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ANC factions stir ‘dangerous politics’ in South Africa’s towns – Financial Times



Thapelo Mohapi looks at the mangled and scorched scraps of what were once shacks and reflects quietly that, at 38, twice now have the flames of political violence in South Africa left him without a home.

The first time, as a boy in the 1980s, Mohapi was given shelter by Indian neighbours in the Durban settlement of Phoenix when the brutal last days of apartheid engulfed the nearby black township where he lived. It was part of solidarity that would in time give rise to a multiracial democracy. “The Indian community never said at any stage that you are not part of us,” he says. 

The second time was the night of July 14. As riots and looting sparked by a power struggle in the ruling African National Congress swept heartland regions, destroyed businesses and left more than 300 dead, a fire burnt through the homes of Mohapi and hundreds of others in an informal settlement in Durban’s Briardene suburb. “The fire brigade couldn’t reach it in time because of the unrest,” Mohapi says. For now, he is living in a friend’s car and in donated clothes.

What President Cyril Ramaphosa labelled an “attempted insurrection” in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, two provinces that make up half of the gross domestic product of Africa’s most industrial nation and nearly half of its population, was only put down with the deployment of tens of thousands of troops.

Rescuers search burnt-out premises in the aftermath of the riots and looting in Mobeni, Durban. The widespread violence destroyed businesses and left more than 300 dead © AFP via Getty Images

The violence had begun as reprisals for the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court — a victory for the rule of law and the country’s democratic principles under Ramaphosa. Zuma had defied a constitutional court order to attend an inquiry examining his role in corruption so widespread that it hollowed out institutions under his presidency, according to the testimony of dozens of witnesses. He was forced to resign in 2018.

After winning the ANC leadership in 2017 by a narrow margin, Ramaphosa stabilised the party’s decades-long grip on power in a 2019 election and has slowly isolated his predecessor’s closest allies. But the unrest signals that he is confronting a faction who in order to avoid jail are prepared to sacrifice a weakened state — and manipulate social divisions.

Phoenix, Mohapi’s old refuge, was also swept up in the fallout. As police vanished amid looting, tragedy unfolded in a microcosm of South Africa’s complex race relations. As street barricades were thrown up against looters, armed vigilantes emerged and “people that had lived side-by-side in relative peace turned on each other”, Ramaphosa said last week. At least 20 people were killed in the clashes in a township that is majority Indian but where many black South Africans live and work.

The number of economically inactive South Africans has increased, Annual % change and number of economically inactive (m)

The looting was a threat without police on the ground but “in the racial profiling of our African brothers and sisters, some took the law into their own hands — and they were gangsters,” Marvin Govender, general secretary of Phoenix’s residents association, says. 

The state was absent, failing to stop both the vigilantes and the looting, Govender says. Chris Biyela, the convener of a post-unrest Phoenix peace committee, agrees that “if the government responded forcefully in this manner, many lives would have been saved”.

In the chaos of the ANC’s factional battle, even the fire in Briardene appears suspect. Mohapi is a spokesman for Abahlali baseMjondolo, a movement that represents informal dwellers. With 100,000 members, it is a fierce critic of the ANC and has often received threats. The day before the fire, Abahlali released a statement that blamed “people who are pushing the agenda of the Zuma faction in the chaos”.

Police officers arrest a looter in Johannesburg. Truck burnings shut down South Africa’s major food supply route between Durban and Johannesburg
Police officers arrest a looter in Johannesburg. Truck burnings shut down South Africa’s major food supply route between Durban and Johannesburg © Guillem Sartorio/AFP via Getty Images

The group also fell victim to attempts to stir up a race war when a statement it issued calling for calm in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal’s largest city, was doctored with anti-Muslim vitriol, and then spread on WhatsApp.

With mounds of garbage choking the air and broken sanitation, the state has failed Briardene’s informal settlement dwellers. Mohapi has every reason to be cynical about the country’s post-1994 gains. But after what he sees as an assault from within the ANC “to divide the poorest from the poor” and destroy the basis of South Africa’s freedom and its unfinished racial reconciliation, he is more determined than ever to defend them.

“Nelson Mandela would be turning in his grave. This is not what he fought for,” he says. “We can’t be taken back to where we were. We can’t sacrifice that because one man is in prison.”

A warning from history

South Africa received a prophetic warning as far back as 1997 that one day the difficult transition to democracy might be betrayed from within.

Such an attack, the document said, would involve “setting up intelligence and armed networks parallel to and within the state to sabotage change through direct political activity or aggravation of such social problems as crime”, and erosion of governance through “deliberate acts of corruption driven not merely by greed”.

Line chart of GDP per capita ($ in 2010 terms) showing Real per capita income in South Africa is back at 2005 levels

The prophet was the ANC itself — and while the warning was a reference to those still clinging on to apartheid, it accurately describes how decay of the state under the party has created forces that led to insurrection.

Systematic looting of state institutions during the Zuma presidency is well documented. Less visible has been the culture of impunity that was allowed to grow at the bottom, as police and other authorities were compromised by their political masters.

“The whole state has been criminalised,” Mary de Haas, an expert on KwaZulu-Natal’s political violence, says. “We had corruption, but we have been criminalised in the last 10 years . . . there are all sorts of mafia and criminal networks that would jump on this bandwagon.”

The impunity has spread to threaten investments needed to restart the stagnant economy, particularly in Zuma’s home province. In June, Rio Tinto was forced to suspend mineral sands mining in KwaZulu-Natal after security threats and the murder of a manager. From construction to security, businesses in the region say they are used to gangs with alleged ANC links demanding a cut. Ramaphosa admitted recently that extortion rackets have already begun targeting reconstruction following the unrest. 

Armed community members gather at a road block in Phoenix, Durban. Local resident Thapelo Mohapi says of the riots: ‘Nelson Mandela would be turning in his grave. This is not what he fought for’
Armed community members gather at a roadblock in Phoenix, Durban. Local resident Thapelo Mohapi says of the riots: ‘Nelson Mandela would be turning in his grave. This is not what he fought for’ © Guillem Sartorio/AFP via Getty Images

“There is very little crime intelligence coming from this province,” de Haas says. Intelligence officials “admit that the whole thing is factionalised. Then you get to national intelligence, and that’s even worse. Zuma captured the whole of intelligence, basically.”

An official 2018 report warned of “politicisation and factionalisation of the civilian intelligence community based on the factions in the ANC”, including “serious criminality” in the embezzlement of cash. The state capture inquiry heard this year that a rogue spy unit with a direct line to Zuma was used to target his political opponents.

Such testimony appears to have infuriated the former president. “Every country has its own secrets and things that are not publicly spoken about,” Zuma told supporters at Nkandla, his homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal, before his arrest for defying the inquiry. His supporters fired off weapons and threatened police, before Zuma was taken into custody by his own state protection in the dead of night.

Senior ANC politicians were still arguing that Zuma should be freed even as the violence spread.

Income inequality in South Africa has deepened, share of national income (%)

“The politicians and their cronies are attempting to brew and encourage a very, very dangerous politics that is building fear and anger with the aim of dividing people along lines of nationality of origin, ethnicity and race,” the Abahlali group says.

Food as a political weapon

The most chilling part of what Ramaphosa called “deliberate, well-planned and co-ordinated” targeting of infrastructure in the unrest were attacks that seemed tailored to exploit South Africa’s inequality, especially insecurities over food. Truck burnings shut down a major food supply route, the motorway between Durban and Johannesburg, Gauteng’s provincial capital. Supermarkets were attacked and then their distribution centres hit.

“It really dawned on me when I realised that not only were the warehouses being emptied out [by looters], they were also attacking the packaging industry . . . one of the big aims was to bring access to food to its knees,” says Mervyn Abrahams, co-ordinator of Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity, an NGO based near Durban. “You are creating conflict between those who are poor and those who are middle class just to access the food that is available.”

Activists in KwaZulu-Natal say soldiers and police reinforcements came just in time to stop the total collapse of the supply chain and prevent an even worse second wave of riots driven by those who might not have eaten in days.

The violence began as reprisals for the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court
The violence began as reprisals for the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court © Yeshiel Panchia/EPA-EFE

It reflected another facet of South Africa’s absent state, worsened by the pandemic — a hunger crisis that has silently swept the poorest, as social protection has fallen short and the economy has sputtered.

GDP per capita has flatlined since Zuma’s presidency and unemployment has soared, with 43 per cent of the working age population without a job or discouraged from looking for one at the start of this year. Even many of those with jobs are in a precarious position. Around half of the average minimum wage worker’s monthly pay of about 3,600 rand ($247) is eaten up by transport and electricity costs even before food bills, estimates Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity. A safety net of welfare grants, covering about 18m people, has also grown threadbare and no longer reflects the cost of living.

In July, a basic nutritious diet for a South African child for the month was estimated to cost about R724, or about $50. The monthly child support grant is R460. Stunting rates in children — an indication of malnutrition — have remained stubbornly high since 1994, at about a quarter or more. The effects are felt decades later, in poor school results, a life on the margins of the job market and long-term health problems. “Each year we reap what was sown 30 or 25 years ago,” Abrahams says.

Cyril Ramaphosa. Some senior ANC politicians were still arguing that the president should pardon Zuma even as the recent violence was spreading
Cyril Ramaphosa. Some senior ANC politicians were still arguing that the president should pardon Zuma even as the recent violence was spreading © Emmanuel Croset/AFP via Getty Images

Saddled with high debts that are approaching 90 per cent of GDP, Ramaphosa’s government bet on riding out a series of pandemic lockdowns with minimal fiscal relief. This only prolonged the agony. In July, the country’s treasury reinstated a temporary monthly grant of R350 for the jobless that it had cut just months earlier. It will last until March.

After the unrest’s wake-up call, civil society is pushing for more permanent transfers. A basic income grant for South Africa’s 11m unemployed would cost R78bn a year if it paid out just enough per month to keep them above the food poverty line of R585, according to the Institute for Economic Justice, a Johannesburg-based think-tank. But the middle class is likely to balk at the tax rises needed to pay for this, or additional borrowing for larger grants. 

“We pay for all of this in other ways in the economy,” Abrahams says. Millions have moved to shacks in the midst of major cities to find work. This proximity is part of why the unrest flared so quickly. “Now ‘the poor’ are right on our doorstep. Higher walls and more security are really not going to protect us.” 

July marked the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s post-prison election as leader of a very different ANC, as apartheid was crumbling and a new democracy was being born
July marked the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s post-prison election as leader of a very different ANC, as apartheid was crumbling and a new democracy was being born © Walter Dhladhla/AFP via Getty Images

Had a safety net been in place, even with political instigation of the riots, “would they have been able to get so many people in the townships to support them, just because they wanted to get food?” asks Abrahams. “It would not have happened at the scale it has now.”

‘Crying for bread’

Organisers in communities across South Africa worry that poverty is about to get much worse in the aftermath of the unrest. “Those who did not loot, do not have food now,” Mohapi says. “People are crying for bread.”

Acts of solidarity have helped residents in Briardene. A Muslim charity has delivered bread and milk. Tents provided by Doctors Without Borders and Abahlali house dozens who were displaced by the shack fire. But private initiatives alone cannot replace the state.

“I’m afraid that the solidarity that had been built, particularly at the bottom of our society, will be placed under huge pressure in the context of what has happened,” says Imraan Buccus, an analyst with the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute. “We need to be on the lookout. We are at a fragile point in our democratic post-apartheid phase. Our state has not done what it needed to do.”

People queue for basic food items  in Durban. A local NGO leader, Mervyn Abrahams,  says ‘one of the big aims [of the looters] was to bring access to food to its knees’
People queue for basic food items in Durban. A local NGO leader, Mervyn Abrahams, says ‘one of the big aims [of the looters] was to bring access to food to its knees’ © Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images

July also marked the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s post-prison election as leader of a very different ANC, as apartheid was crumbling and a new democracy was being born. Joining Mandela as party secretary-general and deputy to that role were two politicians of the next generation: Ramaphosa and Zuma. One all but destroyed Mandela’s governing legacy; the other is running out of time to restore it.

Ramaphosa’s first term as party leader is now all but over. The next leadership vote is due at the end of 2022. Most agree that he will probably just about secure a second term. If so, KwaZulu-Natal, the region with the most ANC members, is not a province easily defied. Zuma is in prison at least for the next few months and his acolytes who inflamed tensions may soon join him. But his politics of impunity and patronage live on.

“There is a reluctance on the part of the ANC. They are scared. They don’t want to rock the boat in this province,” de Haas says. “There are a hell of a lot of people who have a lot to lose if the ANC cleans up its act.”

Ordinary South Africans lost even more in the unrest. From below, their anger is growing. “The ANC is rotten and it should be removed. It does not represent the ideals of Mandela,” Mohapi says. Otherwise, he fears, “we are heading for disaster. We will have riots after riots.”

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Taiwan blames politics for cancellation of global Pride event – CNN



(Reuters)Taiwan on Friday blamed “political considerations” for the cancellation of WorldPride 2025 Taiwan after it said the organizers had insisted the word “Taiwan” be removed.

Taiwan participates in global organizations like the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei,” to avoid political problems with China, which views the self-governing democratic island as its own territory and bristles at anything that suggests it is a separate country.
Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung had been due to host WorldPride 2025 Taiwan, after winning the right from global LGBTQ rights group InterPride.
Last year after an outcry in Taiwan, it dropped a reference to the island as a “region.”
But the Kaohsiung organizers said InterPride had recently “suddenly” asked them to change the name of the event to “Kaohsiung,” removing the word “Taiwan.”
“After careful evaluation, it is believed that if the event continues, it may harm the interests of Taiwan and the Taiwan gay community. Therefore, it is decided to terminate the project before signing the contract,” said the Kaohsiung organizers.
InterPride said in a statement they were “surprised to learn” the news and while they were disappointed, respected the decision.
“We were confident a compromise could have been reached with respect to the long-standing WorldPride tradition of using the host city name. We suggested using the name ‘WorldPride Kaohsiung, Taiwan’,” it added.
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry said the event would have been the first WorldPride event to be held in East Asia.
“Taiwan deeply regrets that InterPride, due to political considerations, has unilaterally rejected the mutually agreed upon consensus and broken a relationship of cooperation and trust, leading to this outcome,” it said.
“Not only does the decision disrespect Taiwan’s rights and diligent efforts, it also harms Asia’s vast LGBTIQ+ community and runs counter to the progressive principles espoused by InterPride.”
Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019, in a first for Asia, and is proud of its reputation as a bastion of LGBTQ rights and liberalism.
While same-sex relations are not illegal in China, same-sex marriage is, and the government has been cracking down depictions of LGBTQ people in the media and of the community’s use of social media.

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Why Wisconsin Is the Most Fascinating State in American Politics – The New York Times



What happens there in November will offer a preview of the political brawls to come.

Wisconsin has long been a crucible of American politics. It remains so now.

It’s where two once-powerful senators, Joseph McCarthy and Robert La Follette, defined two of the major themes we still see playing out today — what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style,” in McCarthy’s case, and progressivism in La Follette’s.

It’s a place that has also proved time and again that elections have consequences. McCarthy won his Senate seat in the 1946 midterms amid a backlash against President Harry Truman, who was struggling to control the soaring price of meat as the country adjusted to a peacetime economy. He ousted Robert La Follette Jr., who had essentially inherited his father’s Senate seat.

Four years later, McCarthy used his new platform to begin his infamous anti-communist crusade — persecuting supposed communists inside the federal government, Hollywood and the liberal intelligentsia across the country. His rise came to an end after a lawyer for one of his targets, Joseph Welch, rounded on him with one of the most famous lines ever delivered during a congressional hearing: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”

The state’s modern political geography, which is rooted in this history, as well as deep-seated patterns of ethnic migration and economic development, is as fascinating as it is complex.

Jamie Kelter Davis for The New York Times

La Follette’s old base in Madison, the capital and a teeming college town, dominates the middle south of the state like a kind of Midwestern Berkeley. But unlike in periwinkle-blue coastal California, Madison and Milwaukee — the state’s largest city, which is about 90 minutes to the east along the shores of Lake Michigan — are surrounded by a vast ocean of scarlet.

Much of the state remains rural and conservative — McCarthy and Trump country.

And as in much of the United States, even smaller Wisconsin cities like Green Bay (the home of the Packers), Eau Claire (a fiercely contested political battleground), Janesville (the home of Paul Ryan, the former House speaker), Kenosha (the hometown of Reince Priebus, the sometime ally and former aide to Donald Trump) and Oshkosh (the home and political base of Senator Ron Johnson) have gone blue in recent decades.

The so-called W.O.W. counties around Milwaukee — Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington — are the historical strongholds of suburban G.O.P. power, and political pundits and forecasters watch election trends there closely to tease out any potential national implications. Other portions of the northwestern area of the state are essentially suburbs of Minneapolis, and tend to toggle between the parties from election to election.

The Republican Party’s origins can be traced to Ripon, Wis., where disaffected members of the Whig Party met in 1854 as they planned a new party with an anti-slavery platform. The party’s early leaders were also disgusted by what they called the “tyranny” of Andrew Jackson, a populist Democrat who built a political machine that ran roughshod over the traditional ways politics was done in America.

On Tuesday, the state held its primaries, and the results were classic Wisconsin: Republicans chose Tim Michels, a Trump-aligned “Stop-the-Steal” guy, as their nominee to face Gov. Tony Evers, the Democratic incumbent, over Rebecca Kleefisch, the establishment favorite. Robin Vos, the Assembly speaker who has tilted to the right on election issues but who refused to help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, barely held on to his seat.

To understand what’s happening, I badgered Reid Epstein, my colleague on the politics team. Reid has forgotten more Wisconsin political lore than most of us have ever absorbed, and here, he gives us some perspective on why the state has become such a bitterly contested ground zero for American democracy.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:

You started your journalism career in Milwaukee, if I’m not mistaken. Give us a sense of what’s changed about Wisconsin politics in the years you’ve been covering the state.

In Waukesha, actually. Back in 2002, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel still had bureaus covering the Milwaukee suburbs, and that’s where I had my first job, covering a handful of municipalities and school districts in Waukesha County.

A lot of the same characters I wrote about as a cub reporter are still around. The then-village president of Menomonee Falls is now leading the effort to decertify Wisconsin’s 2020 election results, which of course can’t be done. The seeds of the polarization and zero-sum politics you see now in Wisconsin were just beginning to sprout 20 years ago.

Republican voters chose to keep Robin Vos, yet nominated Tim Michels. Help us understand the mixed signals we’re getting here.

Well, it helped that Michels had more than $10 million of his own cash to invest in his race, and Adam Steen, the Trump-backed challenger to Vos, didn’t have enough money for even one paid staff member.

Vos, whose first legislative race I was there for in 2004, nearly lost to a guy with no money and no name recognition in a district where the Vos family has lived for generations. He won, but it was very close.


Behind the Journalism


How Times reporters cover politics.
We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

What is it about Wisconsin that has made politics there so zero-sum? I’m thinking of developments like the Democrats’ attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker in 2012, his crackdown on union power, and the Legislature’s efforts to curtail the power of Tony Evers, the current governor. What’s the deal? How did the state get so starkly divided?

The Wisconsin political and media ecosystem has long been dominated by conservative talk radio hosts. More than any other state in the country, Wisconsin’s right-wing talkers control the political agenda, and like Fox News nationally, they generate ratings by stoking outrage — usually against Democrats, but sometimes against fellow Republicans.

Scott Walker was raised in this environment. He was a backbench state assemblyman who became widely known from calling into the Charlie Sykes show on WTMJ in Milwaukee. Those shows always had a villain — usually, whichever Democrat or newspaper reporter was in the host’s cross hairs for the day.

When Sykes would spend a segment attacking one of my articles in the morning paper, my voice mail box at the office would be full of angry callers by the time I got to my desk. Imagine what that does to elected Republicans when are on the receiving end.

Skyes has since reinvented himself as a never-Trump podcast host and columnist — and he now trains his considerable rhetorical talents against the Republican Party he once enthusiastically supported. He’s traded his local influence for a national platform.

You cover a lot of the machinations over the control of American democracy. Is there anything unique about how these battles are playing out in Badger country?

Republicans have such control of the levers of power in Wisconsin that voters are almost immaterial. It is the most gerrymandered state legislature in the country — a 50-50 state where Republicans hold 61 out of 99 seats in the Assembly and 21 out of 33 seats in the Senate.

There is at the moment no functional way for Democrats to carry out any sort of policy agenda in Madison; their only hope is to have a governor who will veto things. And the Wisconsin Supreme Court has a 4-to-3 conservative majority that has, with some exceptions after the 2020 election, toed the party line for Republicans.

Some states, like Michigan and North Carolina, have managed to work through many of these same issues and create a more level playing field that reflects the real balance of power between the parties. Why hasn’t Wisconsin done so?

Wisconsin doesn’t afford its citizens the opportunity to petition things into law or the state constitution like Michigan and dozens of other states do. So the only hope is through the Legislature, where Republicans have shown no compunction about maintaining their hold on power through whatever means necessary.

Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

On Politics regularly features work by Times photographers. Here’s what Haiyun Jiang told us about capturing the image above:

When the Senate began its “vote-a-rama” for the Inflation Reduction Act, a marathon series of votes on amendments, I was on Capitol Hill trying to capture the mood and action as senators prepared for an inevitably long weekend.

Around 9 p.m., Senator Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, walked into the press gallery for a briefing with reporters. “I heard that you all wanted a little post-dinner entertainment,” he said as he sat down.

A tall man, Wyden was visibly uncomfortable in a sofa chair that was low to the ground. As the briefing went on, he periodically stretched his legs. I decided to wait for the moment when he stretched again.

His posture conveyed the exhaustion and weariness that I hoped to capture, with a long night of debates and votes looming over everyone on Capitol Hill.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you next week.

— Blake

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at

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Baghdad gripped by protests as political rivals vie for power – The Washington Post



BAGHDAD — Rival protesters took to Iraq’s streets Friday as their leaders vied for political dominance, just 10 months after a U.S.-backed election that was meant to heal the country’s fractures left many more exposed.

The aftermath of those polls has forced years-long tensions to the surface. In a country where elites rule by consensus, rival Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni politicians have been unable to agree on key government appointments. The election’s biggest winner, powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has withdrawn his parliamentarians from the process, sending his supporters instead to occupy the leafy grounds of the legislature.

He is now calling for early elections, which would be the second in less than a year.

As dusk approached Friday, Sadr’s supporters gathered in provinces across the country and outside the parliament to echo his demands. But they were not alone. Several miles away, near Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, thousands of foot soldiers for the cleric’s rivals — former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leaders of armed groups linked to Iran — gathered too, protesting what they described as a “political coup” by Sadr.

By nightfall, a crowd of hundreds was building tents in the capital, and people said they were setting up for the long haul.

“We’ll stay as long as it takes,” said Ali Hassan, a 30-year-old government employee from Baghdad. “The people know our demands, and they know that they are legitimate.”

Iraq’s wildcard cleric upends politics as summer heat descends

While the politics were complicated, the core problem was simple, analysts said. Twenty years after the U.S.-led invasion, winners from the kleptocratic political system it ultimately installed are now fighting over who reaps its spoils.

Locked out of that system are millions of ordinary Iraqis who have seen little benefit from the nation’s immense oil wealth. Hospitals are crumbling, and the education system is among the worst in the region. For three days last week, as a heat wave pushed temperatures past 125 degrees, three southern provinces failed to even keep the lights on, as the extreme heat pushed an already shaky power grid to the breaking point.

Iraq broils in dangerous 120 degree heat as power grid shuts down

Iraq’s last elections took place several months early, as a response to mass protests that demanded the overthrow of the political system. The young and mostly Shiite demonstrators were met with brutal repression, and Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was forced to step down after almost 600 people were killed.

In October, fresh polls left Sadr with the largest bloc in parliament, and Maliki with the second, as historically low voter turnout left powerful parties with large bases as the biggest winners. Many Iraqis viewed the polls as an exercise in reshuffling the political deck chairs, and said that none of the major factions represented them.

But the atmosphere was festive outside Baghdad’s parliament on Friday as men in black T-shirts streamed through the streets carrying photographs of Sadr and his father, a revered cleric killed by dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, to demand more elections, and the sidelining of all the “old faces” — apart from Sadr.

A tinny loudspeaker blasted music through the air as bands of protesters sang and swayed, others enjoyed free kebabs or large chunks of melon. “We’re here to dissolve the parliament and to stand with Sayeed Moqtada’s demands,” said Hassan al-Iraqi, a religious studies student in his 30s who said that he had made the five-hour journey from the northern city of Mosul.

Sadr derives his strength in part from millions of impoverished supporters who view him as a sacred figure of storied lineage, and as someone who has resisted occupation and injustice. For weeks, he has used his Twitter account to praise his supporters’ efforts on the streets, likening their efforts to a “revolution.”

The messages have been received with a mix of excitement and reverence, as bands of teenagers pass around cellphones to read his posts.

By nightfall Friday, politicians from the opposing bloc were tweeting statements in praise of their own supporters too.

Maliki called the rallies “massive” and peaceful.

“Today you have brought joy to the hearts of Iraqis,” wrote Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite cleric aligned with Maliki. “The martyr Muhandis is all happy when he sees his sons defending Iraq and the interest of the people and the state with courage and awareness,” he wrote, in reference to a powerful militia leader killed alongside Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a January 2020 drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump.

Experts point to that drone strike as a seminal moment in Iraq’s latest unraveling — both of the slain men were pivotal figures in maintaining unity among the country’s now divided Shiite factions.

In Baghdad’s city center, another group also gathered Friday as the heat ebbed and traffic snarled the streets. They were secular activists, and they had planned their own protest in a place etched in the annals of the American invasion: Firdoos Square, where U.S. troops once pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein.

“This whole system was built on a mistake,” said Najad al-Iraqi, an activist, who said he had not voted in a single election since Saddam’s fall. “None of these parties have ever worked for us,” he said. “They’re all corrupt, every one of them.”

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