Anti-government protests

Is this Iraq's Arab Spring?

Iraq is currently facing such an alarming array of economic, political and social problems that many observers fear no-one will be up to the task of delivering the much-needed reforms. By Stasa Salacanin

Since the beginning of October thousands of protesters, mostly young Iraqis, from central and southern Iraqi major cities have been voicing their opposition to the deteriorating economic conditions, sectarian politics and rampant corruption that plague the country. Indeed, the country has been one of the most corrupt in the world for decades – according to Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Index, Iraq ranks 168 out of 175 countries.

Protestors are also expressing their anger over high unemployment and the common governmental practice of political staffing, where sectarian or ethnic quotas rather than qualifications apply. The majority accuse the ruling elite of abusing public funds and mismanaging the country’s national resources while completely failing to meet the needs of the Iraqi population.

But perhaps one of the main – and most surprising – characteristics of the October protests is the fact that the protestors are mostly younger Shia citizens who have turned against a Shia-led political establishment. While there are very few Sunni Arabs or Iraqi Kurds among the protestors, with demonstrations taking place in central and southern Iraq, where the population is predominantly Shia, there has been an increase in the use of national symbols.

Transcending sectarian and ethnic divisions

The sentiment is Iraqi; these young people are not demonstrating as Shia Arabs, but as citizens who are furious with the system which was imposed upon them following the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

How the unrest in Iraq will impact on the region remains to be seen, but it is clearly posing a major threat to Tehran. Iran's state news agency IRNA has accused the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel of fomenting unrest in Iraq in order to sabotage Iran’s ties with Iraq and Syria.

Anti-government protests in Baghdad on 03.11.2019 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Protesting Iranian and U.S. influence in Iraq: the anger of the demonstrators is increasingly directed against neighbouring Iran, which has great influence in Iraq. They are also calling for a replacement of the top politicians who have dominated the political scene since 2003 but who, from the point of view of many Iraqis, are merely puppets of either the USA or Iran. Since the start of the protests against the Iraqi government on 1 October, some 270 people have been killed nationwide

However, many Iraqis including the Shia are less than enamoured of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), powerful non-state actors over which Bagdad has limited control, as many of them are heavily under the influence of Tehran. Among Iraqis, there is the overriding perception that their country is becoming a fiefdom for foreign political and paramilitary factions that many view as a blatant violation of Iraqi national sovereignty.

Arab Spring in Iraq

While the protests in southern Iraq in summer 2018 addressed similar issues, this time they are becoming increasingly militant and are not only calling for the resignation of the current government but aim to overthrow and change the entire political system.

As the demonstrations appear to be leaderless and without a specific agenda, except for expressing general dissatisfaction and impatience with conditions in the country, it remains unclear, however, whether the protests will produce any of the desired changes.  

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center in Washington DC, writes that the protests "offer another example of an approaching, painful, and final collapse of the traditional Arab political order that has shown its impotence in addressing the myriad problems besetting Arab societies today." Furthermore, a commentary published by Middle East expert and head of research at Gulf State Analytics Giorgio Cafiero on LobeLog, posits that the recent unrest in Iraq should be interpreted in the wider context of turmoil that has been spreading all over the Arab region, as the citizens of Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Sudan express their deep dissatisfaction with their corrupt governments. According to him, "it is fair to conclude that the Arab Spring has reached Iraq."

Can the government regain control of the situation?

The government’s brutal response to the unrest and the high number of civilian casualties has put Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Mahdi under great pressure. Despite promising reforms and ordering a broad cabinet reshuffle, he has so far struggled to address the protesters’ complaints and instead continues to make blunder after blunder. At the beginning of October, for instance, Staff Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, widely perceived as a national hero due to his role in fighting Islamic State, was demoted.

Then there is the ongoing use of live ammunition and tear gas to disperse the protesters, which could prove the final nail in the prime minister’s coffin. In such circumstances, it is highly unlikely that mere promises will be able to calm tensions in the country.

What is more, the fragile coalition over which Abdel Mahdi presides has begun to crack, making his position even more uncertain. While it is hard to imagine that the current Iraqi government will be able to introduce any major reforms, since the prime minister is actually a hostage to the powerful political and paramilitary factions, Mahdi is right about one thing – in his speech after the first wave of protests he declared that there are "no magical" solutions to the problems.

The problems faced by the Iraqis are so numerous and complex that many observers fear that no-one will be up to the task of delivering the much-needed reforms. Solving the social and economic crisis that is at the heart of the protests would require painful cuts to the public sector, which already employs over 3 million Iraqis, as well as removing subsidies for gas, food and electricity. Unpopular at the best of times, such measures would merely be likely to provoke more unrest in the current climate. 

Last but not least, even though the protests are not sectarian in motivation, sectarianism remains firmly rooted in Iraqi society. Powerful political factions such as the pro-Iranian Fatah party of Hadi al-Ameri, the Axis party of Khamis Khanjar favoured by Iraqi Sunnis and the Barzani clan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party all aim to limit the power of Bagdad’s central government and are thus largely contributing to the impotence of the Iraqi state. We must hope that Iraq is not heading towards disaster along Syrian lines. 

Stasa Salacanin

© Qantara.de 2019

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