Dr Kamal Mirawdeli – prominent writer, intellectual and former KRG presidential candidate – was interviewed by Harem Karem. This first installment covers the Sulaymani protests and their aftermath.
HK: How do you see the situation in south Kurdistan following the Sulaymani protests and the KRG’s response? Are anti-government protests likely to start again anytime soon?
KM: I think it is much worse than pre-17 February 2011. Before then, you know, the Kurdistan Region had witnessed a continuous series of mass demonstrations, not only in the city and all areas of Sulaymani but also in Arbil, such as the demonstration protesting against the murder of the young journalist and university graduate Sardasht Osman, in which tens of thousands participated and this continued for over two months. Then there were mass demonstrations against the demonstrations law, and there had always been local demonstrations against injustice or lack of services. They were organised by civil society groups and the Kurdish street was pregnant with wrath and resentment and there was the possibility of region-wide demonstrations and even popular uprising.
Now it seems that all these groups have been marginalised, silenced or neutralised and it seems it would be difficult in the short term to start even a small demonstration anywhere. The current situation was the result of the military crackdown followed by the chasing, harassing, and attacking of political activists and former organisers of the demonstrations while no action has been taken against those who shot at and murdered demonstrators on 17 February and after.
On the other hand, the KDP and PUK have continued to abuse their power and use money and bribes to buy people, and they have continued subordinating the government and parliament to their party interests and managed to incorporate their huge salaried party structures and organisational expenses within the 2011 budget and thus, instead of separating party influence from governance function, the government has become an integrated agent of party hegemony. The ease with which the KDP and PUK cut off the budget of the opposition parties and their continued abuse of human rights and attacks on civil freedoms and chasing of the symbols and participants in the demonstrations, shows to what extent the rule of law is absent, parliament is impotent and party officials are persistent in their criminal and corrupt practices with impunity. In fact, since silencing the street protests, the appetite of party officials for more accumulation of wealth, abuse of power and positions and appropriation of land and property has considerably increased. All the talk about reform is sheer deception and dishonesty. Corruption has become the soul and structure of the system.
HK: What were your overall impressions from your visit to south Kurdistan?
KM: The situation now and the background, process and outcomes of the demonstrations resulting in the current stalemate need proper studies and independent investigations and objective review and evaluation. Unfortunately these are absent. Just two weeks after the start of the demonstrations I went back to support my people and participate in the demonstrations. But before that, in several seminars in the UK and Sweden, I emphasised that any effort or initiative for change needs to be based on three interdependent pillars: science, democracy and law or legislation. Scientific approach, study, analysis and investigation do not exist in Kurdistan. No statistics, no data, no think tanks, no academic studies of our contemporary history and events, no media investigations. In short, there is no source of independent impartial reliable view on any aspect of politics, life, economy, etc. in Kurdistan and this is the result of the totalitarian party control over all aspects of life, education and activity in the region.
As I said, just two weeks after the start of the demonstrations I went back to support my people and participate in the demonstrations. The main centre of demonstration was Sulaymani main square or Berderki Sara which was by then, as an imitation of Cairo’s Sahat al-Tahrir, was called Saray Azadi: Freedom Square. I was received there enthusiastically as the legitimate elected president at least for Sulaymani and Garmiyan regions where I got the majority of votes in the July 2009 presidential elections.
Though the Saray demonstrations were inspiring and impressive, I found it very odd to see that the demonstrations were restricted to this narrow space. However, for the first three to four weeks they kept the momentum and represented the participation of broad sections of Kurdish society and they were also spread to district towns in Sulaymani, especially Koye, Ranya, Qaladiza, Halabja and Chamchmal. The authorities were visibly shaken by the degree of the anger felt by demonstrators who aired their anger and grievances in speeches, slogans, poetry, placards, plays, etc. But the confinement, containment and the eventual complete control of demonstrations by the opposition parties made them more a repetitive open space theatrical than a serious political protest with strategic direction and goals. Thus instead of a genuine growing and spreading movement, creating genuine field leaders, we had a theatrical performance with stage managers picked, directed, and controlled by the opposition parties and promoted by their media. Lack of independent media coverage was a big democratic deficit of the demonstrations. I can only give some general observations about the demonstrations and the reasons they did not develop into a mass movement.
“the demonstration that started on 17 February was genuine, spontaneous and represented the will and diversity of the Kurdish street”
In fact the demonstration that started on 17 February was genuine, spontaneous and represented the will and diversity of the Kurdish street. The video of the first day demonstration is available and it is very impressive. It represented direct democracy with many diverse groups and individuals being able to present their views and choose their slogans and demands. Even when the demonstration became violent in the late afternoon and was shot at by the KDP militia, you can see – from many video clips – the bravery, will and determination of the young demonstrators to face the bullets and barbarity of the KDP militia who were prepared to kill to preserve their illegitimate wealth and power.
“two factors were defining the psychology of people: their hopes for change and their fears of civil war”
In this the Sulaymani demonstrators were not different from those of Tunisia or Cairo. But the difference was in the background, context, leadership and process. We know that this first demonstration was not supported by the opposition; it was even condemned by some. I carefully studied the video film of the 17 February demonstration and discovered that two themes were running through the words and thoughts of participants: their determination to fight the injustice of the brutal party system and their fear of internal fighting or fratricide. Two factors were defining the psychology of people: their hopes for change and their fears of civil war. This fear was the result of the situation created by the 7-point statement published by Change movement on 29 January 2011.
“the whole process became hostage to the statement published by Gorran”
The Kurdistan demonstrations and, in fact, the whole political and civil process became hostage to the statement published by Gorran (Change movement) on 29 January 2011, in which they called for: the dissolution of the Kurdistan parliament and KRG, fresh elections within three months and reforms of peshmerga and security forces and return of property and wealth appropriated by the two parties. In my first seminar in London in 2 February 2011, just three days after the publication of this statement, I criticised it for lacking the three principles that I mentioned earlier: scientific evaluation of conditions and risks, democratic participation and consultation and legality and legislative legitimacy. Though this surprisingly strongly-worded statement, coming from the strongest party of opposition, had of course an effect in preparing the way for and instigating the demonstrations, it also had a far greater negative effect. In fact from the moment this statement was published, the subsequent events in Kurdistan were defined by its timing, tone, intent and content. It is disappointing that, till now, I have not read any serious criticism or assessment of this statement or its consequences by any Kurdish writer and intellectual, which for me again shows the lack of critical thought and independent objective scientific study and analysis. I will summarise my overall observations about the demonstration:
- This statement was inspired by the events of Tunisia and Egypt, and aimed at pre-empting a similar though pre-mature situation, with Gorran being considered the leading force behind any probable popular movement in Kurdistan. As I said in my seminar in London on 2 February 2011, this, though opportunistic, would have been normal and even revolutionary if Gorran had actually planned and prepared for starting and leading such a movement. But, as I suspected then: there was no such preparation and participation; even Gorran’s parliamentarians had not been consulted; there had been no co-ordination with the opposition on this matter; and there was no analysis of the risks and possibilities inherent in such a sweeping statement.
- Then the spirit and intent of the statement in fact contradicted the spirit and content of the Arab street revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Instead of allowing and supporting people to start, own and win their movement at a right time and place, triggered by whatever factor or incident – as was the case in these two countries – the Gorran statement pre-empted and politicised any possible Kurdish uprising as a party political issue owned and led by Gorran. And this at the beginning alienated even the other opposition parties, pushing them to sign with the KDP and PUK against it.
- The KDP and PUK reacted strongly and violently to Gorran’s statement, moving a big KDP force from Arbil to Sulaymani, surrounding and threatening the Gorran headquarters and TV channel KNN. This not only militarised the political environment and process, it also – due to the ever-present history and consequences of fratricide – created fear of renewal of old hostilities and factional fratricidal conflict, and it established any anti-system political activity as a conflict between Gorran on the one hand and PUK/KDP alliance on the other. This made it impossible for independent individuals and civil society organisations to initiate any spontaneous protest and some planned periodical demonstrations were suspended until the incidents triggered by the 17 February demonstration were organised by such groups – which led immediately to violence.
- The statement presented contradictory and wrong demands: especially for the dissolution of parliament and government without mentioning the presidency of the region which is the real anomaly of the region’s political structure. Instead of emphasizing one central slogan/demand – such as the end of the party oligarchy and family-based party rule, starting with the resignation of the president, or concentrating on some concrete, timed demands of the people – it presented a number of contradictory, non-achievable demands.
- The statement was not underlined by any practical political plan. It was odd that the demonstrations started and continued to be organised in Sulaymani alone with other areas of Kurdistan, especially Arbil, remaining outside the opposition activity even though any serious political protest should naturally make the capital its starting-point and end. In fact the opposition parties made no serious effort at all to start demonstrations in Arbil or to challenge the president of the region in any way. So the idea that it was impossible to have demonstrations in Arbil was just a myth.
- A positive development dictated by the demonstrations, was closer links and even a sort of alliance between the three opposition parties. Unfortunately this was not coupled with an agreed active strategy for leading and supporting the demonstrations. The eventual control of the demonstrations by the opposition parties and their instigation and promotion by their party media reduced the chance of turning them into a wider mass movement attracting marginalised people from all parties and sections of society. This made it difficult to enlarge and maintain the momentum of the demonstrations and the opposition parties had to mobilise their members and supporters from other areas to feed Sulaymani’s core demonstrations.
- On the other hand, the larger demonstrations were restricted to Fridays, accompanied by Friday prayers, and this gave the impression of increasing ‘religious-isation’ of the demonstrations, and fear of an Iranian finger, especially with the active and brave role played by religious preachers. This was an important factor that the PUK used to justify its eventual military crackdown after, perhaps, getting a green light and even advice from the Americans and the British.
- The official position of the opposition parties remained a mystery. Lack of transparency, clear position and direction, absence of political leaders in leading or even symbolic participation in the demonstrations, while controlling and exploiting them, deprived the movement of expansion, identity and direction.
- The emerging provisional committee in Sulaymani was a hotchpotch of various people from different political parties. It was never effectively organised, representative or functional: it was personalised and directed by opposition parties and their media. This made it impossible to identify accepted independent leaders to negotiate with the authorities who at one stage made concessions to the demonstrators and were happy to receive their representatives. But this opportunity was not seized.
- The confinement of demonstrations to Saray Azadi and their recurrence in the same place and their theatrical management by the same people, allowed the authorities to monitor these activities closely and regularly and identify the political activists, organisers and participants for future reprisals. On the other hand, there was no study or assessment or test of public opinion of how the confinement to Sulaymani affected the normal life, business and economy of the town and attitudes of people.
- Due to a lack of study and active diplomacy, it was not known how the regional and international players viewed the demonstrations as it is obvious international support is needed for the success of any movement.
HK: What were the positive developments coming from the demonstrations?
KM: A positive initial outcome of the demonstrations and 17 February killings came in addition to the alliance of the opposition parties, the action of the Kurdistan Parliament and the 17-point plan agreed unanimously. There were also joint co-ordinated initiatives by Sulaymani parliamentarians from all parties to keep dialogue between the parties going. I think this was the most positive initial impact of the demonstrations. This should have been encouraged by the opposition parties and built upon.
The representatives of the street should also have been encouraged to support and involve parliament in the solutions because parliament was the only legitimate elected representative body, bringing all parties together despite the fraud and the short-comings of the elections and despite the weakness and hitherto marginality of the parliament in political decision-making. I mean the process of solutions should have been kept within the parliament and this spirit of co-operation which – for whatever reason – had emerged, should have been kept alive and effective. And, on the other hand, the occasion of demonstrations should have been used to strengthen the bond between the people and the MPs, not as MPs belonging to a certain fraction but as representatives of people.
“the first wave of arrests and attacks happened exactly as the meetings began”
Unfortunately there was no such strategy and understanding. Instead of supporting their parliamentary representatives, the opposition parties produced their own tripartite 22-point project and gave two months notice for their implementation, and then they held secretive party political talks inside parliament. Lack of transparency about these talks was another drawback of the political process. The most important and dangerous aspect of these talks was the absence of any street input and role and the ignoring of human rights issues such as defending the right to demonstrate and protecting the safety and lives of the demonstrators. The first wave of arrests and attacks happened exactly as the party meetings with the ruling power began – and this repression continued without much reaction from the opposition.
During the recent and now suspended five-parties meetings, as we know, attacks against the symbols and organisers of the demonstrations escalated: such as the stabbing of the main presenter and speaker at the Berdereki Saray demonstration, Ismael Abdulla, and then the shooting of the lawyer Karwan Kamal and the arrest and torturing of dozens of political activists and journalists – all this happened without any strong reaction from the leadership of the opposition parties or a co-ordinated legal and political strategy and campaign to deal with it.
I think there is one important factor that makes parliament weak and prevents even the active, educated and responsible parliamentarians from playing a more effective role inside and outside parliament. I refer to the dualism of party/parliament authority, even within the opposition parties, and the dominance of the party leadership structure over the parliamentary party which should have been allowed to develop into a civil democratic institution with decision-making powers overriding those of the unelected or ‘eternal’ party leadership.