If they don’t follow that and change from ethno-sectarian speech and policies to effective and efficient performance then they will lose the trust of those who elected them. I hope these demonstrations will deliver this message to the politicians.

  14. Reidar Visser said

    For an example of the wide range of demands, from salary rise to rejection of any attempt to promote federalism locally, see this report from Baquba:

  15. Salah said

    For an example of the wide range of demands

    Just read the words in the last Photo or on the chase of one of the protesters

    أهم منجز لتظاهرات الجمعة

    They protesting not giants the “the system “

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