Iraqi protests seek ‘change in political system, not just services’
LONDON - Mass demonstrations that rocked the Iraqi city of Basra, which sometimes spread to other Shia-majority areas in southern Iraq, were not merely about providing jobs and basic services but were also meant to protest against the entire governing system, political activist Mustafa al-Safi told The Arab Weekly in an interview.
He is from the respected al-Safi family in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq. He said he was an opponent of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the mid-1980s and co-founded the group “Hezbollah Iraq” in the Ahwar marshes in 1994 before fleeing the country and settling in the United States. He returned to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.
Safi said the Basra protests, which flared up in July, were a continuation of demonstrations in the southern city and Baghdad in the past five years.
“The protesters wanted complete change in the political system, changes that affect the election process, the government, the constitution and the role of Iran,” said Safi. The poor living conditions in the country were symptoms but the cause was a bad system of governance, he argued.
In July, Safi founded the Iraqi National Trend for Change, an advocacy group that includes sheikhs, community leaders and young activists. He said the group was part of some 20 movements leading the protests.
Safi said that, although he had taken part in protests alongside supporters of influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in previous years, he opposed participating in the political system as it stands.
Al-Sadr’s bloc secured the largest number of parliamentary seats in May’s elections and the cleric agreed with Iran-backed militia leader Hadi al-Amiri to select Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister-designate.
“We had called for boycotting May’s elections because we knew they were going to be fraudulent, like the previous ones. Most people have boycotted the elections. You cannot expect the right solutions to come from a crooked base. You must fix the base first,” said Safi.
He said the electoral system favours established parties, leaving little room for newcomers. Also, those who monitor the elections are not independent. “It’s not unreasonable to ask the United Nations to take charge of elections in Iraq until we are able to do it transparently,” he said.
Safi called for a secular and civil state that respected people’s religious beliefs and traditions but was not Islamist. “Parts of the constitution need to be amended and our ethno-sectarian quota system must be scrapped. The state should not just be about government power but it should also build strong institutions,” he said.
Such changes, he argued, are unlikely in the current political order, which is heavily influenced by Iran. “I consider Iran to be an occupier of my country. It interferes in Iraqi politics. That’s why the protest movement in Basra blames Iran for many of Iraq’s troubles,” he said.
Safi accused Iran of seeking to undermine its critics in Iraq, even if they belonged to the Shia branch of Islam. Some of Tehran’s actions, he argued, were based on rivalry. “Iran wants to weaken the Iraqi marjaiya [Shia religious authority] in Najaf because it sees it as competitor to the Iranian velayat-e faqih system,” he said.
“At the same time, our marjaiya must be devoted to religious issues and not be frequently involved in politics. The good name of the marjaiya could be stained because politics is dirty. It should only speak out during major crises and not interfere in who is going to be the next prime minister,” he added.
Safi said he belonged to a movement that wanted to see Iraq have good relations with neighbouring Arab countries. However, he also called on Arab states to deal with Iraq as one country — not as different sects and ethnicities.
“We call on Arab countries to stand by us; a strong Iraq would be of benefit to the Gulf, especially at a time when Iran seeks to destabilise the region,” he said.