Iraqis break fear barrier in protests
BAGHDAD - Just like some of the peaceful protests during the “Arab spring” that swept across several countries in 2011, demonstrations in Iraq started out spontaneously in mid-July, called for by young Iraqis on social media.
The protests, focusing on official corruption, which has hurt public services and infrastructure development, caught Iraq’s political and religious establishment off guard. Protesters specifically pointed at political parties as being behind Iraq’s troubles.
“In the name of religion, the thieves are robbing us,” is the main slogan of the Iraqi protesters, who are demanding an end to rampant state corruption that has helped swell the country’s deficit and squandered oil revenues.
Iraqis also blame corruption for ongoing chaos and violence that have claimed the lives of thousands since the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion of 2003.
“Corruption is behind all our troubles,” said Mosa Faraj, a former chief of the Commission of Integrity, an independent governmental body responsible for fighting corruption.
“Political parties are responsible for the widespread corruption,” said Faraj, who has written two books on corruption in Iraq.
Violence impeded reconstruction efforts, rendering impossible improvements in living standards in Iraq, Faraj said, despite the fact that Iraq sits atop the world’s second largest proven oil reserves.
“Politicians are directly involved in corruption,” Faraj said. He explained that feuding between political parties “created the corruption whereby politicians steal state wealth to finance violence against a competing party, to twist its arm”.
Iraq’s protests began July 16th in the southern city of Basra, the richest district with oil fields and the main port responsible for the country’s maritime trade.
Basra, however, suffers greatly from poor infrastructure and inadequate services.
“Basra contributes more than 55% of the state budget, yet we lack everything, from clean drinking water to electricity,” political activist Aziz Hammoud said. He was referring to chronic outages in which electricity is available only seven hours a day to Iraqi households.
Hammoud said protests turned angry when high school student Muntathar Hilfi, 14, was killed by Iraqi police firing to disperse the protesters.
“This incident made us break the silence and fear barriers and led to impromptu protests countrywide,” Hammoud said.
The protests include Iraqis from all walks of life — professionals, unskilled labourers, university students and housewives — and all sects, including the minority Sunni Muslims and the rival Shia sect in a unique show of solidarity in a country often riven by sectarian violence.
Nonetheless, like “Arab spring” demonstrations in Egypt — where the Muslim Brotherhood took the limelight from Egyptians who led the popular movement that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 — Iraq’s political and religious parties also jumped on the bandwagon.
“Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan,” journalist and activist Ahmed Abdul Hussein said, mocking the country’s political and religious parties, which claim they are leading the protests.
“We know the truth. The protests are spontaneous. We also know that the electricity is not the problem but the tip of the iceberg. Our protests are against corruption and we want all corrupt officials to be brought to justice,” Hussein said.
Gyorgy Busztin, a deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general in Iraq, said corruption and inefficiency were creating “widespread and rightful dissatisfaction, which in turn, can be manipulated by terrorist groups for their own ends”.
The protests forced Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to introduce a reform package that called for putting corrupt officials on trial. It also envisaged significant reductions in government spending and forced the dismissal of six deputy prime ministers and vice-presidents, a cabinet reshuffle and a review of top security and political posts.
Initially, protesters welcomed Abadi’s announcement but now many argue that proposed reforms may just be ink on paper. Abadi’s package is nothing but procrastination to popular demands and a fudging of public anger,” said a Facebook statement signed by an Iraqi youth movement that ignited the protests.
“We do not want our anger to be stolen from us, so we decided to escalate our protests,” the statement said.
Baghdad housewife Suzan Monem, 60, who participated in the protests with her children, said, “I take part in the demonstrations for the sake of Iraq, for a better future to our children, not for a political party or sect.”
Tahira Hassan, 57, another Baghdad housewife protester said, “Only the Iraqi people know the meaning of power shortage.” She was referring to the scorching summer heat, where temperatures were 52 degrees Celsius on average, making life unbearable without air conditioning.
“I’m a mother and I know how the heat affects my little grandchildren and my health,” Hassan said. “We’re deprived of air cooling systems and of refrigerators, which means we have no cold water and we can’t store any food.”
“How can we keep our mouths shut?” she asked. “We deserve a better life. I will continue protesting until we achieve our goal: an Iraq free of corruption.”