The Middle East Channel

Stifled Kurdish opposition

Iraqi Kurds have belatedly followed the Egyptian revolution by protesting against the region’s democratic deficit. The demonstration for "people’s rights and freedom" held in Sulaimani city last week turned into a violent, stone-throwing episode against a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office, whose chief patron is Kurdish president Mas’ud Barzani. Local officials responded by gunning down ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Iraqi Kurds have belatedly followed the Egyptian revolution by protesting against the region’s democratic deficit. The demonstration for "people’s rights and freedom" held in Sulaimani city last week turned into a violent, stone-throwing episode against a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office, whose chief patron is Kurdish president Mas’ud Barzani. Local officials responded by gunning down the protestors, burning down opposition party offices, and implementing a curfew, while insisting on their commitment to democracy and stability.  Although more protests could occur, the possibilities that Iraqi Kurdistan will emulate the Egyptian model are limited. A lack of consciousness of citizenship rights, a controlled economy and absence of a real civil society will prevent the Kurdish opposition from escalating to a broad-based movement capable of mobilizing populations across sectors and classes.

To be sure, the Kurdistan region of Iraq is not unfamiliar to revolts against political authoritarianism. For the past 80 years, Iraqi Kurds have been fighting against Baghdad and rival Kurdish parties for political autonomy or independence. These conflicts, however, have been driven by nationalist sentiment and personal rivalries and not demands for individual liberties as Iraqi or Kurdish citizens. Even after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) formed in 1992, a state-society relationship based on citizen rights failed to develop. Socio-political structures continued to be defined by loyalty and patronage to traditional leaders in small isolated localities.

It was only after a decade of self-rule, marked by democratization efforts, civil war, and increasing authoritarianism that a new breed of independent thinkers started to openly criticize the KRG. Through their semi-free media, they pressed for greater political freedoms, an end to government corruption, and better social services. Frustrations peaked in 2006 in the border town of Halabja, which led to the first violent protests against the KRG and the use of government force to quell opposition.

Other attempts to instigate political change soon followed. In an effort to replicate the Egyptian al-Kifaya movement, in 2008 a small group of Kurds created the Hatakay movement (in Kurdish meaning "enough"), and made the first calls for the KRG’s resignation. Although it garnered support from independents and youth in Sulaimani, Hatakay had neither the finances, leadership nor institutional support to mobilize the Kurdish masses. In fact, the movement petered out before reaching Arbil, the region’s capital, where it could not withstand the centralizing tendencies of Barzani family power.

Potential repression is not the only reason why a broad-based Kurdish opposition has failed to take root. Unlike Egypt, the Kurdistan region has no private sector that can encourage independent enterprise or create alternative avenues for income generation outside the KRG. For average Kurds, the KRG and its party-apparatus control all aspects of economic and professional life. This dependency has increased since 2005, as the KRG has used its generous oil-based budget from Baghdad to expand its bureaucracy and distributive function, allocating more than 75 percent of its revenues to public sector salaries.

Nor does the region have a real civil society that could support alterative political ideas or activities. Kurdish associational life is created, financed and controlled by the KRG and its political parties, thereby creating another layer of dependency of public life. Even the opposition party, Goran (whose seed money was provided by its chief party rival), had to request "permission" from the KRG Ministry of Interior to conduct a pro-democracy demonstration. When the request was refused, Goran cancelled the protest.

Consequently, opposing the government in Iraqi Kurdistan assumes a different meaning than it does in Egypt. For the vast majority of Kurds, opposition means breaking a social contract not between citizen and state, but between Big-Daddy and child and leader and tribal member. Opposition does not only mean the risk of repression for a protestor, but loss of an entire family’s income, as well as their economic and political disfranchisement from society. These particular circumstances are reinforced by the Kurds’ overriding need to remain unified in Baghdad to protect their nationalist interests and to assure international oil companies that their region is secure for investment.  Maintaining stability is considered an obligation to Kurdish nationalism; those who threaten it are considered traitors.

Thus, whereby the Egyptian opposition gradually garnered open support over time as government violence increased, the Kurdish protestors and their supporters have been relatively silent. Even though most local populations unanimously agree that the use of force against the protestors was unwarranted, few outside Sulaimani city are willing or able to openly criticize the KRG. Even Goran wanted no responsibility for the protest or its victims, leaving the political aftermath as a score to be settled between the feuding Kurdish parties.

This is not to say that the Kurdistan Region is immune to revolutionary outcomes.  Although the KRG has been able to coopt, control and coerce its populations into passivity, largely through financial incentives and under the guise of ‘Kurdish nationalist interests’, it will eventually have to engage in real political reforms or further jeopardize its image as a budding democracy.  The brewing youth movement in the Kurdistan Region may not overthrow the regime at present, but it can certainly raise awareness of citizens’ rights and destabilize the region’s oil-dependent economic development plans.

Denise Natali is the Minerva Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse University Press, 2010).

Denise Natali is a distinguished research fellow and director of the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Follow her on Twitter at @dnataliDC. Twitter: @dnataliDC

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