When demonstrators last took to the streets of Iraq four years ago, they were met by bullets. Over the past six weeks, as a new mass protest movement gathered momentum, they were instead greeted by soldiers with plastic flowers in the barrels of their guns.
Then and now, the demands were the same; better government services, less corruption and more accountability among officials. As Iraq withered this summer under an extreme heatwave, with limited power and electricity, the people and their protectors this time were aligned. And, crucially, so too was an overlord.
The support for the demonstrations by Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful religious figure in the country, who usually remains taciturn on issues of state, was echoed by the prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, who introduced a range of reforms to slice elite entitlements and shore up representative rule.
The convergence of voices has given Iraqis a rare opening to press home their demands on a political class that has largely shown itself to be unresponsive to their needs, while being especially attentive to their own. Iraq’s ruling class enjoy some of the most lucrative entitlements of leaders anywhere in the world, with large security details, fleets of cars, villas and salaries.
But in the wake of a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, which overwhelmingly ratified Abadi’s measures and won the notional support of most political blocs and religious parties, questions are being asked about how the PM – regarded as a weak leader beholden to his patrons – can do much to change that. The sweeping reforms he has introduced include eradicating the posts of vice-presidents and deputy prime minister and starting a corruption inquiry.
Beyond that though, they challenge the very vested interests that have put him in power and take on a national elite that has enriched itself over the 12 years since the US invasion and taken a heavy toll in Iraq’s financial coffers.
“The entire system is built on patronage and corruption,” said Ali Khedery, an adviser from 2003-11 to US ambassadors and military chiefs in Iraq. “And literally everyone is guilty. So how do you change that, I just don’t know.”
A corruption index compiled by Transparency International has consistently rated Iraq as one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world. It’s most recent ranking was number five. The actual aim of Abadi’s package is itself being questioned, with some observers suggesting it instead intends to sideline at least one senior political figure, or create momentum for constitutional changes that could pave the way for an executive presidency.
Before his ascension, Abadi was a mid-ranking official in the Shia Dawa party, which Maliki led. He was regarded as a compromise candidate for leader after months of failed political horsetrading failed to produce a replacement. Ever since, though, Maliki has set himself up as a rival power base, and has retained influence over Shia militia groups who have directed the fightback against Isis, often taking primacy over the Iraqi military.Abadi was named as PM late last year after Nouri al-Maliki was ousted as leader in the wake of the Islamic State seizing control of the country’s second-biggest city, Mosul, and most of western Iraq. Maliki’s downfall came after he lost the support of Sistani, as well as Iran and the US, which had backed his administration from 2006.
“Maliki is somehow at the centre of this,” said Sir John Jenkins, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and a former British ambassador to Iraq. “Does Abadi think he can sideline him as a political force with the support of Sistani? If so, it’s a very big risk.
“He’s effectively taking on a whole system and he isn’t starting from a strong position. It’s hard to see how this could work.”
This week Maliki reacted warily to the changes, which are thought likely to require changes to the constitution that would need to be ratified by the supreme court.
Ihsan Shimari, a Baghdad-based political scientist, said: “There are politicians … who are using the card of the constitution and saying there are changes they can’t accept. But at the same time, they can’t say they are opposing the marjaiya (Sistani), which they can’t be seen to do.
A former adviser to the Iraqi government, Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, said: “Most politicians are showing that they are accepting the changes but would Maliki let go of the 70 government cars he has and the 500 security and the government positions that all of his allies hold?”“So they are going to have to give up something there. Cosmetic changes at least. The religious parties are in the same boat. I suspect that they will agree to the changes, then scuttle them later. Then it will be back to business as usual.”
Another senior Iraqi official said: “No party is really supportive of these demonstrations but they pretend to be. If the leader can make everyone equal and put everyone under one law without any favours, then there is a chance to change but I can’t yet see that with these demonstrations.
“I can’t see Maliki or any others let go of their positions or even possessions. They want to stay without any changes to financial status. We will have to wait for two weeks and see what Abadi is able to push through.
“If nothing happens, then I expect to see fighting in the streets, some of it whipped by militias who will be part of the demonstrations and turn it to violence. I don’t want that to happen but I expect it.”