|Hundreds of protesters are gathering daily in Iraqi Kurdistan [Credit: Mohammed A. Salih]
The winds of change sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa have now reached an otherwise peaceful corner of northern Iraq. Nowhere is their arrival more visible than in Bardarki Sara, the central square of Sulaimaniya, which has turned into a venue for mass protests against the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Inspired by the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the protesters have renamed their square 'Maydani Azadi', the Kurdish equivalent of Tahrir or Liberation Square.
Yesterday's protests were the largest so far, partly because it was the 20th anniversary of the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime in Sulaimaniya, but protesters have been turning up in their hundreds for the past two weeks, chanting slogans against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its two major ruling parties, singing patriotic songs and demanding a change in the status quo. A podium has been set up, from where speakers - intellectuals, students, members of parliament and imams - talk to the crowd.
Protest organisers have called for a period of civil disobedience and public strikes across the region. But there has been only limited participation since Saturday, when they were due to start. In the early hours of Sunday morning, masked men burned down tents that had been set up for a sit-in by protesters at Maydani Azadi and arrested a number of them.
"I'm here to ask for my rights. When are we going to see the benefits of the economic boom in Kurdistan?" asked one young demonstrator who makes his living selling goods on a small stand in downtown Sulaimaniya. "We want jobs, better living conditions, better services and social justice," said the 20-year-old, asking to be identified as Jivara - Kurdish for Che Guevara.
To live 'freely and proudly'
The protests were started on February 17 by a network of civil society groups expressing solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people and voicing discontent over chronic corruption and the poor provision of public services.
But when protesters gathered in front of the Sulaimaniya headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and started throwing stones, the building's guards opened fire, killing one person and injuring dozens more. Angered by what they saw as a hugely disproportionate response, protesters took to the streets of towns across the province.
Eight people, including a policeman, have died to date in the protests, about 200 have been injured and two television and radio stations in Sulaimaniya have been burned down by unknown assailants.
As elsewhere in the Arab world, social media sites have played a major role in empowering the protesters. There are numerous Facebook pages dedicated to getting out timely accounts of the protests and expressing the grievances of the demonstrators.
And with the protests showing no sign of abating, officials are now trying to appease the protesters.
"I call on the parliament to engage with all sides to study the possibility of holding early general elections so that the people can make their voices heard and have the final say," said Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, in a televised speech on Thursday. He also called for the government to prepare for provincial elections.
"After looking into the whole situation, I have come to the conclusion that the situation calls for a fundamental remedy, rather than band-aid solutions."
Stressing his unity with the "voices calling for reform and social justice," Barzani added: "I would not like to live in a Kurdistan where its people did not live freely and proudly."
Zones of influence
|A man sells fava beans from a cart among the protesting crowds [Credit: Mohammed A. Salih]
Barzani's call for early elections came weeks after a similar call by the main opposition group, Gorran (Kurdish for Change). But back then the KDP, headed by Barzani, and its coalition partner in the government, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, lambasted Gorran for prescribing "a coup d'état".
"We welcome the call for elections as a way out of the current crisis. But to carry out clean elections, the current government needs to be dissolved because any elections under this KDP-PUK government will not be free of fraud and pressure," said Zana Rauf, a member of the Kurdish parliament from Gorran. "There needs to be an interim government run by technocrats and independents to prepare the ground for genuine elections."
Gorran accepted the results of the last Kurdish parliamentary elections in July 2009 but expressed strong criticism of what it said were irregularities and fraud. The group gained 25 seats in those elections, while the KDP-PUK coalition garnered 59.
The role that political parties have carved for themselves in public life is at the root of much of the public wrath. Despite the existence of a government, the autonomous region has, in practise, been divided into two separate zones of influence. The local administrations in the provinces of Erbil and Dohuk are controlled by the KDP, while Sulaimaniya is mostly administered by the PUK.
Ushering in a new era
Many residents of the region are angry at what they perceive to be widespread corruption, control of the economy by politicians and their inner circles and diminishing freedoms. But, unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, where regime change was an overwhelming public demand, there does not appear to be such a broad consensus in Iraqi Kurdistan. While some protesters are demanding a change in Kurdistan's political regime, their representatives have largely been engaged in talks with the government.
According to Rauf, people want "a major restructuring of the political and economic system and [the] reshuffling of the relationship between the ruling parties and state institutions".
The protests have largely been confined to Sulaimaniya province and attempts to organise demonstrations in Erbil - where there have been reports of a security forces crackdown on would-be demonstrators - and Dohuk have not yet produced any significant results.
The fact that there have been regular elections in Kurdistan in recent years, coupled with the existence of vibrant opposition groups and a significant measure of press and political freedoms - surpassing many other countries in the region - may mean that Iraqi Kurdistan will not witness the major political upheaval experienced elsewhere.
But many protesters and observers believe that a new era in the politics of Iraqi Kurdistan has been ushered in. "We are definitely in a new era now. Kurdistan after February 17 is different from the Kurdistan before," said Asos Hardi, the founder of two independent Kurdish newspapers.
"Before that date the people, the media and the opposition all used to call for reforms but their demands were not taken seriously. But after February 17, the authorities can no longer remain indifferent to people's demands and pressure."
Riding the wave of discontent
The challenge the current protests have posed to the ruling parties, and in particular to the PUK, is unparalleled. Sulaimaniya province has been a stronghold of the PUK for decades, but the party's popularity and authority has been eroded since the Kurdish parliamentary elections in 2009, when Gorran gained most of its votes at the PUK's expense.
So who is behind the protests? The organisers claim that they do not owe loyalty to any political party, but the ruling parties, particularly the KDP, have accused opposition groups such as Gorran, some Islamist parties, and neighbouring countries such as Iran of standing behind the protesters.
For their part, opposition parties have strongly denied being involved in organising the protests and, as violence broke out on the first day of protests, Gorran issued a statement calling for calm and cooperation with official institutions.
That was construed by some as a sign that the opposition leaders had turned their backs on the protesters. But when Gorran offices in areas under de-facto KDP rule were attacked, the party adopted a more aggressive tone. And with protests continuing, opposition parties now seem content to ride the wave of popular disgruntlement.
Seizing on the momentum initiated by the protests, Gorran and the two other Kurdish opposition groups - the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group - issued a statement on Thursday calling for a major overhaul of Iraqi Kurdistan's political and economic system.
"There is an interaction between the street and the opposition," said Hardi. "The protests are not controlled by the opposition parties but the opposition tries to use the momentum on the streets in order to create changes in the political system."