These Days of Rage

March 4th, 2011

The beginning of 2011 may yet be remembered as a new dawn of the protest and fresh interest in civic engagement worldwide.  From Wisconsin to Tunisia workers and citizens have risen up against a leader, in protest of a law, or in retaliation of a loss.  Many of these debates have turned heated and violent, stoked by years of pent up anger and frustration.  On second thought, perhaps 2011 will be remembered for the rage.

In Egypt in Tunisia, their voices were not only heard, but they affected regime change within weeks.  In Wisconsin, two weeks of union protests have sparked a coast-to-coast debate on collective bargaining rights, the erosion of the American middle class, our national priorities, and our values as a country.  The viral UK Uncut movement, a youthful protest against austerity and tax-dodging by multinationals, has spread to America where demonstrators protested outside a Bank of America, which they assert accepted bailout money, but then uses corporate tax maneuvers to avoid paying its fair share.  Across the Middle East, protestors took the streets on February 25th in a “Day of Rage,” many demanding a change of government.

In Iraq, thousands of protestors took part in the Day of Rage in remonstration against government corruption. Marches and rallies soon turned to clashes with security forces in Mosul, Hawija, and Basra, as protestors attempted to attack government buildings.  Many lost their lives and nationwide demonstrations have pressed on for days.  The Iraqi voices have been heard to some extent.  Already, three provincial governors have stepped down.  And Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki gave cabinet members a 100-day deadline to shape up or face “changes based on assessments…to determine the level of their individual success or failure in performing their jobs.”

Corruption in Iraqi ministries is, indeed, a massive problem.  A report written by U.S. advisors to Iraq’s anti-corruption agency found “devastating and grim problems” in all twelve ministries and that “corruption protected by senior members of the Iraqi government remains untouchable.”  In one of the more heart wrenching examples, the report showed that because of alleged corruption in the Ministry of Health, supplies and medicine in Baghdad’s hospitals have been sold elsewhere for profits.  Another report found a defense ministry official profited tens of thousands of dollars by charging young recruits US$500 to join the army.  Least surprising, but just as devastating, alleged corruption in the Ministry of Oil is rampant—Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has noted “about 10 percent of Iraq’s refined fuels and 30 percent of its imported fuels are being stolen.”

Unfortunately, while the protestors may make some progress in this regard it is unlikely to yield any systematic changes.  First, there is a culture of corruption in Iraq that will not be reversed with staff changes and will certainly not be diminished by Maliki’s “assessments.”  On Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index, Iraq ranked 175 out of 178 countries, in front of only Somalia, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.  Corruption in Iraq is not perpetrated by a few greedy officials; it has become so systematic through so many levels of government that even sweeping replacements at top posts would not change the status-quo.  Not that Maliki is would entertain overhauling his own cabinet.

But there is another reason domestic-centered protests against corruption will be to little avail.  The roots of corruption in any single country do not exist underneath that nation alone.  As Nicholas Shaxton, Raymond Baker, and John Christensen have argued, when thinking about this problem we must “expand the geography of corruption […] it makes no sense to see corruption through the prism of discrete, country-level problems.”  Corruption in Iraq does not exist in a vacuum.  The financial system of this world allows literally trillions of dollars to leak out of developing countries, often by the hands of corrupt government officials or businessmen with little to no accountability.  It is the reasons Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, Qaddafi of Libya, and their many associates have allegedly amassed billions in personal wealth in international accounts.  This system does not just facilitate theft at the top of the pyramid, although that’s where it’s most visible and revolting.  This system allows a pervasion of corruption throughout many ranks of government and the business community, as well.

These are not reasons for the citizens of Iraq to stay home and forgo their rights to protest peacefully.  In fact, their energies and voices should awaken not just Maliki to the gravity of the situation, but also the United States and the rest of the world.  This is not “their” problem and it never has been.  To make serious headway in Iraq and, indeed, much of the rest of the world, we must reform the international system which enables corruption on such a scale.  This is “our” problem, too.  Let’s start acting like it.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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