Since its liberation from a dictator in 2003 by U.S. forces, Iraq has seen popular upwellings against polluted water, political influence from Iran, lack of jobs, aggression by Islamic State, and electricity blackouts. One thing stood out. They were largely organized by political or religious leaders. Since Oct. 1, however, Iraq has seen massive daily demonstrations in a number of cities that are largely spontaneous and leaderless.
The main demand this time: clean governance, or an end to corruption among a political elite that siphons off the country’s vast oil wealth and bickers in partisan posturing.
In a sign of a maturing democracy, young Iraqis see corruption as a greater threat than anything else. With the aid of social media, they have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands, rallying around an Arabic hashtag that means “I’m protesting for my rights.” The government of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, which took power a year ago, has responded by killing dozens of protesters.
About 40% of Iraqis were born after 2003. They have enjoyed four peaceful changes in power by democratic means and now expect more of their leaders. Youth unemployment is around 25%, a result largely of a corrupt economic system. “The parties have robbed us of all our dreams,” says one woman who is protesting.
Finding a solution may not be easy. The Abdul-Mahdi government could collapse, leading to months of political chaos. The quickest path to a resolution might be a suggestion made Oct. 4 by Iraq’s most revered religious figure. Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani asked political leaders to take “practical and clear steps” toward combating corruption or the protesters will “simply come back even stronger.” The highly influential Ayatollah Sistani wants a committee of technocrats to make the government more transparent and accountable with its money.
Arab countries have few models of honest – and elected – leaders who serve the public interest. Young Iraqis are trying to provide one. They’ve tasted freedom and basic democratic rights. Now their bottom-up rebellion is looking for honest leaders who reflect their values of clean governance.