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Did Iraqi protestors receive a reforms package or a hollow promise?

The slogans of the demonstrators across 11 Iraqi provinces have developed over the past three weeks from demanding electricity to demanding the "thieving" officials be prosecuted, to demanding that the corrupt judiciary itself be prosecuted and purged of the corrupt, to accusing the ruling political party and religious figures of looting and destroying the country. This reflects the gradual development of the demands that are parallel to the magnitude of corruption that has eaten up the entire government and its institutions. One of its most prominent manifestations is the hell of power shortages resulting in fans and air conditioners not working, and a lack of water. This is after the temperatures were so high they tested the limits of human endurance. After the citizens of one of the richest countries ran out of patience, and after the government officially acknowledged that the number of those living under the poverty line escalated, reaching 22.5 per cent, including millions of displaced individuals and those living on what they have collected from garbage bins.

I will begin with the electricity catastrophe. An American political commentator sarcastically described the protests as the "air conditioner uprising". This is typical of the Western media as a means of distancing themselves from their responsibility for the Iraqi disaster and their inability to deal with a national struggle outside the context of terrorism or sectarianism. However, is this merely a matter of ACs?

The protest against the lack of electricity is the spark that protestors hope will make the land suitable for the people to build their homes. Supplying the people with electricity does not only mean they will be able to use their air conditioners; it means they will be able to produce, manufacture, operate their facilities, purify their water and manage their hospitals. It is a lifeline without which the country is taken back to the Stone Age.

The crisis is magnified by the fact that the funds for this are available in their millions and that numerous contracts for this have been signed. The biggest contract signed is with Korea's Hyundai and Germany's Siemens, which amounted to billions of dollars and despite this, electricity still remains a mirage the citizens are dreaming of in their days of hell. What is the reason behind the delay of a country that has an enormous budget if it isn't the insatiable greedy bellies of the corrupt politicians?

The second demand is for reforming the judiciary that has been politicised and corrupt to its core. There are dozens of Iraqi and international human rights reports that document the magnitude of the judiciary's corruption. However, no one dares change the judiciary since it is a tool used by the politicians and militias to divide authority and legitimise the control of the majority bloc by means of American and Iranian agreements, which is what happened during Nouri Al-Maliki's second term. This same institution issued death sentences to hundreds of citizens who have been charged based on coerced confessions obtained through torture and reports from secret informants. It is because of this same institution that thousands of prisoners are spending their lives unjustly behind bars without committing any crime other than being victims of the ethnic cleansing committed under former the prime minister, who used the judiciary as a pawn in his hands.

The third issue addressed in the protests is the gradual change in the position of the Shia authority and the refusal of using religion to protect corruption. While the authority or the representatives speaking in its name (since the authority is not visible to the public) observed the protests from afar over the past years, and noticed all of its demands, including putting an end to the arrests and forced displacement, they also watched mothers patiently waiting at the prison doors for any information on their loved ones. This time, the authority spoke up to protect a government on the verge of collapse, even though it spoke out in support of the people's demands. The protestors generously appreciated the authority's position and anyone supporting them to eliminate corruption.

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi immediately held on to the lifeline given to him by the authority and offered what he called a "package" of reforms. When we examine the content of this package and realise the impossibility of its execution, we find that it is nothing more than a hollow promise. The protestors quickly realised that the package is useless and decided to continue their demonstrations demanding the implementation of these promises. How can the corrupt eliminate corruption? Can you trust a thief with your possessions?

In response to the insistence of the demonstrators, the ruling coalition's leadership picked itself up and decided, after holding a meeting on 20 August, to launch a manoeuvre based on four axes in order to contain the protests after they were unable to label them as sectarian. The first axis is to accuse the protesters of cooperating with external forces, as stated by Hadi Al-Amiri, president of the Iranian-backed Badr Organisation (according to Al-Sumaria News). This is the usual accusation and is the broken record played by all oppressive regimes.

The second axis accuses the protestors of terrorism, as Ammar Al-Hakim (a candidate for leading the ruling Shia coalition) stated that the demonstrations are not spontaneous popular protests, rather protests planned by Daesh in an attempt to ease the pressure on the organisation and destabilise the security in the southern provinces of Iraq, especially in Basra.

The third axis includes increasing the bombings in markets and other public areas and then accusing the demonstrators in some way or another, or at least saying that the protests give infiltrators and terrorists the opportunity to commit these acts or that they exhaust and drain the security forces.

The fourth axis depends on harassing the demonstrators and protesters in various ways, including establishing checkpoints, blocking main roads – as is happening in Baghdad – raiding their tents and hitting protestors – which happened in Basra – and forcibly dispersing the protests and sit-ins by the "riot police" using batons and water hoses – as was the case in Babylon and Karbala – or by armed militias tasked with doing so by the security forces. There are so many of these groups in the militia state.

The current demonstrations and sit-ins taking place in 11 provinces, in various parts of the country, are a continuation of the peaceful demonstrations that took place on 25 February 2011 and 23 December 2014. These demonstrations were repressed with the same brutality used by the regime throughout the years of its rule. The demonstrations have stressed that the taste of injustice is the same everywhere and it is the voice of a marginalised nation speaking out against politicians that treated them with contempt and disregard for 13 years. They have shown a clear maturity within the youth and attempts to invest this maturity by the parties in the corrupt political process, as well as other opportunistic parties. They have also tried to spread national positions that prioritise the restoration of dignity, justice, sovereignty and national wealth. This cannot be achieved unless the demonstrations and sit-ins continue and the containment and falsification manoeuvres are eliminated.

Translated from Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 24 August 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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