It is difficult to predict what might happen to the Iraqi Protest Movement over the next few weeks. One thing is for sure however is that the forces working against the wishes of the Iraqi people are enormously powerful and entrenched.
The anti-protest forces are Iraqi political parties, the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran and the US. All have an interest in ensuring the continuation of the status-quo. It suits the US and the KRG to have a weak government in Baghdad, unable to freely determine its future.
It suits Iran of course because Iraq is the jewel of the Middle East it has long sought – and the first line of defence against US imperialism and Western interventionism. For Iran, Iraq is a national security and strategic asset that must at all costs not be allowed to slip away from its control.
And the KRG and their political elites, well, they are interested in making sure that the billions of dollars that it derives from the sectarian political system (called Muhasa’sa) is not disrupted – they, with the US and Iran, militia groups and political parties, will do whatever it takes to ensure that Iraq’s political system remains the domain of the exclusive political pact that has been the foundation of Iraq’s post-2003 political order.
For these reasons, the US and Iran will ensure that the protests are ‘contained’ and do not spill over to the point of changing the current way politics is practised in the country.
For the next few weeks, the likely options for those in power will see the following:
- A steady increase in the use of violence. The use of violence against protestors has been horrendous. Ultimately, the key driver in Iraq – the use of violence – will be used at various points to ‘contain’ the Iraqi protestors and ensure their reach does not go beyond Tahrir Square. Civil disobedience will be met with violence, and a tightening of control of state institutions – creating penalties for those that do strike.
- Demonisation of the Iraq Protest Movement, as being anti-state, anti-Iraqi, anti-everything. There will be attempts to spoil and sabotage the integrity of the protestors.
- The government and those in power will try to negotiate with some of its component groups to create rifts and fracture, throwing money and incentives here and there.
All of these measures are ‘quick-fix’ ones and not solutions to the crisis of post-2003 statebuilding process, which has been and continues to be a complete failure and disaster.
What the Iraq Protest Movement has done is galvanise cross-class and cross-social group solidarity not witnessed for decades. The spirit of protest is creating a new, albeit public, education based on activism and resistance against the legacy of the Iraq War of 2003.
This is why the slogans used by protesters have been about ‘we want a state’ and ‘we want a nation’ – calls that Iraq has no functioning state institutions and that its resources are being raped by illegitimate political elites.
Over the past few years we have seen many protests; none, however, have been of this size and strength. One of the main reasons is that it is not one group that is protesting, but large sections of society.
Iraq’s emerging middle-class groups (albeit the educated ones) and lower classes, mostly poor, jobless youths, are out in protest together. This deeply threatens those in power as one group can not be isolated, demonised and contained.
These protests are a social movement, even if they are generally leaderless. It is this absence of leadership that has given it enormous strength and its ‘head’ can not be pinpointed and attacked by opponents.
It is also worth noting that these protests are secular in nature. They represent a deep desire in Iraqi society to unfurl the cloak of fear associated with Iraq’s post-2003 political order – which has seen the promotion of generalised religious practices in society, especially associated with what is right or wrong behaviour. Women dancing on the street is a direct act of resistance against religious institutions and those who promote their conservative views about human behaviour.
Iraqi protestors are rejecting religious dogma associated with centres of religion and religious political parties who have worked together to ensure mutually beneficial arrangements in their efforts to extract resources from the state. Political Islam and religion of the type practised after 2003 is being actively resisted in Iraq today. In actual fact, religion’s association with politics, especially that of the Shia clergy, has tarnished all those who are part of these post-2003 arrangements. Some of the Shia clergy are also joining the protesters, though this is largely done for PR purposes. Others share the sentiments of the Iraqi population and their protests, but are too afraid to go against religious institutions whose backers are Iran, militia groups and religious political parties.
Instability will be the norm over the next few weeks and months. There is no doubt that the earthquake that the protests has created will have wide ranging repercussions on Iraq’s politics.
The fact that Iraq derives most of its resources (95% from oil) which goes to state institutions controlled by political parties means that political parties can wait this one out, but not for too long.
Sooner or later, however, it will come back to bite.
The relative autonomy and disconnect enjoyed by Iraq’s political elite can only be sustained by oil and the use of force.
As we will see, the continued use of force and violence will only back-fire.