A crescendo of protests has shaken Nuri Al Maliki’s government in recent weeks. But the protests in question are not those of Iraq’s Sunni provinces that garnered so much attention in the first half of this year. Those protests continue, but they have become relatively marginalised.
These new ones started in the southern province of Dhi Qar in June, focused on the government’s perennial failure to provide basic electricity, leaving citizens to face another year of Iraq’s summer heat.
They started, not coincidentally, as it became clear that the Sunni protest movement, having reached its last peak in late April, was no threat to the Shia-led government. The protests were small at first, but some of the slogans coming from Dhi Qar were ominous – “Where is the electricity O State of Law Coalition” (a reference to Mr Al Maliki’s bloc) and “they’ve had ten years and their salaries are in the millions”. Over the summer, these protests spread into Basra and other southern areas, and increased from dozens to hundreds of people per march.
By August, the movement had developed an organised media strategy and narrowed in on a single issue – the repeal of the “pensions, salaries and privileges” of members of parliament and other senior government officials. The MPs’ pension issue was the single most important item – while currently an Iraqi civil servant with 30 years of service might have a pension of up to $420 (Dh1,540) per month, MPs are granted 80 per cent of their roughly $8,500 monthly salaries for life after just four years in office. Yet parliament often struggles to make quorum, and citizens view the body as achieving nothing.
With the federal government refusing to grant permission to march in Baghdad, ostensibly for security reasons, protest leaders centred on August 31 as a day of nationwide protests, with or without a permit. While Mr Al Maliki gave rhetorical support to protesters’ demands, he made it much harder on himself by reserving authority to authorise protests personally, and by efforts of his security services to limit protest venues and prevent media coverage of them.
Despite heavy-handed security, clashes led to no deaths, and Mr Al Maliki immediately committed to complying with the protests’ main demands. He then did so by passing a bill through the cabinet on September 3 amending the pensions law. In Dhi Qar, where several protesters were arrested, the provincial council even voted to remove police chief Shakir Kawin. Given the movement’s narrow goals, this seemed as clear a victory as they could have expected.
Whether the bill will satisfy protesters remains open to question, though. After the text became public, many activists criticised the bill. Iraqi legal specialists who gathered at a September 14 forum in Baghdad sponsored by the Al-Mada Institute described the bill variously as a “patchwork of clauses”, “full of mines” for pensioners and “dismissive of protester demands”.
Having reviewed the text of the bill, I can see why they describe it as confusing, though it at least appears to make a concession. It voids the current pension achievable after four years and replaces it with a standard 15-year requirement while awarding the highest pension level under a 2008 pension law.
A separate provision, though, prohibits individuals from voluntarily giving up pensions. This seems aimed to prevent grandstanding by political parties, as some of Mr Al Maliki’s Shia rivals did in declaring they were surrendering their pensions when protests started.
Whatever the downsides of the new law, Sunni protest leaders were not slow in noting the contrast, and on September 7 they headlined their Friday protests with the slogan, “your double standards show your sectarianism”.
Hussein Al Dulaymi, the representative of the Sunni Popular Movement in Ramadi, gave the Friday sermon that day. He asked why Sunnis were protesting all these months, only to be ignored, but when people in Shia provinces protest, their demands are immediately met.
While the new protests being heavily Shia is plainly a key reason for their success, the Sunnis’ now-marginalised protest movement has made mistakes of its own. To begin with, the leaders of the protests present themselves in an entirely different way. Some of the organisations in the Sunni protests were fronts for insurgent groups, and even the more moderate protest groups talk incessantly about Sunni identity and at times spill over into sectarian language.
Furthermore, while Sunni protests claimed to be non-political and spontaneous – and genuinely were for many participants – the key protest sites were run by political leaders. In Ramadi, the “Pride and Dignity” site was run from the beginning by two organisations controlled by Anbar Islamic Party leader Ahmad Al Alwani and Awakening leader Ahmad Abu Risha. The Shia protest leaders, by contrast, appear to be just civil society activists.
How much a more broad-based Shia protest movement could achieve is open to question, but it would be impossible for Mr Al Maliki to stand against one if such a wave were to appear. Indeed such a movement may be given life if criticisms of the cabinet’s pensions bill bear out. With the next parliamentary elections set for July 2014, Mr Maliki would do best to focus less on discouraging protests, and more on meeting protester demands, not to mention getting the electricity going before next summer arrives.
Kirk H Sowell is the principal of Uticensis Risk Services, a firm specialising in Arabic-language research, and is the editor-in-chief of Inside Iraqi Politics (www.insideiraqipolitics.com)
On Twitter @uticensisrisk