Analysis 15 Oct 2019

Iraq’s protest movement should not be ignored

Mina Al-Oraibi

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil AbdulMahdi is facing a challenge not only to his leadership, but that to the entire ruling class of Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have protested against the government in the past couple of weeks and millions have expressed support for them.

Protests erupting in Iraq have become quite common in the past few years as young Iraqis take to the streets to voice their frustration at the country’s state of affairs. Simultaneously, voter turnout in each election cycle over the past decade have declined, standing at less than 30 per cent in last year’s election as more and more Iraqis lose faith in the political system.

The current protest movement is the largest in size and across a number of cities in the country. It is nonviolent, non-sectarian and led by young people. While previous demonstrations have been dramatic, including the demonstrations that led to the storming of the parliament in 2016, these are the longest in time frame and most spread out over a number of provinces. They are also different because they have been met with brute force. With over 100 Iraqis killed and six thousand others injured in the space of a week, the gap between the rulers of Iraq and their people is widening.

The government’s official line has been that ‘unknown snipers’ were responsible for the killing of innocent protestors. And yet, eye-witness accounts show armed men in uniform beating unarmed civilians. Even if some of the killings were carried out by rogue elements, the government is responsible for protecting its people; allowing ‘unknown snipers’ to kill over 100 people is at best severe negligence. Not a single official from the security sector has resigned as a consequence.

The chilling murders of civil society activists and protest leaders raise concerns about the next few weeks in Iraq. The government must be pressurised to protect civilians and to have a no-tolerance policy for violent militias or state security leaders taking matters in their own hands. Instead, the Prime Minister oversaw a basic reshuffle of his cabinet, with the removal of the ministers of education and health. Promises have been made to provide new job opportunities and social security for the most vulnerable in society – but no tangible actions yet.  All moves that highlight again a lack of understanding of the mood of the country.

The protests that picked up momentum in Baghdad and several other provinces at the end of expressed key demands: the provision of basic services, curbing corruption, and providing jobs. Despite having the world’s fifth largest proven oil reserves, Iraq remains one of the poorest countries in delivering basic services. Official unemployment rates are at 8 percent but the figure is closer to 20 percent if disguised unemployment is taken into account.

Another demand has centred around ending Iran’s interference in the country, a call that was echoed most loudly in the predominantly Shia provinces in southern Iraq, undermining false narratives about Iraqi Shia accepting Iranian interference and dominance in their country’s affairs. Shia Islamist parties backed by Iran are facing unprecedented criticism, having been predominantly leading governments in Iraq since 2005. State capture and patronage networks that they cultivated have ensured that corruption is endemic to the Iraqi state.

So far, Sunni-majority cities and provinces have not joined the protests. Activists from these provinces fear that their involvement may lead to accusations of pro-Baath or pro-Daesh elements being involved in the protests. This has been a line touted by some supporters of the government.  Importantly, a campaign to donate blood has started in Mosul to help the protestors and as a way to show solidarity with the protest movement.

As often happens in times of uncertainty and heightened political tensions, rumours are overtaking any clear narrative of what is happening in Iraq. What we know for certain is that these are predominantly young Iraqis with legitimate concerns out on the streets demanding an end to corruption, nepotism and sectarian policies.

The protests are largely made up of young Iraqis, many of whom have grown up under the current political system and who had not come of age during the rule of Saddam Hussain that ended in 2003. Some had not even been born during his time. Two positive developments since the demise of Hussain’s rule, the end of state-sanctioned terrorising of civilians and the free flow of information, ended this month. With videos emerging of armed men beating protestors, the Iraqi government decided to cut off the internet and block key sites like Twitter and facebook.  Despite all the problems of the last 16 years, the Iraqi political elite boasted that Baghdad did not have a dictator ruling as it did under Hussain. True enough, there is no single dictator or party ruling the country but practices like killing demonstrators, cutting off the internet, and allowing for rampant corruption do not belong in a democracy.

The protests in Iraq are a culmination of years of frustration from the political system – and anger at the current government’s weakness. With unemployment on the rise, and public debt doubling over the last four years, Mr AbdulMahdi’s government has proven itself incapable to delivering any economic relief. And its incompetence has been highlighted time and time again.  When thousands of tonnes of freshwater carp fish washed up dead from an unknown cause last November, thousands of fishermen lost their main source of income and millions lost out on one of their main sources of nutrition. The government had no explanation.  Over the summer, there were four instances of air strikes against Iraqi bases, with strong indications of Israel being behind them. Again, the Iraqi government had no explanation. And now Iraqis have been killed on the streets of the capital and the Iraqi government has no explanation as to who is responsible.

The overarching message is that the Iraqi government is unable to govern – and that this government was formed as a result of a political system that is broken. Iraq suffers from having a weak parliamentary system, encumbered by sectarian divisions and horse-trading over ministerial posts, locked by a corruption ranked by Transparency International as among the worst in the world. Superficial measures such as cabinet reshuffles and empty rhetorical promises will not suffice, and the protests are bound to continue until they are taken more seriously.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.