Popular protests continue to constitute one of the challenges facing Mustafa al-Kadhimi's government in Iraq. Although the protests had stopped in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been resumed on a limited scale since May 2020 to pressure Kadhimi to fulfill his pledges. They are expected to return to their previous effectiveness due to the escalation of the economic and financial crisis, and the continued deterioration of the health and services situation, especially the electric power amidst the hot summer season. The question is: can the Kadhimi government prevent the renewal of protests by implementing the reforms it had pledged, improving services, and restoring the prestige of the state?
Challenges facing the Kadhimi government
The Kadhimi government faces many challenges, most notably in the health, security, economic and services aspects. The number of people infected with the new coronavirus continues to rise steadily. The number of recorded infections with the virus has so far reached more than 160,000 cases, while the number of deaths has reached 5,588, according to the website (www.worldometers.info).
As for the government's battle with the militias, its first round ended with unsatisfactory results for the local street, especially in light of the continuing manifestations of the rebellion by the [pro-Iran] loyalist militias against the state and the fact that the government had to release those it had arrested from the Hezbollah Battalions in Iraq. On the other hand, many Iraqis suffer from unemployment, poverty, declining income and the curfew that prevents them from continuous daily work. On 8 July 2020, the Ministry of Planning announced that the poverty rate in Iraq has increased to 31 percent during 2019, after it was 20 percent in 2018.
Therefore, demonstrations are likely to be renewed in the coming period, which could take three forms: demand and services demonstrations, politically-ideologised demonstrations, and national demonstrations complementing the October 2019 approach, that is the protests that began in early October 2019.
Summer and state testing season
Kadhimi and his government members have not yet escaped the trap of the summer season in which Iraqi protests always escalate against the corruption of previous governments in the energy and services file, especially in the southern and central regions of Iraq where there is a shortage of electricity and water resources.
Five Iraqi cities, namely Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Najaf and Baghdad, have witnessed massive demonstrations against the performance of the Iraqi government, demanding the dismissal of local officials in those cities as a result of mismanagement and poor services. The media of the pro-Iran Shiite Islamic powers seeks to exploit the anger of the Iraqi street by blaming the current government for the deterioration of the services, economic and health conditions, even as the Prime Minister is trying to open the files of previous corruption and mismanagement in which former ministers and officials are accused and held responsible for the current deteriorating situation.
The amount spent on rehabilitating the electric power sector in Iraq from the first government after 2003 until the resigned government of Adel Abdul Mahdi in November 2019 has reached nearly 40 billion dollars. Kadhimi blamed the previous government for its failure to deal with the electricity issue, attributing the failure to the dichotomy of "corruption" and "financial waste". However, the response to this accusation came quickly from the former Minister of Electricity Luay al-Khatib who addressed Kadhimi, saying: “we established a professional ministerial follow-up team, and you dismantled it on the day the Ministry was taken over,” stressing that “his government's failure to implement its programme was attributable to its short life, which was only one year, followed by six months of caretaking with limited powers”.
Amidst the discontent of the local population and the exchange of accusations between former and current executives, the Iraqi Parliament got involved in the crisis, trying, through its Speaker, to stand by Kadhimi. On 11 July 2020, it formed a parliamentary committee headed by the First Deputy Speaker Hassan al-Kaabi and the membership of the heads of the Federal Commission of Integrity (FCI), the Federal Board of Supreme Audit (FBSA), and four parliamentary committees, namely Integrity, Services and Construction, Economy and Investment, and Oil, Energy and Natural Resources, to investigate contracts of the Ministry of Electricity between 2006 and 2020, given that several committees during the past parliamentary and government terms investigated Iraqi corruption files in general, but either did not reach final findings or their work was subject to procrastination due to the fact that most of the services and economic sectors are controlled by influential political powers, and the disclosure of their corruption would cause a clash between them and the political coalition leading the regime or government, which is undesirable by most of the ruling powers.
Party protests and political investment
As a result of the financial distress experienced by the government and the difficulty of securing the salaries of Iraqi civil servants at present due to the decline in oil prices, on 22 June 2020, the Kadhimi government announced that it would stop any duplication of salaries and the entitlements of the Rafha detainees, and limit them to one person whose salary does not exceed one million Iraqi dinars per month.
While this government decision was supported by the popular sectors in general as it eliminates "class discrimination" and achieves justice among the various Iraqis, the decision provoked the indignation of the segment of political prisoners, most of whom belong to the influential Shiite parties. Rising Shiite political cries called on the Prime Minister to reverse his decision, considering that the rights of political prisoners and double salaries are a constitutional matter, given that “the Constitution approved in Article 132 the rights of martyrs and political prisoners, and as a result, the law on the Establishment of Martyrs and Prisoners was enacted, and laws in their favour were approved since 2006. Those laws were amended several times in 2010 and 2013, and therefore the rights taken by the martyrs, prisoners, and Rafha detainees are approved according to enforceable laws”.
Considering that most of the political prisoners as well as the martyrs during the time of Saddam Hussein's regime constitute a social segment belonging to the Islamic Dawa Party, the Badr Organization, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and constitute a permanent popular electoral base for those Shiite parties, the leaders of those parties, led by Hadi al-Ameri and Nouri al-Maliki, adopted their demands and criticized the government's decision. The political Shiite media launched a sharp attack on Kadhimi, accusing him of favouring the Baathists to the Mujahideen (holy fighters) against the Baath. Indeed, the Prime Minister did not seek to cut the salaries of employees of the security services dissolved after 2003 because they earn a single salary and not double salaries like prisoners and martyrs who are victims of the previous regime.
Accordingly, the file of political prisoners and martyrs is the most prominent file available to the powers of political Islam, specifically the Fatah Alliance and the State of Law Coalition to be raised as a crisis before the Kadhimi government. Those powers could use the “grievance” of their followers within the above two categories, together with the deteriorating services and economic situation, to besiege the government based on several paths, namely:
1. Forming a unified political front within Parliament opposed to the Kadhimi government.
2. Organizing protests (albeit with an ideologized public) denouncing the current government’s performance.
3. Organizing sit-ins supported by the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC, al-Hashd al-Shaabi) factions.
4. Exploiting government promises to hold early elections through demanding them by those powers and accusing Kadhimi of clinging to power and breaking promises.
A different context of the October 2019 protests
The public protests that began on 1 October 2019 are likely to resume after they stopped due to the coronavirus crisis, enabling the new Prime Minister to fulfil his promises, including revealing the identity of the killers of the protesters and bringing them to justice.
Those protests are not different in terms of their demands from the masses revolting today against poor public services in the capital Baghdad and the rest of the country’s southern cities. There is also a near-agreement between the popular demonstrations and the demonstrations demanding services in terms of the practices of Islamic parties and the political Shiite engagement with Iran. Indeed, the recent demonstrations for services have become similar to the October 2019 demonstrations in terms of denouncing the political symbols of Iraqi and Iranian Islamists.
The October 2019 demonstrations that raised the slogan "We want a homeland" began to subconsciously approach the new government, which began to be clearly harassed by the Iranian arms inside Iraq. The protests have started to show solidarity with Kadhimi's speech calling for the restoration of state authority over all. Kadhimi's clash with the pro-Iranian powers on the issues of confining the possession of arms to the state and restoring state control over the border crossings may bring him close to the youth who reject Iranian interventions in their country. Indeed, those young people will view Kadhimi as a real starting point in the face of Iranian influence in the event of the commitment by the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces to the pledges he made to them.
The protesters may even organize their ranks and proceed towards producing a political entity based on the October 2019 protest movement and get involved in the early elections, which may change the political map of the current political system. It is noteworthy that there had been an attempt to form a political organization for the protesters during the raging protests in the past months, specifically by the prominent activist in Dhi Qar governorate Alaa al-Rikabi, although it did not come to light for reasons related to the security issue, the rising assassinations of activists, the preoccupation of most protest arenas with the direct confrontation with the authority, and the lack of complete compatibility between the demonstrators themselves.
Potential scenarios for the protest movement
First scenario: Kadhimi succeeds in pulling the rug from under the feet of the protests by achieving a breakthrough in the security and anti-corruption files. This may lead to the dwindling of the protest movement that is disgruntled with the political system, perhaps turning it into a movement that is supportive of Kadhimi, similar to the rallies that were held in support of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in 2015. The facts that drive towards the realization of this scenario include the following:
1. Kadhimi’s opening of corruption files that extend to former leaders or senior officials and bringing them to account.
2. Kadhimi’s disclosure of the killers of Hisham al-Hashemi and the release of the report of the investigation committee into the killing of protesters.
3. The decrease in the service protest voice after August 2020 in the event of the improvement of the electric power with the advent of the autumn season in September 2020 and beyond.
4. The possibility of rise in oil prices and the success of the Iraqi openness to the Gulf countries in attracting some investments. These two factors could support Iraq economically, which would put the Kadhimi government in a comfortable position at both the situational and popular levels.
5. Creating a kind of balance in the relationship between the US and Iran, which makes Iraq in a middle area as it was during the time of Haider al-Abadi's government.
Second scenario: protests get bigger in the event that the situation remains as it is and the current government's efforts at political and economic reform fail, which would lead to the government’s resignation and proceeding to hold early elections. The facts that may further this scenario include the following:
1. The efforts of the leaders of the pro-Iranian powers and factions to thwart the government’s plans and endeavors in the services and economic development.
2. Threatening the security situation through the return of assassinations and undermining the prestige of the state through militias to demonstrate the government's failure to deter them.
3. Failure of government measures to curb the economic deterioration, or the renewed decline of oil prices, which could expose Iraq to an economic collapse.
Bilal Abdullah | 27 Sep 2020
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