Iraqi government should pay heed to concerns of the youth
It is also hard to believe that the youth who took to the streets of Baghdad, Al Najaf, and Al Nasiriyah did so on the orders of another regional power.
It is not easy to dismiss the images coming from Iraq. They are painful and difficult to watch. What's distressing is the fact that prevailing conditions in Iraq are no longer because of the Saddam Hussein regime, which was toppled 16 years ago. It is also hard to believe that the youth who took to the streets of Baghdad, Al Najaf, and Al Nasiriyah did so on the orders of another regional power.
One must remember that the Iraqis held elections four times after the current constitution was approved, which means that the legitimacy of the current government is not up for debate. It is a product of elections, even if its labour pains left it with a few scars.
It would be hasty to put the blame on Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and question the fate of his government. The problem is deeper than that. Of course, one must note that Abdul Mahdi is an old player in Iraq, starting from the days of the opposition against the Saddam regime and leading to the post-Baath period. It would be wrong to compare Iraq to the system in Lebanon, which is governed by a president, prime minister and parliament speaker. According to the Iraqi constitution, the prime minister has the highest powers.
There is no doubt that Abdul Mahdi, who experienced the Baathist, Marxist and Khomeini ideologies, as well as exile in Paris, knows the weaknesses and concerns of Iraq. He is also aware of the country's flaws and the forces that are trying to creep into it. He must be assessing the causes of the protests.
It is obvious that the youth who flooded the streets were born in the post-Saddam era or a few years before the regime's collapse. We therefore cannot accuse them of supporting Saddam. Moreover, the youth came from Shiite strongholds, which in successive elections voted for major Shiite parties and coalitions. Abdul Mahdi also knows that the United States' influence in Iraq has weakened considerably and no longer counterbalances or curbs Iran's influence. Furthermore, protests did not erupt in Sunni strongholds. These regions are still recovering from living under Daesh. This means that Daesh remnants cannot be blamed for the protests.
Abdul Mahdi is aware that the protests are essentially due to poor living conditions. The demonstrations gained intensity after authorities tried to stifle them with force. The protesters are demanding improved electricity and water supplies. They are calling for fighting corruption and addressing unemployment and poverty. The youths would not have confronted live fire with their bare chests if they had not reached a sense of despair over successive broken government promises.
Another issue that must have caught Abdul Mahdi's eye is the emergence of anti-Iran slogans during the rallies. Many protesters have called for Iran to lift its hands off Iraq. The prime minister knows that these slogans would not have been chanted had they not sensed that Iraq was being controlled by Tehran.
Will the Iraqi political class learn lessons from the protests? Will the usual remedies, such as pledges to help poor families and allow voluntary military enlistment, appease the demonstrators? Will other usual remedies, such as seizing the opportunity to replace officials - meaning Abdul Mahdi - work?
The problem is greater than this. The battle revolves around regaining the regular Iraqi citizen's trust, especially since the youth sense that they are only being promised poverty and marginalisation in a country that lies on exceptional wealth. It cannot be easy for the Iraqi youth to read about the disappearance or squandering of billions of dollars in public funds. One such incident brought the issue out in the open. It revolved around "fake" soldiers in Mosul who stayed at home and shared their salaries with their superior officers, who covered up their long absence from their units. This massive flaw allowed Daesh to infiltrate Mosul and kick off a bloody chapter in Iraq's history.
The interest of the Iraqi people lies in the formation of a democratic, stable and prosperous Iraq. The Arabs also have an interest in seeing the establishment of such an Iraq. However, a calm reading of the post-Saddam era developments raises concerns and an important question: Have the Iraqis missed the opportunity?
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper