Iraqi Protests Take on Sectarian Tone

As demonstrations escalate in Iraq’s Anbar province, Abdallah Otaibi argues that, although these protests are more sectarian than those that occurred in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, they still may signal the start of an "Iraqi Spring."

Topics covered

nouri al-maliki

Jan 11, 2013

In Tunisia, people sympathized with impoverished university graduate and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. They went out into the streets to condemn the injustice he suffered at the hands of an unidentified police officer on a small street in an obscure city in central Tunisia. This sympathy soon escalated into a popular outcry that spread all throughout Tunisia. From there it evolved into a national revolution founded upon a desire to champion Bouazizi's cause, and fundamentally premised on the need to protest against the state of poverty, unemployment, exclusion and marginalization that was their lot.

In Cairo, Egyptians rallied around the case of Khaled Said, the young man whose abuse at the hands of state security forces propelled those seeking to mimic the Tunisian revolution to protest poor economic conditions that are no longer bearable.

In Syria, the people of Daraa rebelled against President Bashar al-Assad's representative in the city after he imprisoned a number of their children for writing revolutionary slogans on the walls of their neighborhood. The impoverished, oppressed and marginalized people throughout Syria saw this as a plum opportunity to express their resentment at the way their government had ruled them and left them in such dire straits.

In Libya, some of the people of Benghazi evoked their neighbors' experience while protesting against President Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship. Confronted by a brutal, incredibly disproportionate crackdown, Libyans across the country established their own national revolution in solidarity with the people of Benghazi, and implicitly rebelled against the poverty, unemployment and repression that could no longer be ignored or tolerated in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Every revolution first requires a spark. It then needs the right political, economic and social conditions to spread the conflagration. Do these two conditions exist in Iraq?

Should we consider the sentencing of former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi to death as a spark that will light the fire of an Iraqi Spring? And can the political, social and economic conditions at this time be considered suitable to spread this fire to all provinces in Iraq?

It is clear that what is happening in Iraq now is not a "spring" in the popular sense, but it could very easily turn into a popular revolution if the lower classes — both Sunni and Shiite, who have tasted bitterness and humiliation for decades — are not given a greater voice in administering their own affairs.

Hashemi is not Mohamed Bouazizi, nor is he Khaled Said. Hashemi was once (and someday soon will again be) only one rank below Iraq's undisputed leader, Nouri al-Maliki. When the interests of these two government officials came into conflict, they went their separate ways, and each sought to eliminate the other. Maliki sought to execute Hashemi and Hashemi, in turn, ignited the Sunni Spring.

Hashemi, then, was not the ideal spark. Nor did the government deal with the birth of this revolution in the totalitarian manner seen in other countries, in its attempt to prevent it from spreading to the remaining Iraqi provinces. The Sunnis in Anbar, Mosul and other Sunni-dominated cities have, since the protest movements started in recent days, insisted on publicly rejecting the sectarianism of the Iraqi government and in demanding that Sunnis be delivered from "Shiite oppression" by amending some of the anti-terrorism laws. In particular, they demand an amendment to Article IV of the 2005 Law, which they believe is directed solely at Sunnis and designed to wreak vengeance on them for offenses they did not commit.

According to the second rule of the Arab Spring, it is not correct to discuss a popular revolution in social forums that are clearly and deliberately polarized. If the Sunni Iraqis wanted to transfer their revolution to other areas in order to gain the support of their Shiite brothers, they should have spoken of their great, ultimate goal — the reform of Iraq. For when the highest goal is achieved, all the minor objectives are automatically realized.

On the other hand, the previous Arab Spring revolutions were born, matured and went from strength to strength, all without the intervention of tribal elders and clerics. It is clear today that the tribesmen in Anbar dominate the protest scene. Should they continue to lead the vanguard of the protesters, this will doubtless lead to the decline of the revolutionary cause and the waning of protesters' enthusiasm. For — in the era of the modern state — these elders only maintain nominal authority through their tribal structures. They can be readily contained and their favor easily bought. Moreover, the purpose and overall objective driving the ordinary protesters is incompatible with the personal goals of the tribal elder who still preoccupied with entrenching his imaginary rule over the members of his flock.

Additionally, clerics do not enter a revolution except to put it down and extinguish its flames. Some of them, even if they are honest and sincere, merely end up pulling the revolution away from its secular, everyday roots (poverty, repression, unemployment, hunger, exclusion and marginalization). They hurl the revolution into the arms of the sacred hereafter, which represents for many people a lofty, ideal world in a realm out of reach.

Other clerics enter the revolutionary fray for one of two reasons. The first is to weaken the revolution from within (at the guidance of Maliki or Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) by pretending to support it. However, they do so by accepting the belief that they are sectarian and working to entrench it by goading the other side into opposing them. This, indeed, is precisely what Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — who praised the revolution with words of apparent praise but implied vilification — meant when he said: "Iraq is for all factions. It is not a monopoly of the Shiites!" Such statements have the effect of making ordinary Shiites hostile to the revolution, by making it appear, according to Sadr’s words, as if it stands in contrast to their narrow interests. The other reason is because it is a conflict of interest. Supporting the revolution against the government could bring Sadr gains he might not otherwise obtain by remaining solidly in Maliki's corner. Here, too, Sadr stands out, for he had recently found himself left out of the government's calculations.

The third rule is that tribesmen and tribal elders must be removed from the revolutionary scene, so that the revolution can meet Iraqis' aspirations and so that all may rest assured that the revolution's goals are honorable and noble.

The fourth rule for producing a successful revolution capable of realizing the people’s dreams and aspirations is that all Iraqis — Sunnis and Shiites together — must preserve the peaceful character of their revolution. They must not permit any Arab jihadists to enter their lands and drag them through the swamps of armed conflict. This will ease the pressure on Maliki and his government and, in theory, make him an honorable warrior fighting against terrorist groups seeking to spread sectarianism.

Peaceful pressure will cause the regime to fall and be replaced by a transitional government, while armed conflict will create several opportunities for the status quo to preserve itself.

Iraqis: you must seek out a new spark for your revolution! Speak to the broader Iraq, lead your revolution out of the doldrums, and preserve its peaceful character! Otherwise, Maliki will win.

Without a doubt, Iraq is poised for the spark and outbreak of a revolution. The economy is limping along in crutches. Politicians are far removed from the common people. However, it first requires eliminating the preoccupation with who constitutes "the majority of Iraq" and replacing it with a unified Iraq whose citizens think less about the differences that divide them and more about what unites them together.

All this could change if Maliki decides to change his policy and to stand with all Iraqis. He might yet do so in order to spare his people an uprising that could destroy everything in its path. Maliki and ordinary Iraqis might both prevail at the same time. Who knows?

One final question: Will Turkey be equally enthusiastic about an Iraqi Spring and risk a front of unrest on its southern border as well?

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Abdallah Otaibi