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Iraq after the Arab Spring

This is the first article of a two part series examining the Iraqi revolution and the five years that followed it. Part II looks at Iraq’s ancient Sunni-Shia division . Read Part II here.

The Arab Spring carried with it the Middle East’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Like its cousins in Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa almost 30 years ago, it promised to be the spark to transform the region into a haven of democracy and bring the grip of autocracy to an end.

The “fourth wave of democracy”, though, it wasn’t to be. Unease replaced optimism very quickly. Instead of falling like dominoes, regimes reasserted their authority with characteristic brutality. Revolutions were reversed; autocracies returned with a vengeance; protests developed into full-blown civil wars.

Six years on, can anyone be certain what the next few years will bring? Have we witnessed the end of the Arab Spring or just the beginning of a much longer stage on the road to democracy? Although no one can answer these questions with any degree of certainty, enough time has elapsed to make some sense of the events that have unfolded since protests began in December 2010.

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The authors of The Arab Spring — Pathways of Repression and Reform have done just that by offering what they believe is a much deeper explanation of the regional variances of the uprising and, more crucially, its disappointing outcomes. Why, for example, did only six of the the 21 member states of the Arab League experience serious challenges to their regimes? Why were dictators overthrown in only four of the six? And why can only one be judged to be a success?

Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya managed to overthrow their dictators but only Tunisia has gone through an admittedly precarious transition to democracy. In all of the other Arab countries, uprisings either subsided, were beaten into submission or failed to materialise in the first place. After surveying the region, Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds make some interesting conclusions, not least that there were no structural preconditions for the emergence of the Arab Spring uprisings. The random manner in which protests spread meant that a wide variety of regimes faced popular challenges to their authority.

The three professors noted further that the success of a popular campaign to oust a ruler was preconditioned on two key variables: oil wealth and hereditary succession. Oil, despite the obvious boom it has brought to the region, creates a unique pathology; “the curse of oil” not only stunts economic growth but also blunts democratic development.

The link between such wealth and authoritarianism is hard to dismiss. Oil wealth has endowed rulers with the capacity to forestall or contain challenges to their authority. Arab monarchies, for example, have deployed their ample resources to blunt popular demand for reform and fend off attempts to unseat them. Heredity succession transmits heightened loyalty from coercive agents of the state, which helps to explain why countries like Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco did not experience similar threats to their authority despite lacking significant oil revenue.

Variations in outcome are also explained by the level of freedom available to the people in organising an effective challenge to a regime’s authority. Those states with little or no oil, such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, generally had more freedom than those with lots of black gold, such as Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf countries regularly score very low in the global freedom index. The Arab Spring only seriously threatened just one oil-backed ruler — Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi — and that only because NATO’s intervention prevented the rebels’ certain defeat.

Like Libya, Iraq may have been in the category of regimes that were impervious to the unassisted overthrow of regimes from within. Nevertheless, the country was omitted from the Brownlee, Masoud and Reynolds survey because there were other factors, such as the US invasion in 2003 and its bloody aftermath, which distorted any post Arab Spring conclusions.

The academics have, in effect, sought to avoid counterfactual claims — in what is a highly scientific survey of the region — like the kind of conclusion made by discredited champions of the Iraq war, including Tony Blair. The former British prime minister and his ilk have attempted to rewrite history by peddling the idea that the war in Iraq was not a bad idea after all because George W Bush’s freedom agenda has had the desired ripple effect in the region by giving rise to the Arab Spring.

Putting aside the fact that there is absolutely no statement from any Arab Spring leaders crediting the US invasion as their inspiration, Iraq is a prime example of how not to bring political change to a country. Instead of being inspired, people would have been repelled, observed Paul Pillar, a former CIA official. “If violence, disorder, sectarian divisions, simmering civil war, militia control, chronic corruption [and] breakdown of public services were the ‘birth pangs of democracy’,” added the Middle East expert, “no one wanted anything to do with it.” If Iraq offered an example, then it was an example that no one wanted to repeat.

The installation of a post-Saddam fledgling state by America and the West did not trigger the Arab Spring. However, the Nouri Al-Maliki government (2006-2014), ravaged by corruption, was not bypassed by the popular uprising spreading across the Middle East. Throughout 2011, thousands of Iraqis came together, in a rare display of cross-sectarian harmony around the country, with Shia, Sunni and Kurdish citizens demanding improved living conditions and public services; an end to corruption, unemployment and inflated salaries for politicians; and an end to foreign occupation.

In February 2011, a full eight months before the US withdrawal from their country, thousands of Iraqis gathered on the streets and converged on Baghdad’s Liberation Square as part of an anti-government rally. Demonstrations took place across the country from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south, reflecting the widespread anger felt by Iraqis at the government’s inability to improve their lives. One of the larger clashes was in Fallujah, where approximately 1,000 demonstrators clashed with the police. On these “Day of Rage” protests, 23 demonstrators were killed.

As the Arab Spring was overturning regimes elsewhere during 2012 and becoming ever more sectarian in Syria, angry Iraqis were staging weekly demonstrations against the sectarian Shia-led government of Al-Maliki; among their demands was for him to step down and for the US-brokered constitution to be replaced.

New waves of protest began in early 2012 following a raid on the home of Finance Minister Rafi Al-Issawi and the arrest of 10 of his bodyguards, which reinforced widespread perceptions that the prime minister was intent on eliminating his political rivals within the Sunni community. Protests continued throughout the first half of 2013, gaining support from non-Sunni Iraqi politicians like Muqtada Al-Sadr.

These protests became extremely fierce by April 2013, when gun battles erupted as Al-Maliki’s security forces stormed a Sunni protest camp in Hawija. At least 42 people were killed, 39 of them civilians, with more than 100 wounded. It was one the most deadly confrontations between predominantly Sunni-organised protests and Shia-led security forces. The country was on edge, as Sunni tribesmen mobilised and declared that this was a jihad — holy war.

The incident sent shock waves across the country in Sunni communities seething with discontent; protesters set up street camps similar to those established in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. The New York Times reported at the time that Sunni mosques were bombed in the mixed Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora and the volatile city of Diyala, killing 10 people. In Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, the authorities imposed a curfew after gunmen twice attacked security forces.

Syrian’s sectarian war, it seemed, was spreading into Iraq. Throughout May, killings were reported in both Sunni and Shia majority cities. From 15 to 21 May 2013, a series of deadly bombings and shootings struck the central and northern parts of Iraq, with a few incidents also occurring in towns in the south and far west. At least 449 people were killed and 732 others were injured during outbreaks of violence of an intensity that had not been seen since 2006-2007 when the country was on the brink of civil war. Al-Maliki’s heavy-handedness was demonstrated further when dismantling the anti-government protest camp in the city of Ramadi. A Human Rights Watch investigation noted that hundreds of security personnel descended on the camp where 300 to 400 Sunni demonstrators were staying; at least 17 people were killed.

The collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul in the face of Daesh militants who entered the city from Syria in June 2014 finally put an end to Al-Maliki’s government and exposed the serious weaknesses of the rump state created by the US and its allies. Iraq’s sectarian politics had finally brought the country to its knees; it required foreign intervention to stay alive. Having all but eradicated Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 by supporting the Sunni tribes, Al-Maliki’s subsequent marginalisation of the Sunni population and his regime’s corruption and misrule left the country weak, vulnerable and on the brink of collapse.

As the Arab Spring collided with the bitter legacy of the Iraq war, the massive failures of the previous decade were exposed. Unresolved grievances led to people pouring onto the streets; simmering tensions escalated into violence between the US-installed regime and Sunni sections of the population that were alienated. Instead of becoming a “beacon of democracy” in the Arab world, as claimed by supporters of the US and Western 2003 invasion, Iraq has become a haven for Daesh, arguably the most extreme sectarian group of the very many in the region. The West’s long history of “divide and rule” policies has rarely borne such bitter fruit.

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