Iraqi prime minister's statement reflects failure of ruling class

Adel Abdul Mahdi's pledge to resign is not the primary concern of most Iraqis – it is the country's apathetic political system

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Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's statement announcing his resignation can be taught as a case study explaining the failures of Iraq's ruling class.

Firstly, the statement did not carry any words of remorse for the killing of over 400 peaceful protesters and the wounding of thousands of others. The lack of empathy for the protesters is a stark reminder of the disconnect between most of the ruling class and Iraqi citizens. Secondly, Mr Abdul Mahdi made it clear that his resignation followed on from the demand of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the Shia religious authority, that parliament come up with solutions to the current crisis – rather than resigning to meet the demands of Iraqi protesters or due to his failure as commander in chief to protect innocent civilians from trained assassins. Moreover, Mr Abdul Mahdi said in his statement that he previously posed the option of his resignation openly, without actually resigning, indicating an indecisiveness that had added to Iraq’s woes.

And finally, there is the lack of clarity that followed the statement being published, as the prime minister waited for another day before actually submitting his resignation. This has created an unnecessary an added layer of confusion over who actually was responsible for running the country. And still, despite submitting his resignation, Mr Abdul Mahdi is not gone, saying he will lead a caretaker government.

The reality is, Mr Abdul Mahdi's presence – or lack thereof – is not the primary concern of the protesters or most Iraqis. Replacing him with another figure will not in any way improve Iraq's situation nor win over the demonstrators. Exactly two months have passed since the protests began in Baghdad and a number of provinces.

Their root causes – a rejection of corruption, call for basic services, rejection of Iranian influence on the political system – continue. However, the death toll and use of brute force against protesters has compounded the problem. Families of protesters, civil activists and tribal leaders have all cited the need to hold those responsible to account. So far, the government has maintained its position that it is not responsible for the deaths, instead blaming “masked shooters” who remain unidentified. The inability to stop the killing of unarmed protesters points to complicity – either by giving the orders to kill or being incapable of controlling the streets.

Students take part in a march to mourn protesters killed in anti-government rallies in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on December 1, 2019. Demonstrators have hit the streets since early October in Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south to demand the ouster of a government they accuse of being corrupt, inefficient and beholden to foreign powers. After a spike in deaths this week raised the toll to more than 420 killed, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said Friday he would submit his resignation to parliament. The chamber was due to convene later Sunday, but no agenda had yet been published. / AFP / Hussein FALEH
The ruling class is either unwilling or incapable of comprehending the severity of Iraqis’ frustration with the entire political system. AFP

Officials in Baghdad are generally split between three camps.

One camp consists of those insisting on a fierce clampdown on the protesters, painting them as “traitors” and going so far as to accuse them of being part of an “Israeli-American plot” – taking a leaf out of Iran’s response to popular protests. These are primarily militia leaders that have been involved in the killing of Iraqis previously, during times of civil strife. The second camp is one that is comprised of officials obsessed with “process”. They are either unwilling or incapable of comprehending the severity of Iraqis’ frustration with the entire political system and hope some long-winded reforms of the electoral law or constitution may help the situation. They could not be more wrong.

As for the third camp, they are a small minority who are working behind the scenes to come up with a national dialogue that could be supported by the United Nations – except that as the death toll continues to mount and the silence of all political actors continues to be deafening, the chances of any proposal this camp comes up with succeeding becomes slimmer.

The political class is now engrossed in talks to decide the next prime minister and the cabinet he will appoint – and it is inevitably a man, as women have hardly had a role in Iraq’s governments, despite a mandatory quota of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats going to them. Focusing on Mr Abdul Mahdi’s successor will be a colossal failure at this juncture. What is needed is to identify a clear leadership in the country, capable of stopping the violence against protesters, and agreeing on a political road map.

An important development to monitor is the appointment of a new governor for Nineveh, former general Najim Al Jubouri. Mr Al Jubouri is well-respected in Mosul, was instrumental in the fight against ISIS, has strong ties to the US and could be one of several military figures who can play a stabilising role in the country. While resentment towards armed groups and militias is high in Iraq, there is respect for the 98-year-old army. It is worth keeping in mind that the protests were initially triggered by the reassignment of deputy commander of the counter-terrorism force Abdul Wahab Al Saadi. Involving respected military figures without political or sectarian agendas in the next stage will be crucial.

And while the onus is on the political class to come up with solutions that can resolve the crisis and improve Iraq’s future prospects, the real challenge is faced by the brave protesters. They must maintain their unity and come up with tangible demands and select leaders to start a political process. And even more so, they must remain peaceful and not take the bait of armed men trying to turn their protest into a violent one. The strength of the demonstrations is in their peaceful nature – despite the attacks they face.

On Friday, the video of a father of a young protester killed in Nassiriya weeping at his coffin went viral. The old and dignified man said to the protesters: “I do not cry for my son, I cry for my homeland. Keep the protests peaceful, keep your legitimacy and never use violence.”

Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief of The National