The People’s Wrath: Iraqi Protesters Demonstrate A New Way Of Petitioning Parliament

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ON SATURDAY, 30 April 2016, thousands of supporters of the Iraqi religious leader, Moqtadr al-Sadr, stormed Baghdad’s “Green Zone” and forced their way into the Iraqi Parliament.

This demonstration/occupation was sparked by the wilful procrastination of Iraqi MPs tasked with passing long-overdue reforms aimed at rooting out the corruption endemic to Iraqi political life. The MPs had deliberately drawn out the legislative process in hopes of somehow preserving the system they were supposed to be eliminating.

Their patience exhausted, Moqtadr and his followers smashed their way into Baghdad’s most protected area. The Green Zone, formerly the base-of-operations for the American Occupation, and, before that, the home of Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, is as potent a symbol of the Iraqi people’s oppression as the Bastille was of France’s.

As the Iraqi MPs fled in terror, al-Sadr’s followers gleefully ransacked the chamber. By the following day they were demanding the formation of a new cabinet; the resignations of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi; the President, Fuad Masum; and the Speaker of the Parliament, Salim al-Jabouri; and fresh elections.

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Most New Zealanders will shake their heads in disbelief at such extreme behaviour, and thank their lucky stars that they live in a mature and restrained parliamentary democracy. The very notion of insurrection is utterly foreign to our political culture. As a people, we are more than content to play by the rules.

Thinking about the actions of the Iraqi protesters, however, I’m wondering whether this Kiwi determination to play by the rules is a blessing, or a curse. Certainly, our collective disinclination to step outside the rules offers our leaders little, if any, incentive to be cautious about the way they treat us. To the contrary, our leaders’ expectation is that we should be wary of them, not that they should be wary of us!

But what about the power of public opinion? Surely that acts as a formidable constraint on our leaders’ behaviour? A government seeking re-election would likely be more frightened of a downward trajectory in the polls than Moqtadr’s rampaging mob.

That is certainly the theory. But, today, polls and focus groups are as much about misleading and manipulating the electorate as they are about heeding its wishes. Besides, the ability to test public opinion is pretty much restricted to the rich and the powerful. How many ordinary people can afford to find out what ordinary people are thinking? And, even when they are known, there are plenty of instances where the thoughts of ordinary people are simply excluded from the political equation.

Nowhere is this process of exclusion more evident than in the negotiation and ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). The TPPA was created by national and transnational elites, for national and transnational elites. It’s likely impact on the lives of ordinary people was a matter of only passing interest.

The consternation that gripped the New Zealand elites (political, business, media) when anti-TPPA campaigners attracted tens-of-thousands of angry protesters onto the streets of Auckland showed just how unimportant public opinion was to the TPPA process. Even within the walls of the Sky City complex, well protected from the rage of the protesters outside, the elites were painfully aware that they were losing the public relations war. If the protest activity escalated to encompass all the main centres; and MFAT’s hastily organised explanatory meetings found themselves similarly besieged; then the elites’ ability to “sell” the TPPA to the New Zealand public would be thrown into serious doubt.

The ultimate threat to the ratification process would have been the anti-TPPA forces laying siege to Parliament itself. The 2004 hikoi against the Labour Government’s seabed and foreshore legislation offers an intriguing precedent. In that instance, Maori had demonstrated the acute vulnerability of the parliamentary complex to concerted protest action. Only a recourse to deadly force on the part of the authorities could prevent a protest demonstration numbering in the tens-of-thousands from physically occupying the House of Representatives – if it wanted to.

And there’s the rub. Progressive New Zealanders are simply not mentally wired to escalate their protest activity to such an extent. Their innate respect for the democratic process and its representative institutions is too great.

Once again, the TPPA issue offers the proof. Rather than build on its Auckland success, the anti-TPPA movement switched its focus from the angry streets to MFAT’s explanatory meetings; the hearings of the relevant parliamentary select committee; and the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal.

That none of these bodies would be permitted to exercise the slightest influence over the outcome of the TPPA ratification process was known to all the participants. And yet, such was their faith in the “democratic process” that they turned up again and again to be condescended to (and, if necessary, silenced) by Sean Plunket, and endured by the National Party-dominated select committee. Lacking the force of law, any adverse Waitangi Tribunal findings will undoubtedly be set aside with equal disdain.

Lacking any lengthy, or positive, experience of democracy, the Shia poor of Sadr City were unmoved by the magic and majesty of representative government. In their eyes, the people they had elected to rebuild and rehabilitate their shattered nation had failed in their duty. Even worse, they had used their privileged positions as parliamentarians to corruptly enrich themselves. Far from opening the road to a better future, they had erected barriers across it. Any respect they might have been due from the Iraqi people had long ago been squandered. Away with them!

Moqtadr’s followers have now returned to their homes, but they have left behind them more than a wrecked debating chamber. In the bellies of the MPs who fled their invasion there is now a gnawing fear of the people’s righteous anger. They will not lightly rouse it again.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Chris you are correct here,

    “Most New Zealanders will shake their heads in disbelief at such extreme behaviour, and thank their lucky stars that they live in a mature and restrained parliamentary democracy.

    The very notion of insurrection is utterly foreign to our political culture. As a people, we are more than content to play by the rules. Thinking about the actions of the Iraqi protesters, however, I’m wondering whether this Kiwi determination to play by the rules is a blessing, or a curse.

    Certainly, our collective disinclination to step outside the rules offers our leaders little, if any, incentive to be cautious about the way they treat us. To the contrary, our leaders’ expectation is that we should be wary of them, not that they should be wary of us!”

    Planet key has made us all subservient with their constant wording of everything we must adhere to with the following word COMPIANCE.

    This is an old method of keeping us on fear that if we don’t “comply” we are dealt to.

    This may be deliberate but it is working because the word “Comply” has only been introduced during this national Government’s reign over us.

    We live in a climate of fear today and an angry loud public demonstration like this you depicted of anger will erupt sooner or later in NZ because of this Government’s excessive tight reign over us all (except for the planet Key inner circle of course.)

    Chris, can you give us our own Kiwi rally cry composite to the a French model now so we can begin, will it be?

    “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

    Fraternity in the sense of brotherhood and “common people against the government”, rather than the more modern association.

    Rallying cry of the French Revolution?
    http://www.answers.com/Q/Rallying_cry_of_the_French_Revolution

  2. In New Zealand people even frowned at the fact that people booed the Prime Minister. What are you supposed to do to show your displeasure at this government? – clap politely?

  3. “As a people we are more than content to play by the rules”
    This is both our strength and our weakness.
    It is our strength when we want change but we are morally inhibited from seeking it with violence or destruction.
    It is our weakness when we are not willing to take affirmative action against the corporate friendly, corrupt and self-rewarding government which is currently in power.

  4. Absolutely not, Esoteric P.
    I f the PM was foolhardy enough to come within range, I feel sure that we would clap UNENTHUSIASTICALLY.

  5. This regime is constantly telling us through its media control that they are they are led by the most popular NZ PM of all time. And therefore, they can ram through whatever legislation they want any old way they want to do it. Said PM, a former highly sucessful financial speculator on the World stage, who made his enormous fortune by knowing every trick and ruse, even tried to pretend that he didn’t understand the tax dodging going on in NZ. Sort of like a cockie not understanding which end of the cow to milk. Well, constantly blowing your own trumpet is a sure sign of weakness, not strength. And at some point the last little lie brings the whole show down. What will it be? That slip of the mask? That moment when the country realises the Emporer has no clothes…. That this regime is led by a man who is and always has been a fake.
    You can fool some of the people etc.

  6. You’re just flat out wrong here Chris. The Iraqi PM all but invited the protesters into the Green Zone, if not the debating chamber itself. He too is totally fed up with the corruption of a good number of his own cabinet members. His problem is he can’t fire them because they are protected minorities under the constitution and to do so would add fuel to the civil war in the north and might lead to the withdrawal of US support on which the Iraqi war effort is highly dependent.

  7. Durinthe last election campaign I was so disappointed at the media beatup about people chanting ‘F*** john key’ that I went straight to my garage and painted F* J.K. on the tailboard of my truck. I recieved toots and the thumbs up on occasion and was even abused once. The sign remains there and will stay until the demise of john key. [Idont consider him worthy of capital letters]. A very small protest perhaps but I don’t see signs of others.

  8. Another excellent article from Chris. I thought of the last election campaign when I was so disappointed at the media beatup about people chanting “F*** john key” that I went straight to my shed and painted F*** J.K. on the tailboard of my truck. I recieved the odd toot and thumbs up and was roundly abused once. The sign remains and shall stay until john key,s demise. [He isn,t worthy of capital letters]. A very small protest perhaps but I don,t see others. Does that make me an extremist ?

    • I hope it’s an old truck.

      Dark night. Spray can – and you’ll look like one of those Wicked camper vans…

      Hell hath no fury like a slighted conservative.

  9. New Zealand, whether we like it or not still carries over from the English traditions and its been a long time since the English civil war. In that time they built up an Empire – despite supposedly creating a parliament for and by the people. ( which it wasn’t really… just a reshuffling of the power elites )

    That whole mentality of ‘form a queue ‘ , due process, adherence to regulatory practice etc etc for better or worse comes from a generally perceived notion of societal and political stability which negates the need for undue physical direct action .

    By contrast , many other country’s lacking that stability and who have seen literally corpses in the street as a direct result of civil war, invasion and corruption in govt and law enforcement , … are going to have an entirely different world view and cynicism towards authority.

    In their view, blunt and to the point direct action is seen as the only way to express dissatisfaction towards a govt that marginalizes them. And who can blame them?

    Europe is replete with examples of just that scenario whereby direct action was the order of the day to affect change… however , … with the passage of time and ‘ settling in ‘ of more stable society’s, direct action against authority in favor of using legislative processes for change became more the norm for example in the union movement and various other protest movements ie : environmentalism.

    However , the problem here is that after time politicians realized this and because there was no real threat of physical harm to them … and because laws were easily passed to contain any political excesses of demonstrations and protests and the police could be used to enforce that containment , with the added bonus of being able to paint dissenters as outside the law and showing contempt for greater society’s legal process … gradually , over time , they could afford to start ignoring dissension and become dismissive of it. Particularly in using mass media to form and shape public opinion.

    This is where we find ourselves today.

    And the problem also is that that thinking has permeated the public psych so much that we are relegated to ‘ nice , polite ‘ protest actions. Something eye pleasing , something not too edgy suggesting tempers being lost or passions raised, something palatable to be shown on the news at 6 o’clock as more a novelty item among the usual banality that passes for news.

    We are… what the old timers would say ‘ gone soft’.

    And we have. This modern era where we would recoil in shock and horror at Massey’s Cossack’s or the 1951 WaterSiders dispute…or even the 1981 Springbok tour… is evidence of how far we have come to being a docile, compliant populace.

    Easy meat for a corrupt and manipulative govt.

    And it will probably take a lot more to shake this slumbering, phlegmatic populace awake from its comatose disconnection to the reality’s of being manipulated by its govt than is currently the case. And I should think that will come in the form of severe global financial hardship.

    And even then , I suspect we still will all stand politely in the queue awaiting our chance to speak.

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