The Middle East Channel

Iraq’s protests test Maliki’s leadership

Iraq’s protests test Maliki’s leadership

More than 12 people were killed by security forces in a single day. Activists and journalists were harassed and arrested. A curfew was put in place and neither satellite television stations nor trucks carrying water and food were allowed near the protestors. One would think this occurred in Cairo or in Sana’a, but would be mistaken. This is Iraq.

After the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, many approving pundits in the West portrayed Iraq as a country that had been freed and which was now a "fledgling" democracy. Eight years later, that proposition is being put to a real test. Protests against permeating political corruption and unbearable living conditions began on February 3 and reached their highest point so far on February 25, a "Day of Anger."

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has so far fared miserably. The government’s trembling response to demonstrators in Iraq’s own Tahrir Square and across the country is increasingly similar to the responses to protests taken by leaders in other police states around the Arab world. The scenes of military trucks using water hoses to disperse crowds and the reports of several killed by security forces on the 25th of last month are an indication that Maliki’s Iraq is slipping further from democracy, even as Egypt, Tunisia, and hopefully Libya gradually slide towards it. Though the protesters who reportedly pulled out from Tahrir Square in Baghdad facing tear gas, sound bombs, and live fire may suggest otherwise, Iraq today is not a dictatorship. However, after a month of protests, Maliki’s response — consisting of a short list of concessions followed by daily statements that have grown increasingly hostile to the protests — has raised questions about his ability to lead Iraq through the critical months ahead as U.S. troops pull out of the country.

In places as varied as Basra, Wasit, Nineveh, Babil, Qadisiya, and Baghdad, Iraqis have taken to the streets in protest over paltry services and increasingly high levels of corruption. Surely encouraged by other Arab peoples’ drives towards democratic accountability, the Iraqis have grown repulsed by their own politicians continuing to squabble over positions and living lavishly, even as they claimed to represent their people’s downtrodden conditions. After the March 2010 elections, the Iraqi people waited close to ten months for their political representatives to agree on a framework and form a government (which is yet to be truly completed due to disputes concerning the naming of security ministers). Those were months in which the population continued to live in the shadow of an occupation, in face of high unemployment levels and in deteriorating conditions – from low levels of electricity and water to mismanaged sewage systems and ration card provisions.

When Maliki was chosen, the Iraqi people continued to patiently await the creation of a national unity government capable of addressing their needs. All along, Maliki led a protracted campaign to retain the premiership, arguing that was Iraq’s best choice in guiding it away from its woes at a time of uncertainty. While services were not central to his coalition’s campaign, Maliki concentrated on his capability to impose the rule of law and bring back stability and security so that the country might begin to truly rebuild. Security could be quite the convincing argument had terrorist attacks decreased rather than increased, and had the prime minister not been creating police forces outside the regular chain of command, such as the infamous Baghdad Brigades, which is feared by the residents of the city.

The prime minister’s image can no longer be built on a mirage of security and stability. Worsening conditions, coupled with clear corruption and an increase in terrorist attacks, have led people to lose trust in their local, provincial, and federal representatives. Two months after government formation, it has become clear to the people that it is one of a starkly political nature, formed through backroom deals and the placating of various factions. While Maliki has rightly argued that development and improvements require time to implement, the ministers are not technocrats, nor do most have the experience to pull a country of Iraq’s size out of the rut it has come to find itself in.

Surely, some leaders across the spectrum have displayed understanding and appreciation for people’s needs, and in moves characteristic of a budding democracy, have both promised protesters protection and at times even encouraged them. To witness Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Sunni-backed Iraqi National Movement, and the Sadrists all siding with the protesters and warning the government against ignoring the people’s grievances has been revealing. And the pace of parliamentary and cabinet decision-making has markedly picked up since the protests began. For example, legislation stipulating the decrease of the salaries of the prime minister, parliament speaker, and the president reached parliament on February 19 for discussion shortly before the 2011 budget was finally approved after much debate. Political responses and attempts at narrowing the gaps between the people and their representatives signal that many among the leadership on all sides of the political divide in Iraq realize that they must clean up their acts, address the people’s grievances, and become more representative or face increasing popular discontent.

Still, Maliki and his closest allies have appeared truly shaken. The day after the protests began last month, Maliki responded by promising to push through a 50% decrease in his salary. Maliki has since promised (on February 5) to not run for his post again in 2014 (reminiscent of the unenforceable pledges by other Arab heads of state); promised a monthly sum for each Iraqi citizen to make up for the lack of food ration items in response to spreading protests and isolated violence in Diwaniya and Wasit,; said on several occassions that he’d solve Iraq’s electricity problem by the winter of 2012; and promised to create over 280,000 new public sector jobs this year.

Over the days leading up to the ‘Day of Anger’ last Friday, the prime minister ceased offering concessions and reverted to a strategy of alarmism. He raised fears of the protests being infiltrated by Baathists (Maliki’s personal favorite boogeyman) and targeted by Al-Qaeda. While it is not surprising for former Baathists to take part in these protests and attempt to use them as a vehicle for attacking the government, what Maliki does not appear to fully grasp is that the great majority of concerns are real and are largely directed at the competence (or lack thereof) of the current governing authorities.

Indeed, Maliki has shown an increasing impatience and lack of respect for the protests. While he stressed the protesters’ rights under the democratic system, his security forces continued to crack down on independent media and protest organizers, and the prime minister continues to charge political foes with instigating and steering them. There is no doubt that political foes may have anticipated gains from coupling their resistance from within the government with support for protestor demands, but Maliki’s tactics of questioning the protestors’ intentions and of openly pushing the situation towards politicization may harm him above all others.

Facing direct calls for the ouster of his allies in local governments across Iraq, Maliki has attempted to shift blame away from himself, laying responsibility on provincial and local governments. After three allies were forced to resign in response to protests, in a February 28 speech, he again stole a page from the books of other worried Arab leaders. He called on the parliament to disband local councils, hold early elections for the provincial councils, and promised a cabinet reshuffle if the current ministers proved unable to show progress in the next 100 days.

But his reactions have elicited concern even from his own coalition partners. The Sadrists, who, in a last minute agreement, decided to support Maliki in October of last year, warned him in the beginning of March that they would pull the rug from underneath him and reverse their support if problems persist. The tensions between the central government and Iraq’s regions have also resurfaced due to Maliki’s response to the crisis. This was evident as councils in Misan, Baghdad, Nineveh, and Qadissiya – some of them from Maliki’s own State of Law coalition – were among those who refused Maliki holding the councils solely responsibly.

To add insult to injury, Maliki also risks seeing his allies weakened in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Suleimaniya, Kurdish protestors are demanding an open political system and an end to crackdowns against opposition media and politicians. They have also been met violence by security forces – the Peshmergas loyal to Talibani in Suleimaniya – and have seen several people killed since the protests began on February 17. Further complicating matters, Peshmerga forces recently deployed around the disputed city of Kirkuk by Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani threaten to reignite Arab-Kurdish tensions there at a time when Maliki is already proving unable to gracefully handle the other tests of his leadership in southern and central Iraq.

After years of insecurity, instability, unemployment, and subpar government services as well as the increasingly obvious corruption across the political spectrum, Iraqis have turned to democratic protest to get their voices heard. Maliki has called on Iraqis to not join the protests and claims that they are of destructive intent. His message, along with raids against organizers and journalists and several draconian measures ahead of the protests, are disconcertingly similar to the warnings and calls issued by dictators around the region. With his own 100 day deadline and a six-month Sadrist deadline, the countdown has begun for Maliki and his ability to keep his promises, address people’s grievances and other political actors’ weariness of his capability to do so and his intentions. Without a course correction, it may well turn out that the February protests will have been a mere test run for a much deeper crisis of legitimacy.

Danial Anas Kaysi is a researcher and assistant editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.