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Tensions on Iraqi soil likely to overshadow anti-government protest demands

Hassan Majed / Iraqi protests 2019
Hassan Majed / Iraqi protests 2019
Dr Dylan O’Driscoll

Amid the rapidly increasing tensions between the US and Iran, there is a real danger that the demands of the Iraqi protest movement could be side-lined. The current protests, which sprung up in October 2019, risk having their demands ignored as the Iraqi government shifts its focus to dealing with the current crisis. Protestors have been calling for better employment opportunities, services, and an end to the endemic corruption that has plagued the country since 2003. Such protests are not a new phenomenon in Iraq and in recent years they have occurred almost every summer. 2018’s summer protests, mainly in Basra, over failed services and the poisoning of 100,000 people due to polluted water, were particularly large. These movements demonstrate the extent of the people’s anger with corruption and the political class in the country. The government’s show of force against the protests however, coupled with some promises of investment and the end of summer, soon put an end to the last wave of protests.

A new type of protest?

The current protests are different though. Besides the fact that they began after the summer, they are also not led by any political actors and rather are a grassroots movement. Furthermore, the protests are mainly organised through social media by young people across many areas in Iraq. The protestors seem to be much more determined this time too and there is a general feeling that enough is enough. The question of how much their actions can drive change remains to be seen though. The caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is seen as weak and is not in a position to answer the protester’s calls. Moreover, it’s largely agreed that real change would also require collective action, including from the international community, to tackle corruption in Iraq, which has been ignored for far too long.

It’s not just the way in which the protests are organized that is different this time around though. The response by state authorities has been harsher and more brutal than in previous years. Around 500 protestors have been killed and over 25,000 have been injured. Protestors have been fired at with automatic weapons and have been targeted by snipers. It seems to be the case that either the security forces are actively and disproportionately targeting the protestors, or the government has lost complete control of the multiple factions that make up the security forces. Both are plausible, both are unacceptable.

Protests are having an impact

Despite the strong reactions, the protests have actually begun to force change in two main ways.

Firstly, there have been calls for the government to resign and call a snap election from important political actors in the Iraqi parliament. This includes Shiite cleric and leader of the Sadr Movement, Muqtada al-Sadr; former Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi; and one of the most significant Sunni political leaders, former Vice President Osama al-Nujafi. These actors argue that the government’s position has become untenable and is only becoming more so as the violence continues. This of course does not mean that elections will be called, but if they are called it also does not mean that there will be real political change. The question then remains, what might happen if an election is called?

Despite their numerous differences, the one thing that binds the Iraqi political elite together is the division of the country’s wealth amongst them. Since 2003 the Iraqi political system has been built on corruption. Iraq has vast hydrocarbon wealth, yet still faces so many issues relating to lack of basic services and unemployment. To address these issues, there needs to be a collective agreement by all politicians, one which has failed to materialise in Iraq. If an election were to take place, no one party will likely come close to winning and negotiations would follow in order to allow a government to be formed. In this situation there would be kingmakers, intense negotiations and once again, a corrupt division of the country’s spoils. Such negotiations will last months and Iraq would be left without an effective government. Moreover, without a clear vision of political change in an election, the voter apathy that creeped into the last election would most likely only increase.

Secondly, Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi was forced to resign as a result of the protests, and although he is still acting prime minister the protestors have begun the process of change. The protestors have already played a significant role in the rejection of prime minister candidates that were put forward by the largest political bloc in parliament (the Al-Bina bloc). Such candidates were seen as establishment candidates that would put party interests before those of the country. In fact, President Barham Salih even offered his resignation rather than endorse a nominee that was not supported by the protestors. What this demonstrates is that the protestors have influence and are preventing the business as usual approach of dividing up the country’s political and financial spoils. The change they are forcing is gradual, but noticeable.

More change needed

Changing the prime minister is not enough to force the change that is needed. A new prime minister would face similar difficulties within the current system. One possible way to answer the protestors’ calls would be by forming an anti-corruption coalition across the entire country in the next elections. A coalition that either needs to lead the government or form an effective opposition. The traditional parties, even those running on a mandate against corruption like the Sadrist Movement, have demonstrated that they are unable to answer the people’s calls to end corruption and continue to be part of the system that divides the spoils. Although a new election law that moves away from party lists was created in order to answer the protestors' calls, this has been widely criticized as still resulting in the status quo.

New country-wide political movements that are firmly based on fairly sharing Iraq’s wealth are needed. It takes time to form new political coalitions, but the current protests have shown that the demand is there. Young people in Iraq have even demonstrated that cross-ethnosectarian movements can be formed across the country quickly. More recently, there has even been an emergence of new political parties that are not part of the traditional system. Whilst these parties are looking for reform, they are yet to come together with a unified message. They are also yet to connect to the protests, to provide a political voice for the movement.

A loss of significance?

Protestors in Iraq have been resilient. They have maintained their focus against all odds and despite great loss of life. Their actions have affected change, albeit small, but they have the potential to push for more significant change to the system. It seems that events outside of their control may force them to lose momentum and importance in the government’s priority list though. Namely, the escalation of tensions between the US and Iran. The protestors have called for both the US and Iran to cease negative interference in Iraqi affairs, which in a few short days has already included the killing of a US contractor on an Iraqi military base; US strikes on Iranian-backed Kata'ib Hezbollah militia’s base in Iraq; the militia’s, and their supporters, attack the US embassy in Baghdad;  the killing of Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Suleimani, and the deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, through a drone strike; and most recently the Iranian missile attacks on two airbases in Iraq hosting US and Coalition forces.

These events are likely to lead to further escalation, with Iraq very much stuck in the middle. It will be difficult for the protestors to remain significant amongst all of this. Currently, instead of dealing with the demands of the protestors, the government’s attention has shifted to dealing with the repercussions of the US and Iran’s actions. It is important that the great sacrifices the protestors have made are not lost and that the position of influence that they have managed to achieve is maintained. Without this, the right political change in Iraq will not happen and the country’s best hope (a grassroots and reform-oriented protest movement) will be squandered. The recent tensions have received far more attention than the protest movement ever managed, and it is important that the government and the international community do not lose sight of the protest movement’s demands. They remain the only potential peaceful path for real political change in the country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Dr Dylan O’Driscoll is a Senior Researcher and Director of SIPRI’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme.