In Iraq’s protests, a popular cry to reform a broken political system

Why We Wrote This

On the surface, Iraq’s antigovernment protests are about unemployment and corruption. But they expose a much deeper challenge: the dearth of democratic institutions to translate that anger into meaningful reform.

Hadi Mizban/AP
An anti-government protester flashes the victory sign in Baghdad, Oct. 3, 2019. Iraqi security forces fired live bullets into the air and used tear gas against a few hundred protesters hours after a curfew was announced.

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A week of deadly protests over corruption and unemployment has posed the biggest challenge to Iraq’s political elite since the Islamic State threat in 2017. And the violence is raising a fundamental question: Does Iraq have the leadership and democratic institutions to address citizens’ anger in a substantive way?

Young Iraqis in particular are disillusioned with a weak government and officials who still rule, 16 years after Saddam Hussein’s toppling, through ethnosectarian parties and militias even as they use state funds to satisfy patronage networks.

Iraq expert Renad Mansour notes that elections last year saw the lowest turnout since 2003. And while two-thirds of parliamentary seats changed hands, initial hopes of significant change have gone.

“This [protest] is the only way – they think – that they can have a voice,” he says.

In a recent analysis, Maria Fantappie of the International Crisis Group wrote that appointing technocrats to ministerial posts “marked an attempt to trigger a transition from a dysfunctional political system. Yet technocrats remain dependent on the old political figures. ...

“Iraq is at a crossroads. A sense of hope and a readiness for reform runs parallel to a stubborn belief that a broken system will continue to sputter along.”

The overwhelming display of anger in Iraq over the past week – and the unprecedented violence with which it was met – has shocked many Iraqis, even though its sources are familiar: unemployment, poverty, corruption.

And as Iraqi security forces end their high alert today and the nation begins to take stock, questions are being raised about whether the country has the leadership, willpower, and democratic institutions to translate this powerful expression of citizen anger into meaningful action.

The short answer is “not yet,” analysts say, even though Baghdad itself has experienced relative calm and a renewed sense of security and normalcy since the Islamic State (ISIS) militants were declared defeated in 2017.

But deep underlying problems have sparked the biggest challenge to Iraq’s political elite since then, with street violence leaving some 165 Iraqis dead, by one count, and more than 6,000 wounded.

Widespread anger at a persistent lack of hope in Iraq – fueled by weak government and years of failed, top-down reform – boiled over in Baghdad and Shiite heartland cities of southern Iraq.

The popular outrage was met with lethal live fire and tear gas, as Iraqis on the street, many of them young men who said they had “nothing to lose,” called for fundamental political change.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Anti-government protesters set fires and block roads while security forces fire tear gas during a protest in Baghdad, Oct. 2, 2019.

“People are shocked at what they are seeing and what they are hearing,” says an Iraqi analyst in Baghdad who asked not to be named for security reasons. 

Internet blackout

Until an internet blackout, imposed to prevent further organizing and the spread of news and images of the protests, began to be lifted in recent days, “it was very difficult to tell what was going on unless you went there,” he says. “And if you went there, there was obviously a chance you wouldn’t come back. ... But now the images are starting to come out, videos are starting to come out, the numbers, quotes from hospital officials, and people are shocked.”

Roiling the protesters is not only disillusion with the ballot box, but anger at a political elite that still rules through powerful, ethnosectarian parties and militias – some of them backed by Iran – even as they use state funds to satisfy patronage networks.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said there were “no magic solutions” when he offered protesters a 17-point proposal, including handouts for the poor, in his first public statement since the unrest began on Oct. 1. But it is the weakness of Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s year-old government of technocrats, and its inability to grapple with Iraq’s entrenched issues, that has failed to narrow the gap between the people and the state.

More than 16 years after an American invasion toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq is blessed with revenues from an underground ocean of oil. But it has also been bludgeoned by the U.S. occupation, an Al Qaeda-led insurgency, and finally an invasion by ISIS in 2014, all of which crippled institution-building that might have boosted faith in government and even job prospects.

“Nothing has changed,” says the Baghdad analyst. “It’s still the same kleptocracy that we’re in. The frontline services that people experience every day are still as bad as they were several years ago, in some places they’ve got worse.”

He blames inefficiency, corruption, a lack of will, and fiercely competing interests, such that coalition governments are “made up of rivals and enemies ... just empires and fiefdoms, and they’re constantly at each other’s necks, because they are trying to maximize their benefits,” he says. “So, nobody is thinking, ‘Well, how do we do something for the benefit of citizens and of the country?’”

Protesters, most of them drawn from Iraq’s majority Shiite population, have called for the collapse of the regime, which is Shiite dominated. Yet instrumental in protecting the system have been Shiite militias, a collection of mostly Shiite paramilitary units, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), that grew to some 150,000 strong and consolidated their role during the anti-ISIS fight. They have now been largely absorbed into Iraq’s security and political structure.

Straining to be heard

Iraqi security forces apologized for the excessive use of force, and said commanders never ordered lethal tactics, and don’t know the identity of snipers who have played a key role in raising the death toll. 

“I spoke to a doctor, and, on the snipers, these are precision shots, aimed precisely at hearts and heads,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, referring to the cramped and deprived Shiite enclave where one-third of Baghdad’s estimated 8 million residents live.

The prime minister and his aides have no control over security forces, and “no idea which armed groups are behind this, who is doing the killing,” says Mr. Mansour, who was in Baghdad until the eve of the protests.

He notes that elections last year saw the lowest turnout of any vote in Iraq since 2003. And despite the fact that two-thirds of the seats in parliament changed hands, and that a party of the populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr made impressive gains, initial hopes of significant change have gone.

Iraqis “have given up faith in elections, in parliament, in technocrats, and this [protest] is the only way – they think – that they can have a voice,” says Mr. Mansour.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Iraq's prime minister ordered the Federal police on Oct. 7, 2019, to replace the army in Sadr City, a heavily populated Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad where dozens of people were killed or wounded in weekend clashes stemming from anti-government protests.

“And you can see how important this is, by the way that elites are reacting,” he adds. “They learned from Basra [protests] last year that those who want to protect the system, if they kill enough, if they intimidate enough, if they shut off the internet, they could stop the protests. So this equation is now being used, not just in Basra, but in Baghdad and elsewhere.” 

The PMF chief Falih al-Fayyadh blamed the unrest on infiltrators working for foreign enemies. “Our response to those who want ill for the country will be clear and precise by the state and its instruments. ... There will be no chance for a coup or rebellion,” he said on Monday.

Actually engaging with citizens

Even as the street protests wind down, the fact that discontent grew to such an extent means it is already “too late” for a quick fix, and that a new cycle of protest is inevitable without strategic efforts at reform, says Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Stop-gap measures will not do much,” Ms. Fantappie told Al Jazeera English. “There is a need for the government to actually engage with a section of what I call the ‘society of demonstrators.’ It is very important to [remember] that not all demonstrators are violent, [many] are well educated, who are usually engaged in civic activism, volunteering.”

She laid out the challenge for Iraq in an analysis published last March, after five months of research in Iraq. Appointing technocrats to ministerial posts, Ms. Fantappie wrote, “marked an attempt to trigger a transition from a dysfunctional political system. Yet technocrats remain dependent on the old political figures who have little interest in reforming a system that serves them.

“In that sense, Iraq is at a crossroads,” she wrote. “A sense of hope and a readiness for reform run parallel to a stubborn belief that a broken system will continue to sputter along.”

So many graduates, so few jobs

But how broken is that system in Iraq? A few numbers tell the story of discontent and explain why it is young Iraqi men manning the burning barricades. Each year, an estimated 700,000 Iraqis become employable in a country that, at most, is producing just 50,000 jobs.  

“The majority of those [jobs] are just welfare, repackaged into the form of employment,” says the Baghdad analyst. “You have a factory that needs 200 people to run it, and you have 3,000 people on the payroll. You have security forces numbering 1.25 million, yet you still have a problem when you fight ISIS, because the vast majority of them are not showing up or are assigned desk jobs.”

“There is no denying that a significant proportion of the population is benefiting from the people in power,” says the analyst, referring to patronage networks. But institution-building has been hobbled, he says, first by Iraqi leaders coming from abroad, post-2003, installed by the U.S. and enriching themselves, then by Iraqis themselves: “Due to ignorance, [and] there are lots of tribal and religious hatreds. 

“We have had Al Qaeda and ISIS, all of these elements, and it means we haven’t had any breathing space to say, ‘How can we improve our governance, and deal with our issues?’ without constantly looking at the geopolitics of it all,’” says the analyst.

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