Throughout October, thousands of people have taken to the streets in Iraq’s Shiite areas, protesting endemic corruption. Over 200 civilians have been killed in the ensuing crackdown.
– Protests are likely to continue for the immediate term
– A reform package announced by the Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government will not address Iraq’s underlying economic and political malaise
– Political players like Muqtada al-Sadr will try to use the protest movement for their own gain
Iraq’s October protests have thus far been concentrated in two distinct waves. The first wave took place mostly in Baghdad, as well as Najaf, Babil and Muthana, as thousands of mostly unemployed young men took to the streets. Authorities responded by shutting down the internet and deploying force. The perpetrators appear to have been a mix of forces directly controlled by the state and more autonomous groups like the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias. Protests lasted for roughly a week, before a pause in the lead up to the Shi’ite festival of Arbaeen.
Protesters took to the streets again on October 25, this time spreading to Basra, Hillah, Al Qût and the holy city of Karbala. Attempts by protesters to storm Baghdad’s government district — known as the Green Zone — resulted in up to 50 deaths. In a sign of growing government concern, Baghdad has deployed the elite Counter-Terrorism Service to contain the unrest.
WHY THESE PROTESTS ARE DIFFERENT
Iraq is no stranger to protests. Demonstrations in 2012–13 by Iraq’s Sunni minority, were hijacked, ultimately leading to the emergence of the Islamic State. In 2016, al-Sadr mobilised thousands of his supporters to breach the Green Zone as a protest against endemic corruption. Residents of Basra took to the streets throughout the summer of 2018, as electricity and water supplies reached dangerously low levels.
These protests are different in several respects. Instead of being driven by a political party, protesters are acting autonomously and without clear leadership. ‘We’re here to bring down the whole government’ and ‘All of them are thieves’ are commonly heard refrains on the streets of Baghdad. October’s protests are thus clearly more all-encompassing than past cycles of unrest.
The protests also have a distinctly Iraqi nationalist flavour. Draped in Iraqi flags, protesters have decried what they perceive to be excessive Iranian influence. Protesters have ridiculed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps extraterritorial Quds Force, which maintains strong ties with the increasingly powerful PMF.
ROOTS OF THE CRISIS
The country’s current malaise is a reflection of the changes it has experienced since the US-led occupation in 2003. Although Saddam Hussein’s Iraq faced many economic challenges and corruption, several misguided steps taken by the post-invasion US administrators have caused problems of their own.
First, the universally reviled political quota system — the muhasasa ta’ifa — was introduced to allocate ministries to Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish parties. Not only does this system generally increase the salience of sect and ethnicity — with disastrous consequences — but it also facilities foreign intervention and above-all, corruption.
Positions are allocated based on sect or ethnicity rather than merit. With parties representing particular communities being guaranteed a certain number of ministries, there is a clear incentive for intra-community elite bargaining and cartelism, to the detriment of electoral accountability. Government jobs are doled out through patronage networks, causing the state payroll to have swollen from 850,000 post-2003 to between seven and nine million by 2016.
As part of the wikala system, a subsidiary of the muhasasa ta’ifa, party leaders are able to appoint top bureaucrats in the civil service. These appointees ensure that lucrative contracts are awarded to companies controlled by their party backers. This system lacks any meaningful accountability and is vital to enabling corruption. The Iraqi Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that over 5,000 projects billed to the budget — with a value of $US22 billion — were never actually implemented. It is little wonder that in 2019, Iraq ranks as the world’s 13th most corrupt country.
Misguided US-led economic reforms also help explain Iraq’s current predicament. In 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority, acting under US diplomat Paul Bremer, implemented the so-called 100 orders. Key among these orders was the elimination of most tariffs, the full privatisation of public enterprises, a corporate tax rate of 15% and the lowering of barriers to foreign ownership. While these reforms may have induced benefits in some areas, Iraqi industry has been decimated. Iraq’s imports have soared from $US2.7 billion pre-invasion to $45 billion by 2016.
Finally, the US invasion paved the way for Iran to increase its influence in the country. By instituting a quasi-democracy in a Shi’ite-majority country, Washington inadvertently allowed well-organised, Iranian-patronised exile groups like the Badr organisation to dominate post-war Iraq. Fast-forward to 2019 and the PMF — comprised mostly of Iran-backed militias including the Badr organisation — dominates Iraq’s Fatah Alliance, the largest bloc in Iraq’s ruling coalition.
JOBS, CORRUPTION AND SOVEREIGNTY
It is amidst this backdrop that young Iraqis have railed against corruption, poor economic conditions and a loss of sovereignty. Despite Iraq’s abundant energy supplies budget surplus, corruption and the legacy of US economic reforms mean that average Iraqis continue to struggle. Three-fifths live on less than $US6 a day and state services like infrastructure, water, electricity, health care and education are be absent or inadequate. Iraq has also struggled to diversify its economy away from oil and was particularly affected by the drop in global oil prices in 2015.
This economic situation has hit young people particularly hard. Twenty percent of Iraq’s population is aged 15-24, but 25% of them are unemployed. Up to 300,000 university graduates cannot find work and those who can are often underemployed.
Adding insult to injury, Iran’s increasing influence and Washington’s residual clout means that key political appointments often have to be acceptable to both countries. This was the case with current Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. As well as a job and clean politics, the protests’ strain of Iraqi nationalism is no surprise.
IRAQ’S POLITICAL LANDSCAPE GOING FORWARD
Abdul-Mahdi’s proposed reform package, announced to placate protesters, is unlikely to succeed. Proposed reforms include distributing land, increasing welfare, expanding military equipment and training for the unemployed. The reforms, which have recently expanded to include a cap on politicians’ salaries, appear largely cosmetic and will not address the underlying causes of discontent.
In any case, the government may not be able to finance these measures, and, due to unfulfilled promises of past governments, trust is in short supply. Hence, protests are likely to continue for at least the short-term. However, as long as the protesters lack leadership and face forceful opposition, there is a possibility that protests may eventually peter out — especially if elections are called.
Abdul-Mahdi’s inability to quell the masses has provided an opening for al-Sadr, who long styled himself as political outsider before contesting the 2018 elections. With 54 seats, the Saairun alliance that al-Sadr dominates was previously the largest force in Iraq’s government, before the populist cleric announced on 26 October that his bloc would join the opposition until protesters demands were met. In another sign that al-Sadr is trying to co-opt the protest movement, the cleric was seen attending rallies in the holy city of Najaf.
Al-Sadr’s defection means the government lacks a ruling majority. On November 1, unconfirmed reports emerged, suggesting that Abdul-Mahdi was willing to resign, but was stopped from doing so by Iranian intervention. If confirmed, this development could inadvertently serve to heighten popular anger against Iranian interference and add an accelerant to the protests. The weakness of the incumbent government means that it remains unlikely that it will survive the year. A reshuffle followed by elections is still on the cards.
Al-Sadr’s track-record of supporting populist and Iraqi nationalist causes means that he is relatively well-placed to benefit from an election. However, his credentials will have been damaged by his membership of the Abdul-Mahdi government and a controversial September trip to Iran, where he was photographed sitting next to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani. An election could thus pave the way for new players able to capitalise on the emotion of the hour.
Whether or not elections are called, or a new government is formed by other means, the prospects for wholesale reform do not appear to be high. While the country’s political class may well find a way to take the wind out of the sails of the protest movement, Iraq’s post-invasion cycle of protests — punctuated by brief periods of calm — will likely continue indefinitely.
Henry is a Middle East and North Africa team editor and analyst. From Damascus to Tel Aviv he will keep you up to date with all the important developments in the region.