Analyst: Iraq protests have ‘overcome sectarianism’

Iraqi political scientist Ghassan al-Attiya says the government has badly failed to address the demands of protesters.

A demonstrator carries an Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad
A demonstrator carries an Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad [Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters]

Iraq‘s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has failed to address the demands of tens of thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of Baghdad and southern cities since October 1, Iraqi political scientist Ghassan al-Attiyah told Al Jazeera.

According to Attiyah, founder of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, Abdul Mahdi’s attempts to appease demonstrators demanding the government step down have misread the extent of the anger at the political class, accused of corruption and pillaging the oil-rich country.

Here is what the analyst had to say:

What is the most likely scenario to develop in Iraq?

In order to avoid a civil war as well as a confrontation with Iran, it is imperative that all the main political powers in Iraq unite and agree on forming a transitional government to lead the country for a limited period. During that time, the electoral law should be amended.

What is behind the demonstrations?

The current situation in Iraq is proof the political system, which developed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and which is founded on a deeply sectarian confessional system, has failed. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs tried to put an end to this system, but they failed.

Furthermore, the Sunnis and Kurds have completely lost trust in their leadership. This time the protests against the Shia-led government have arisen from the central and southern provinces of Iraq, which have usually been the hubs of support for Iranian influence in the country.

The young generations no longer believe in political parties and leadership. Instead, they have increasingly resorted to trade unions and professional syndicates to voice their opinions.

To what extent are these protests leaderless?

For weeks before the protests, there were ongoing discussions around the extent to which the public has become frustrated with the political elite. The protests, however, started in Baghdad as completely peaceful demonstrations. Groups that are far removed from any political parties were responsible for organising the demonstrations.

Yet, the security forces responded to the demonstrations with heavy-handed tactics. But as the protests continued demonstrators from southern and central areas of Iraq joined the movement. That is when the protests became more violent as a Shia-Shia battle began to emerge. Protesters burned down the headquarters and offices of Shia political parties and armed groups.

There are regional and international powers that have an interest in the continuation of the protests. They have resorted to the media to serve this interest. There is no proof the movement has received any financial or military support from an external power, however.

How do you explain the lack of participation among Sunni and Kurdish areas?

Iraq’s Sunni communities were wary of their participation in the protests being interpreted as based on a Baathist or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) agenda. When it comes to the Kurdish community, the areas that strongly support Iranian influence in Iraq – for example in Suleymaniya – people have been silent on the demonstrations.

On the other hand, many influential professionals and academics among Iraq’s Kurdish constituencies have published statements in support of the protests.

Why has the government responded violently?

The government should have been aware that its meagre response would not appease the protesters nor address their demands. The government’s response, therefore, further eroded the public’s trust in the political elite.

The biggest problem right now is not whether or not Abdul Mahdi will resign. The biggest challenge is in finding an alternative to him.

Do you see the protests as a new ‘Arab Spring’?

I hope the disappointment of the Arab Spring is not repeated in Iraq. The region is under Turkish and Iranian control. Intra-Arab battles have only served the interests of Iran and Israel.

There are success stories in Tunisia and Sudan and previously in Egypt seen in the victory of the revolutionaries and the election of Mohamed Morsi as president.

In Iraq, if the military becomes involved, so will the Hashd al-Shaabi [militia]. The one positive aspect to this is that people seem to be overcoming sectarian divisions for the first time since 2003.

Source: Al Jazeera