Between February and April of last year, tens of thousands of Kurds in the Kurdistan region of Iraq staged their own version of the Arab Spring, forming the largest and longest protests in the history of the Kurdistan region. In her lecture at LSE on 15 May, Dr Nicole F Watts examined why. The following is an excerpt from her lecture. A full transcript of Dr Watt’s lecture is available here. The transcript and excerpt of her lecture are not for quotation without permission, as this is a work in progress and very preliminary. To seek permission, please email email@example.com.
By Dr Nicole F Watts
Protests and demonstrations against regimes were hardly unusual in the first half of 2011, but the existence of this sort of movement in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is striking because the dominant political narrative is one that uses the banner of Kurdish persecution at the hands of central states to justify the need for self-rule and autonomy, if not independence. This narrative of Kurdish suffering has usually been one that doesn’t allow for the possibility of internal persecution by Kurds against Kurds. In addition, state-society relations under the KRG can be described as clientelistic and hierarchical. KRG governance is distributive, party-state governance with the two major parties controlling access to the resources of almost every sphere of political and economic life.
For me, there were two main questions that came out of these protests. The first one is how do we explain the size and the durability of the protests, which were the largest and longest ever in the history of the Kurdistan region. There were anywhere from thousands of people some days to up to 20,000-40,000 on other days. We also see demands shifting from the service-oriented, localised demands of past protests to national demands for systemic reforms. So I think we can see this Sulaimaniya Spring as a kind of turning point in state-society relations in the region and an indicator that the nationalist underpinnings of the KRG rule were no longer sufficient to contain the internal tensions or Kurd-on-Kurd grievances that had been surfacing in the region at least since 2006.
The second question I have . . . is how do we explain the differential geography of protest in which the city of Sulaimaniya rose up, but other provinces — notably Dohuk and Erbil, where the capital is located — did not. Protestors in Sulaimaniya knew that Erbil was key. They knew that without Erbil the protests could not translate into meaningful political transformation or give them sufficient leverage against the KRG to challenge it. But Erbil did not rise, and the protests were indeed silenced and dismissed by some commentators and others as typical Sulaimaniya ‘misbehaviour’.
My answers to these questions are based on fieldwork that I’ve been conducting in the Kurdistan region in Iraq on and off since 2009, as well as inspired by theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and others. What I like to suggest is that this case provides us with a kind of insight into the differential value of symbolic capital in protest. (This is a big academic phrase: another way of putting this is that we can view this case as one in which symbolic resources empower activists and provide them with alternative resources to challenge authorities more powerful than themselves). Symbolic capital can be understood as cultural categorisations and social perceptions that bestow meaning such as prestige, honour or recognition.
In Sulaimaniya last year, the symbolic capital afforded by the democracy-legitimacy discourse of the Arab Spring resonated profoundly and translated into an increased capacity to mobilize. Why? This is because in Sulaimaniya Governorate we see a particular configuration of state-society relations in transition. In contrast, the legitimacy-democracy discourse of the Arab Spring did not offer activists much traction in Erbil or Dohuk, where the state-society dynamic is profoundly different and the symbolic legitimation provided by the national struggle still resonates with a broad portion of the population. So we can see the Sulaimaniya Spring as part of a kind of a growing but geographically differentiated effort to redefine Kurdish notions of what constitutes the national Kurdish interest and shift the basis of government authority in the KRG from a kind of national charismatic model to a more institutionalised form of legal-rational authority, to draw from Weber’s classic terms.
Dr Nicole Watts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University where she teaches on comparative politics, Middle East politics and social movements. She is the author of Activists in Office: Kurdish Politics and Protest in Turkey (University of Washington Press, 2011) and a recent article in the Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East on the role of symbolic capital in protest.