Two weeks ago we passed a milestone unlike any other. It was not a fleeting political occasion, but a true turning point in the ongoing political struggle in Iraq. On 25 February 2011, and for the first time since the fall of the former regime, those dismayed with Nuri Al-Maliki’s government’s policy broke through the fear barrier by holding political rallies across Baghdad demanding that the inept government be reformed.
Iraqis took to the streets in governorates across central and southern Iraq, coordinating via social networking channels, with youth groups forming what was known as the coalition of the February 25 revolution.
Maliki had delivered a speech two days prior. He did not offer an apology or admit failure; he did not allay the feelings of frustration and dismay; and he did not ease the burdens of his people by resigning. Instead he took to insulting and slandering, threatening and swearing, inciting the people against one another, saying, “I call on the Iraqi people, the various sects, denominations, and ethnicities, to put an end to the demonstration of the 25 February coalition in light of their subversive objectives that aim to drag Iraq backwards.” He claimed that he had information confirming that the forces opposing the political process intended to create chaos that would drag Iraq back to square one. Despite the legitimate demands of the demonstrators, which never exceeded calling for improved services, erasing unemployment, releasing innocent prisoners, and holding the corrupt accountable, Maliki nonetheless transformed the demonstrations into a battlefield. He used excessive force, ordered the use of live ammunition, and killed and wounded numerous Iraqis on what was dubbed the ‘day of rage’.
Various disastrous security breaches highlight Maliki’s abject failure in managing the country’s security situation, yet he continues to ignore his political partners and even the Council of Ministers. He refuses to consult with anyone, listen to any advice, and tells no one what he intends to do. His sudden forays, contrived schemes, and imagined conspiracies usually surprise everyone, as if he is operating on a turnkey contract. As the Iraqis jokingly say “He’s packed his pipe and smoked it!”
However, on 25 February 2011, things were different. A few days prior, Maliki had called a large meeting and invited political and coalition leaders. I was also invited, though at the time no mention was made about the meeting’s purpose or who else would be attending. The meeting took place on February 22 or 23, and began with the commander-in-chief of the armed forces presenting the leaders in attendance with his assessment of the current situation . . . What a farce! What misery we found ourselves in. Insults, swearing, slander . . . the repeated use of trite and repugnant terms in the hope of returning to the days when the people were intimidated and lived in a state of panic, anxiety, and fear. Maliki claimed that the ousted regime, Baathist remnants, and Al-Qaeda elements were all intent on toppling the current system, as evidenced by the raiding and burning of the central bank, and the looting and burning of the Shorja market. He said that next they would storm the Green Zone, taking it by force, and then topple the government. The names of all the political leaders were allegedly on the assassination targets list. The Demonstrators were reportedly armed with heavy weaponry, and so on and so forth.
And, of course, as the self-appointed safe-keeper of the homeland, the sole trustee of the political process, Maliki intended to confront the protesters with iron and fire, and use all available weapons to thwart the conspiracy!
His tirade irritated and perplexed most of those in attendance. After some attendees had commented on his presentation, my turn came. I asked him about the source of his information and its accuracy, contending that we had information to the contrary. He replied that his information was reliable and accurate. He said that the details were in a sealed envelope that lay in front of him on the table. He did not open it or tell us what it contained. I told him, “My information contradicts what you have said entirely. Those who plan to demonstrate are young, unemployed, desperate people. They have the right to protest, demonstrate, and criticize us, because we did not deliver what we promised them. We failed to provide them with free and dignified lives. We have fallen short, and they are entitled to demonstrate peacefully, as is their constitutional right.” I asked the rest of the attendees if they had any objections to what I had said: the room fell silent, no one objected.
Blood racing, I continued talking: “Accordingly, we must make way for demonstrations to assemble and march without limitations as long as they conduct themselves in accordance with the constitution and the law. I warn against stifling these demonstrations, lest Iraq return to oppression and tyranny. This more than anything would drag Iraq back to square one . . . I don’t know why we were invited to this meeting. Are we here to find a way out upon which we can all agree, or are we here to countenance a security plan? Mr. Maliki won’t budge, despite the catastrophic outcomes that will ensue. Therefore I announce my objection to the assessment and the plans laid before us, and I demand that they be reconsidered. One final point, in what capacity did Mr. Maliki call us to this meeting? We are not a council of ministers nor are we a political council. What is the legal or constitutional nature of this meeting and with what powers is it vested? I’d like for Mr. Maliki to answer me!” No reply came.
“One last question: With this meeting Mr. Maliki hoped to line up support from his supporting coalition partners and his opponents for his plan to handle the crisis. It’s curious that he would court the support of the Iraqiya coalition, which he has thus far deprived of the ministry of the defense portfolio and the presidency of the policy council . . . What does he expect? We should reform the political process, respect our commitments in forming the government, and build trust between us. After that we can address these challenges which you decided to portray as threats to everyone, which of course they are not.”
Unable to respond to my points, others followed, some voicing their support and others their opposition. Maliki proposed that the conferees issue a joint statement in support of the plan to subvert the demonstrations. I rejected the proposal, and it was replaced with a joint-press conference to which I declined participation, and I then returned to my house fraught with worry. Shortly thereafter, I received a text message from Maliki, in which he scolded me for having taken a stand which he said embarrassed him in front of other political leaders.
Thus, for me personally, the uprising of the 25 February 2011 put an end to a relationship that I had never been comfortable with in the first place, and which had always been characterized by tugging and pressuring throughout the years.
The day came and Maliki decided to deploy the armed forces, the security services, and the intelligence apparatus so as to undermine the uprising; as a result, many were injured and some were killed. His people continued to pursue activists, some using silenced pistols. The journalist and uprising leader Hadi Al-Mahdi was assassinated in his own home. Maliki ordered for the incident to be covered up, and Medhat Al-Mahmoud tied the assassination to some unknown person. The international community expressed its condemnation, while the US, the guardian nation, kept silent! Thus an opportunity for reform and change was lost. The uprising failed to achieve its goals, foiled by oppression, bribery, psychological campaigns, media censorship, and poisonous rumors. Nevertheless, the experience remains, with its good and its evil, useful for the future.
The various chants and demands of the demonstrators can be collected and categorized under one heading: The absence of a civil state of institutions and justice that accommodates everyone and represents everyone. This has yet to be realized, but some Iraqis still dream that it will someday come about, despite President Obama’s insistence on withdrawing American combat forces from Iraq. Some may be so bold as to claim that the new Iraq has indeed changed, and that it has fulfilled the conditions necessary to qualify as a democracy, citing that it has a permanent constitution, a government elected through free and fair elections, and so on. Yes, these achievements must remain in place, but alone they are not enough. Moreover they will lose their valence if tyranny and oppression return, a republic is established based on fear, the security services are elevated to a predominant role, the judiciary is politicized, and loyalties are purchased. This can only lead to a country in which ordinary people do not feel safe with regards to their finances, honor, and homes. Even their religious beliefs would be threatened. This, in short, is the situation Iraq faces today, and the reason why millions of people across the governorates have risen up and protested once again. They hope that the change they could not effect in February 2011 will be achieved this time.