Iraq’s popular protests are at risk of being hijacked

In September 2014, the streets of Sanaa were convulsed by protests. The government of Abdrabu Mansour Hadi had reformed fuel subsidies, leading to a rise in petrol prices – and to thousands of protesters on the streets of the capital. 

Within weeks, Sanaa had fallen to the Houthi rebels from the north. 

It was the mass protests by Yemenis of all political stripes against the rise in fuel subsidies that opened the door to the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and then to the group’s attempts to take over the entire country. 

A similar window has just opened in Iraq. If Iraq’s government is not careful, it is possible that the popular anger of Iraqis could be hijacked for an assault on the state itself. Iraqis today are justifiably angry. 

War and corruption have taken a brutal toll on daily life in the country. Large parts of the country are under the control of ISIL. But, as with Lebanon, it was something more pros

aic, and thus essential, that pushed thousands to protest – a lack of electricity during the heat of summer. 

Yemen was in this position last year. Popular protests started over something prosaic and vital, but were soon hijacked by Houthi rebels. Firstly speaking in the name of all Yemenis, the Houthis organised protest camps in the capital. 

It was only later that it became clear their real intention was not to change the subsidies law, but to change the government itself. Here is the danger in Iraq. 

The protests in Iraq show no sign of abating. Even the announcement by Haider Al Abadi two weeks ago of widespread reforms has not calmed them – on the contrary, the protests have increased, offering support for Mr Al Abadi to push those reforms through. 

But having raised the expectation of a swift resolution through far-reaching changes, it isn’t immediately obvious that Mr Al Abadi will be able to reform quickly enough to placate the Iraqi protesters. 

Already, the situation in Iraq is escalating. Last Friday was the first time that supporters of Muqtada Al Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric, joined the protests. The protests in Baghdad swelled to be the biggest this summer, with Al Sadr supporters also rallying in Najaf and the southern port city of Basra. 

The danger is that the entry of Al Sadr’s supporters (and members of his Al Sadr Brigades) could change the tone of the protests from being about Iraq as a whole to being merely about one sect. At the moment, the protests have not been about sect, nor about political party, but about Iraq as a whole. 

The protesters have rallied in support of the prime minister, who is Shia, and have been supported by Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the country’s top Shia cleric. 

But the protests have not been sectarian. The entry of Al Sadr raises the possibility that the protests could turn from supporting Mr Al Abadi to expressing anger against him, especially if reforms stall or face unexpected opposition. 

What happens then? What happened in Yemen was that the Houthi rebels were able to piggyback on the genuine popular anger and argue that only by reforming Mr Hadi’s government could the necessary changes take place.

“Reforming” soon became replacing, and eventually Mr Hadi was placed under house arrest, and the Houthis declared themselves in charge and launched an assault upon Aden. 

None of that is inevitable. But a space in Iraq’s politics of protest has opened with the expansion of protests. Were the protests to turn confrontational or violent, the momentum of Mr Al Abadi’s administration would be sidetracked. 

The government’s attention, and that of the protesters, would then be taken up by the confrontations themselves, rather than on the reform package recently announced. 

Unsurprisingly, the sidetracking of those reforms would be welcomed precisely by those who stand to lose – in particular former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who will lose his position as one of three vice-presidents. 

Mr Al Maliki has also been named by an Iraqi report as a senior official who should stand trial over the loss of Mosul to ISIL last summer. 

Since it will be Mr Al Abadi, Mr Al Maliki’s rival for their political party, who has the power to enforce or ignore that report, it would clearly be in the interests of Mr Al Maliki to ensure the prime minister’s reforms are not carried out. 

There is great anger in Iraq. As long as it remains focused on reforming Iraq’s political system, there is a chance those reforms will go through, even against the wishes of the dominant political class. 

But if that popular anger is sidetracked, the result could be worse than merely political inaction. 

by Faisal Al Yafai
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