Thursday, March 31, 2011

Iraqi Protesters to al-Maliki: "The People's Oil belongs to the People and not to the Thieves"

While Western journalists and pundits continue to fret over the role of Islamists in the ongoing protests in the Arab world, few of them have made a serious effort to examine the protesters' motivations.

A sign at a recent demonstration in Baghdad is emblematic of the protesters' goals. It read: "The people's oil belongs to the people, not to the thieves" (naft al-sha'b li-l-sha'b wa laysa li-l-haramiya). The sign sums up the anger and aspirations of the demonstrators, namely the desire for governments that have a civic consciousness, and work for the common good, especially the economic well being of the populace at large.

Creating an Islamic state is not the goal of the vast majority of those who have taken to the streets to express their discontent with their respective governments. What then are the motivations behind the protests? How do we discover what they are?

While survey research data is still limited, an easy way to learn about the protestors' goals is to read the Arabic press. Among the best newspapers for understanding the nature of the protests is the London based, al-Hayat. In its March 12th issue, two excellent articles on Iraq tell us much about the current political aspirations of the peoples in the Arab world.

Under the titles, "Protests Spread throughout Iraq from the North to the South," and, "The Ministry of Interior's Inspector-General: High Ranking Officers Have Failed to Present Reports Detailing their Sources of Income," we learn that economic equality, accountability, and representative government are the key demands of the citizens of Arab countries.

In the first article, al-Hayat reporter Khulud al-'Amari interviews many people who participated in a large protest in Liberation Square (Sahat al-Tahrir) in Baghdad as well as in other Iraqi cities. What is striking is the themes of economic well being and anti-corruption that run through all the demonstrators' responses.

In Baghdad, one demonstrator complained that the $192 pension he receives after 25 years of government employment is not enough to support him. He asks whether this is any way to treat someone who has served his country for such a log period of time. A woman who said she is raising 4 children and taking care of brother who is mentally ill, sells trinkets in the streets but finds that this does not provide enough income to live on. A recent graduate of Baghdad's al-Mustansiriya University said the government's main concerns should be tacking unemployment and eliminating corruption.

Other demonstrators indicated that they were fired from their employment after 2003 and cannot understand why they are not allowed to return to their jobs. Even though they are entitled to return to their positions, they have been prevented from doing so for what they feel are sectarian reasons. Demonstrators in al-Falluja who were interviewed felt that sectarian factors have likewise precluded them from obtaining government employment.

The protests discussed in this article include al-Najaf which is, of course, the religious and cultural center of Shiism in Iraq. Here demonstrators protested the lack of government services and carried signs condemning the state's "plundering of wealth" (nadab al-tharwat). Other signs read, "Have mercy on the poor" (Arhamu al-fuqara') and "No to social classism and to corruption" (La li-l-tabaqiya wa-l-fasad).

The article also reports on "thousands of demonstrators" in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya who likewise were protesting government corruption and the lack of jobs.
In the southern city of Hilla, demonstrators carried signs calling for the removal of the provincial council and improving electricity supplies. Thus the article makes clear that the same concerns and demands span all of Iraq's ethnoconfessional groups - Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds alike.

The second article on corruption within the Ministry of Interior,
also written by Khulud al-'Amari, points to its pervasiveness in Iraq's ministries and the difficulty of those whose responsibility it is to fight corruption to do so. It also underscores the unwillingness of the al-Maliki government to address in any serious manner the problem of corruption. While those such as the ministry inspector-generals and others who are charged with fighting corruption are not being assassinated as many were just a few years ago, these officials still lack the backing of the al-Maliki and KRG governments and, as a result, their efforts still remain ineffectual.

A third article by Jawdat Kadhim provides additional insights to those included in Khulud al-'Amari's articles. "The Commander of the Rapid Response Brigade is enmeshed in a Network of Corruption" reports that the general who leads the rapid response force in the Ministry of Interior, Brigadier-General Nu'man Dakhil, was ordered by Prime Minister al-Maliki to turn himself in to the minstry's Anti-Corruption Unit. The officer is accused of having taken a $50,000 bribe in return for arranging the release of a leader of al-Qa'ida from a prison in the north central city of Tikrit, Saddam Husayn's home town.

Obviously, in high profile cases such as this one, corruption is prosecuted. But this case represents the exception not the rule. The persistence of corruption is undermining support for Iraq's fragile democracy. One group of demonstrators that Khulud al-'Amari interviewed in Baghdad complained that Prime Minister al-Maliki had not kept his election promises. These demonstrators also indicated their "regret" for having participated in last march's parliamentary elections. It is evident that the al-Maliki government, by failing to address the problems of unemployment, corruption, improving social services, and respect for individual freedoms, is undermining support for democracy.

By failing to address the core drivers of discontent in the Arab world - unemployment, corruption, repression of individual rights - and instead focusing on a perceived threat of radical Islam, Western journalists, pundits and academics are helping local political elites divert attention from the concerns that have led the peoples of the Arab world to demand political change.

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