Decades of pent-up grievances blew up, as predicted, across Iraq’s oil-rich south. Motivated by the government’s unfulfilled reform agenda, a brewing electricity crisis and obscene summer heat, protesters took to the streets to make their voices heard. “Down with religious parties” – “out with the illegitimate” – “down with the government” – Iraq’s men chanted. Could it be that Iraqi citizens, among them its largely-unemployed youth, are sickened by their precarious livelihoods? Could it be that, fighting against Iraq’s endemic culture of corruption, Iraqis are seeking to resuscitate the National Protest Movement that was violently crushed by Iraq’s former premier, Nuri Al-Maliki, in the spring of 2012 and again in 2013?
The ‘Deja Vu’ treatment – the attempt to dismiss the movement as ‘pocket’ protests, insignificant, and already seen before – remains attractive among some commentators. Yet this approach is dismissive of reality. The present southern uprising constitutes the single largest protest since the Shaabaniyah uprisings against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Protests entered their second week on Monday, with participants vowing not to let up in the coming days and weeks. Iraq’s unforgiving summer heat forced protesters to announce a short siesta, but protests resumed again at 4pm. The death toll cited by Arabic and English-language agencies ranges from 8 to 30, but no consensus has been reached.
Baghdad’s heavy-handed approach tells us more about the state’s weaknesses than its strengths. Heightened security, and the deployment of nine battalions (including army brigades, counter-terrorism units and the Emergency Response Division) in a bid to protect selected government installations, comes in response to the fear of losing power. The same installations have become important features of Iraq’s convoluted landscape, attacked for representing enduring symbols of the injustices, both political and economic, practiced by Iraq’s incumbents. Roads leading to these installations and critical oil fields were closed off to prevent land shipments from entering and leaving certain ports. Protesters attacked other symbols that give Iran’s ‘soft occupation’ a material presence. A street billboard in one of Basra’s main streets bearing the face of Ayatollah Khomeini went up in flames, while protesters were heard chanting “Iran get out”.
Protesters in Najaf stormed Iraq’s second largest airport, bringing air traffic to a short-lived standstill, while government buildings and political party headquarters in Najaf, Samawah, parts of the capital Baghdad, and several more cities have been set ablaze and vandalised. In a bid to quell public anxieties or regain provincial control, incumbent prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi, landed in Basra last Friday as street protests picked up pace. He was whisked to safety by his heavily-armed entourage, after thousands broke into the hotel chanting “thieves, the lot of you”. The imposition of a state of emergency and curfews in various southern cities are additional signs of the failure to elicit dialogue between the state and its southern constituents.
The latest stand of defiance adopted by the Iraqi street is not unprecedented. The scenes could be a replay of previous summers, in which popular protests have either been hijacked and smothered or violently quashed. Unarmed crowds have been fired on by SWAT teams, local police and security forces for voicing their demands for job security, subsidised electricity and an end to privatisation of the country’s electricity sector, which hamstrings economic growth nationwide.
Protester’s demands have been consistent, while the same cannot be said for the central government. What is beginning to crystallise is a political street movement, whose aspirations have been plundered alongside the nation’s wealth. Their dismissal as politically meaningless is perhaps a rational response to the fall out that may be caused by an upturned status-quo. The latest uprising could perhaps be an attempt by local provinces to take back the reins and govern themselves. Yet the democratic turn that Iraqis have waited 15 years for is not coming.
While self-rule represents a mid-way compromise, Basra is a price too dear for Baghdad to forgo. A violent crackdown may kill a greater number of protesters, but the crowd has shown itself ready to take on Iraq’s kleptocratic political class. The fratricidal violence exercised by security forces redeployed from northern to southern territories also risks galvanising greater support, which could see Iraq implode with popular unrest.
The violence will continue so long as Baghdad fears the power of the masses to unseat the Green Zone elite.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.