Protest Dynamics and The Destiny of the New Iraq

Protest Dynamics and The Destiny of the New Iraq
Students in Basrah carry victims’ picture while continue protesting. Photo Credit: Khwa Nazifa FB Page
:: PM:11:24:04/12/2019 ‌
PM Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation opened the door for several possibilities that might descend the country into prolonged unrests, or it can lead into a new political rearrangement that might direct Iraq towards stability and economic prosperity. The resignation is the first victory for the grass root protests in Baghdad and most of the Iraq’s central and southern provinces, but it is still not clear how the continuous protests will shape the course of events. Iraqis need to take into a count that a peaceful transition is the only way that brings both conflicting sides, protesters and the ruling elite, together; any other outcome will plunge the country into deeper chaos. 

Author

Mohammed Hussein
is policy director and political-economy analyst at ICPAR. He holds a master's degree in specialized economic analysis: Economics of Public Policy, from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.
By forcing Abdul-Mahdi’s government to resign, the protesters achieved one of their goals, and this will give them more courage to insist on their demands and for more radical changes. Their ultimate demand is to end the post 2003 Iraqi political regime that has been based on ethno-sectarian divisions; known locally as Muhasasa, by which Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians have shared public offices and funds over their patronage networks. The ethno sectarian ruling elite’s endemic corruption has cost Iraq at least $785 billion, according to a basic ICPAR’s estimate. However, PM’s resignation can force the existing ruling elite to fight back and have a harsher stand to protect their influences and patronage networks which will put them in a power struggle against the protestors. Long power struggle may derail the aims of the protests and become another political game without any tangible benefit for the common Iraqis.
Losers and Winners of The New Iraq 
“There is no way the things can go back to where we started the protests [October 1, 2019,] said Ammr al-A’raji, one of the activists in Najaf. It is too early to identify losers and winners of the new Iraq. However, the immediate losers of the new Iraqi dynamics are Iranian friends and Iranian backed political parties so far. They have lost great deal of influence with this government resignation. Iraqi nationalism is in the raise. Many young Iraqis are taking every opportunity to distinguish themselves from Iranian backed political figures and sectarian groups. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticized the protests and accused them of being encouraged by the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Iranian regime invested very hard to preserve the government, and the end of this government shows that Iran is losing the mainstream Shiites, and this may be the beginning of the end of Iranian influence in Iraq.
At first glance, the Iraqi protesters seems to be the winners, but they still have a long road to secure their gains. Passing a proper electoral law, changing the electoral commission, and engaging a reliable third party like the United Nations to oversee the upcoming earlier election are key to secure their gains. They still have a tough battle ahead for getting rid of the corrupt ruling elite. Therefore, they have not left the streets and insisted not achieved their goals. “We are not protesting just against Adil Abdul Mahdi but against the whole political system that brought him to the office. We were not demanding to remove him and keep the political parties to steal our wealth and lives. We want to change the entire ruling class,” said Ra’ad Hussein, one of the activists who have attended most of the Tahrir protests in Baghdad.
As the confusions clear out, the intentions can be seen clearly. There are two direct opposite forces trying to shape the course of events during Iraq’s transitional period. On the one hand, the current ruling elite and their regional supporters are trying to preserve as much as influences as possible; on the other, the protesters and political activists who have been fighting for a new Iraq through removing the elite. The struggle between these two visions and persistence by each side will shape the upcoming political arrangements in Baghdad. This conflict is simply determining the future of Iraqi politics for many years ahead. 
Besides, several regional and global powers such as The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other Iraq’s neighboring countries might see the protests as positive as it targets the Iranian influence in the country, but it is not clear how they will gain anything from the new Iraq. What is clear is Iraq will become more complicated for the local players as well as regional and global stake holders. This could be a start that Iraq gains its independence and leave the power dynamic between Iran and its foes.

Civil War Nightmares  

The transitional period can have sudden turn and could create more chaos as some observers already warned about the threat of the civil war. PM Adil Abdul Mahdi clearly stated that the options were between having state or the total chaos in the absence of the state. However, the concerns look unrealistic for several reasons. First, the protesters are unarmed civilians. They have not been part of any street fight. They have showed great deal of self-control whenever security forces and outlaw militias or snipers tried to embroil them to direct conflicts, according to Noor Khalaf, one of the activists participates in the Baghdad protests. 
The Khalaf’s argument is based on the fact that the protesters, contrary to political parties, have no militias, gangs, or armed groups. Even if the government and its supportive masked militias use excessive forces against them they would not and can not fight back. 
However, there are certain concerns over tribal armed conflicts in some Iraq’s middle and southern provinces as Dhi Qar, Maysan, Najaf, and Basrah, where most of the recent violent clashes happened. The concerns raised especially after the Iraqi government leaders tried to use certain tribal leaders to help cracking down on the protesters. Mixed with the political disarray, tribal revenge and environment have escalated the conflicts. 
In addition, inter fighting between the government backed militias over gains and government offices in this transition period is also a strong possibility, taking into account that the armed militias belong to the ruling elite such as Badr Organization, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Sadrist Groups, and other armed groups of Popular Mobilization Units, and they may see each other as threats.  These armed groups might not let the transition dynamics take place peacefully once they will start fighting over resources, government offices, and electoral gains. These groups are the main concerning threats across the country.
So far, most of the confrontations have been limited, and the activists and protest organizers accuse the government and its supportive militias of staging fake incidents as excuses to suppress the protesters. On November 27, a group of people set the Iranian consulate in Najaf on fire. The same night, the leaders of Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) as Qais al-Khazali (head of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq) and Ahmed Jassim Al Asadi stated that they are ready to protect Ayatollah Sistani. However, several protesters and activists in the city immediately denied that the Iranian consulate was their target. They also showed the PMU leaders’ statements as a fake concern and pretext to suppress protesters. In the following days, violence broke out and about 38 protesters were killed in Dhi Qar and Najaf while more than 200 others injured. 

Starting with A Caretaker Government

There is no doubt that the Caretaker government has very tough task. It has to fight with dozens political parties that own private militias, patronage networks in government institutions, and companies which monopolized the Iraqi markets. The success of the new government is key to prevent Iraq from descending into prolonged unrests and civil war, but this success is in expense of current political parties’ interests. If the political parties’ patronage networks and militias will let the caretaker government to change the electoral law and Iraq’s Independent High Commission of the Election in order to organize a free and fair election, then Iraq will be back on its right track. If not, the militias of the current ruling elite will probably start their conventional power struggle games to consolidate their power and guarantee their gains in the aftermath of this transition period. This is where the possibility of civil war is raising. 
The protests will give birth to many young and new leaders who are struggling against the ruling elite’s militias and patronage networks that control both Iraq’s politics and economy. If the transitional period will not go smoothly and not lead to a free and fair election, then Iraq will end up with disastrous conflicts. The same militias will fight back over their interests and resources. 
The new protest dynamics have driven Iraq to the point of no return. Iraqi government have pushed towards some legal reforms. It demolished privileges of high officials and disbanded the provincial councils. They also put the Iraq’s Electoral Law on amendment agenda, trying to change Iraq’s High Electoral Commission and prepare for an earlier election, and finally the PM Abdul-Mahdi’s government resigned; however, all these changes have not calmed down protesters. Because protestors are still seeing the same political elite running the country and making the changes. They want to completely change the structure of current regime which only caused pain and injustice. These changes can be demonstrated only through new fair elections. 

 Keeping the Spirit and Avoiding Becoming a Part of The System
 
The young activists who have led the protests can create a central leading organization to coherently lead their daily activities, but they have insisted on keeping their uprising under dozens of cooperative local committees. The committees horizontally lead their day to day activities and cooperate with one another. 
Not having a central leadership has been seen as a weak point by various experts, fearing from diverging towards an endless chaos in the absence of proper representative organization to negotiate with government leaders; however, the protest organizers see the things in different way. Not having a central leader is the best characteristic of their “revolution,” according to Sabah’s al-Shamari, 38 years old school teacher and activist from Nasiriya.
The Iraqi government and its supportive militias do not have hard time to persuade a group of opposition leaders to go back homes and stop their protests, or they easily can crack down on them by using excessive forces. Or, they can assassinate them. The government managed to do so previously in Basrah, Baghdad, Anbar, Salah Adin, and Kirkuk, but currently there is no leading organization and figure to deal with. It means there is no main leader whose assassination might end the protests. Plus, there is no body to compromise the protesters’ demands. 
“A known central leader will be subject to snipers’ assassination or government leaders’ bribes very soon,” said Noor Khalaf. Therefore, the divided horizontal leadership over local cooperative committees have showed resilient and put the government in a tough position of having no option except for meeting the protesters’ demands. 
The protesters can be classified into two groups. The first group consisted of the well determined activists who left their jobs and homes to keep the protests ongoing. The other group are supporters. They have supported the protests and believe in their causes, but they have not afforded all their time to it. “As the number of victims increase, the number of determined protesters and their persistence increase as well,” said Khalaf.

For Caretaker Government 

All the conflicting parties and groups need to understand the sensitivity of this transitional period and respect the legal and constitutional procedures this government is going to take in order to conduct the earlier election. Before the election day, the following steps need to be taken as prerequisites.
- Changing the electoral law in a way that qualified individuals, not just political parties’ representatives, could be elected.
- Replacing the Iraqi High Independent Electoral Commission with a new one that will be consisted of independent judges with clean record and away from political parties’ patronage networks. 
- The previews changes should guarantee a level field ground for all individuals and political parties to participate in the election under supervision of the United Nations and other international organizations. 
- Amending Iraqi constitution based on the protesters’ demands should be understandable, but the changes should not be used to target any Iraqi community’s interests. Constitutional changes should be directed towards having more accountable ruling elite and better functional government. The constitutional changes could be postponed to the next parliament if the current one will not be able to conduct it take into account the demands for disbanding the parliament.
- Except for Iraqi army and formal security forces, no armed forces should be allowed outside of constitutional and legal procedures.