Pro-democracy demonstrations in northern Iraq/south Kurdistan

The winds of rebellion have reached the Kurdistan autonomous region in northern Iraq, where a series of demonstrations have broken out to demand greater democracy, improved social services, and an end to corruption.
In this interview, a prominent journalist and democracy advocate discusses the origins of the protests and the wider political situation in the Kurdish region
Jake Hess Kamal Chomani
2 March 2011

Jake Hess: What are the major causes of the current wave of demonstrations in south Kurdistan? 

Kamal Chomani: The demonstrations are rooted in many sorts of problems in Kurdish society. The causes are different from place to place, and different for various Kurdish classes and communities.
For common people, nepotism, corruption, financial corruption, poverty, the difference between their lives and 'high rank' people, public services, electricity, lack of health insurance, the failure of the cabinet to solve unemployement, and tens of other problems are the main causes. But for intellectuals and journalists, writers and opposition politicians, adding to the problems I mentioned, human rights violations against journalists, limitations on freedom of speech, the daily harassment of journalists, Kurdish-dominated parties' will towards dictatorship and pushing the Kurdish system toward authoritarianism, are main causes as well.
In brief, the gathering of all budgets and all powers in the hands of two dominant parties and families – that of Barzani (KDP) and Talabani (PUK) are the main cause for protest.People who are not KDP and PUK members can’t get any important positions. All things are in [the parties'] hands. People have struggled for freedom and equality, but these two concepts have become meaningless concepts in the hands of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Kurdish leadership has failed in international and regional affairs, too. Kurdish relations with regional countries and policymakers are not based on mutual respect and interests, but on two families’ interests. Relations between the KRG and the Iraqi central government are the worst they've ever been.

JH: What are the protesters demanding? How are the protests being organized, and who is organizing them?

KC: The protesters’ demands have been simple from the beginning: a radical reform in people’ lives and solving the problems even parliament and the political parties have identified. But because the political leadership has not taken meaningful steps to address these problems, now people are trying to topple the whole system. Protesters are asking for equality and an end to corruption. They demand that those who opened fire on protesters during the first days of demonstrations – when three protesters were killed and tens of others wounded - be put on trial. They are demanding an end to the separation of armed forces between the KDP and PUK and unification under one national Peshmerge force; an end to external interference in the KRG; freedom of speech for all; an end to partisan media; that parliament should play its role; that national laws be approved by agreement between the factions, not the simple majority of the parliament, as they were with the Demonstration Law; that the Kurdish constitution be amended and approved by all factions in parliament, instead of by simple majority; and that there are other demands for public services and ending corruption, nepotism and so on.

JH: Which social and political sectors have played the biggest role in the demonstrations?  Have women been involved?  What about political parties and Islamist groups?

KC: All social sectors have played their part, from workers to politicians and intellectuals and Islamic scholars as well. But young people have been the main players, of course. In the first two days, no women attended the demonstrations, but they started joining once one woman gave a speech in Freedom Square asking all women to come out.  Since then, women have been playing a vital role: they've supported the protesters in huge numbers. I saw elderly women chanting with protesters on TV. Young female students have also been visible in big numbers at the protests. Now, the spokesperson of the demonstrators is a woman, an intellectual named Nask Qadr. We also should not forget the influential role of students in the protests.
Islamist groups have of course participated. Their media have also played a vital role. One of the senior leaders of the Islamic Union (Yekgirtu) has continuously participated since the first day of the protests. An arrest warrant has been ordered by the police for him, but has not been implemented yet.
Kurdish intellectuals have also played a role. From Europe to America, all round the world, they have sent letters of support. It is very important to note the attendance of Kurdish writers, intellectuals, journalists, singers, and poets.

JH: According to press reports, the current wave of demonstrations began Feb. 16 when people gathered in front of KDP headquarters in Sulaymaniyah to denounce corruption, call for democratic reform, and demand better living conditions.  Yet, Sulaymaniyah has historically been a stronghold of the PUK and Goran; KDP is not responsible for governance there, leading some people to wonder why KDP headquarters was chosen as the site of protest. What happened there that day?

KC: The gathering was in Sara, the center of Sulaymaniyah, just to support the Tunisian people and the Egyptians' great revolution. After the gathering ended, some youths went to Salm Street, which is known as the main boulevard in Sulaymaniyah. In most ceremonies and events people gather there. When the youths headed to Salm Street, the first party building they encountered on their route was the local KDP branch.
It is true that Sulaymaniyah is not KDP’s stronghold, but it was a natural focal point: since the unification of the PUK’s Sulaymaniyah administration and KDP’s Arbil administration, the KDP has been mainly responsible for all things that happen in Kurdistan. Masoud Barzani has been president of Kurdistan for about 5 years. Nechirvan Barzani was prime minister for about 4 years. In Iraq, the KDP has monopolized most positions. KDP has collected millions of dollars. KDP has monopolized the media, higher education, the market.
Most social fields are in the hands of KDP. For the PUK it's the same. In the KDP’s region, freedom of speech is limited. Parliament is in the hands of KDP. These are all actors in the people’s protest against the KDP.  

JH: From afar it seems that most of the protests have taken place in Sulaymaniyah.  Is that true?  Is anything happening in Hewler/Arbil, the KDP stronghold and capital of the Kurdistan Federal Region?

KC: The protests have appeared only in Sulaymaniyah province, or we can say, the former Sulaymaniyah administrative region. Sulaymaniyah is culturally, historically and politically different from Arbil. It has always been more political. Most intellectuals and revolutionists have appeared in Sulaymaniyah. The free media is located there. Most independent journalists and elite intellectuals are in Sulaymaniyah. The Islamic Union, Yekgirtu, is stronger than the KDP in Sulaymaniyah. But the KDP is using its media and all sorts of social division to frighten people. Let me give you a very funny example.  In a recent horoscope, the KDP’s daily newspaper, Hawler, wrote “do not protest against the authorities. Stay close to the authorities. If you don’t, your destiny will be in danger.”
So, by making such threats even in horoscopes, the KDP tries to shut all mouths. The day before the 'day of rage' on Feb. 25, some KDP supporters announced that if anyone protested in Arbil, they would not stop their violence against them. This was reported in a group on Facebook. The KDP also dispatched thousands of security people around the streets and all the gathering points in Arbil.

JH: On the broader political landscape in south Kurdistan.  In modern times, politics, civil society, and just about everything else in the region have been dominated by the KDP and PUK.  Cracks in their power seem to be appearing, however, with the emergence of opposition parties like Goran and critical, independent media outlets such as Livin magazine and Awane newspaper.  Do you think the ongoing demonstrations in the region represent the emergence of a mass democratic movement independent of the PUK and KDP?

KC: A democratic mass movement has emerged, but it has not reached Arbil; it's still in Sulaymaniyah. These people need organization; fortunately, intellectuals are going to organize them and will lead them in peaceful ways. Southern Kurdistan’s structure of power needs to be changed. The political system here is more tribal than democratic or systematic. The presidency, which is occupied by KDP leader Massoud Barzani, is a partisan establishment. He has not been successful in distinguishing his presidency from partisan interests. He has no deputy now thanks to  political battles with the PUK. The government, which is now headed by Dr. Barham Salih of the PUK, is a corrupt cabinet. The KDP and PUK between them have destroyed credible government through their interference. The interior, Peshmerge and financial ministries are not unified yet, despite the fact that these ministries are key to any successful cabinet. We have two Peshmerge forces. These forces are not national forces but partisan forces. Intelligence agencies are responsible to the government. Parastn, (Protection Agency) is connected to the KDP and Zaniyari (Information Establishment) is connected to the PUK.  The Anti- Terror unit is a PUK force as well.  We do not have national security, but two family securities. Then with regard to the draft constitution and law on demonstrations, the KDP and PUK didn’t listen to public and opposition lists in the parliament. The speaker of parliament, who is a KDP man, doesn’t think that he is the president of a parliament for all people; he deals with opposition MPs as if they are his enemies. The KDP and PUK have also distributed all positions in and outside Kurdistan equally between them. All KRG representatives around the world are KDP or PUK members. And they have appointed their sons as KRG representatives in the most powerful countries, as we see in US, where Qubad Talabani, Jalal Talabani’s son, is the KRG's representative in Washington.
I should also mention the judicial system.  The judiciary is not neutral, thanks to KDP and PUK interference. People can’t believe in a democracy where the judiciary is constantly under political pressure.

JH: How have the KDP, PUK, and various opposition parties reacted to the demonstrations so far?  Are you confident that they will introduce meaningful reforms?

KC: The KDP has reacted to the protesters harshly, as we saw in Sulaymaniyah. In their media, they call the protesters 'troublemakers' and 'those who do not love Kurdistan.' The PUK also opened fire against protesters, but it was more to frighten them. The PUK has not killed any, but wounded some. Opposition parties have not entered the demonstrations formally, but they are supporting them via their media. The MPs of opposition parties have taken part with protesters and also delivered speeches to support them.
I am not confident that they will introduce meaningful reforms. They have promised to carry out reforms since 2003 but nothing has changed. The structure of the political system and parties altogether has to be radically changed. Without changing the political system, we'll never see a meaningful reform. If the status-quo continues, I am afraid we're heading toward an authoritarian system.
I think our real democracy will start only if the political parties listen to the protesters' demands. The demands are not for collapsing the system, but to strengthen the system and build the first proper foundations of our nation-state. With the current strategy, we will never progress. The wave of collapsing dictators and corrupt governments in the world is, I believe, a non-stop wave. Arab countries are turning into democracies, so we musn't be late.
Nothing can stop the protesters short of implementing their demands. The KDP and PUK have used all the techniques they can think of to try and stop the demonstrations, but each technique has only made the protesters become more serious in advancing their demands, which are becoming more ambitious by the day. The KDP and PUK had better listen to their modest demands today, as they will be bigger and perhaps impossible to implement tomorrow. At that time, mere reforms will be meaningless.
We've seen what's happened to three dictators recently, Bin Al-Abidin, Mubarak, and Qadhafi. All of them used different ways to crush the demonstrators. But peoples’ will power is greater than the states’ armies. Qadhafi has used the harshest methods and killed hundreds, but now we see that more than 75% of the country is controlled by protesters. These people are supporters of freedom and equality, not 'troublemakers.'  This new movement is the start of a new era. They are the real democracy supporters, and their only weapon is the streets.

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