Last week mass protests broke out in Baghdad and a number of other provinces across Iraq. A rapid, violent response by security forces has officially left over 100 dead and more than 6100 injured since October 2, although privately some sources claim that both numbers are much higher. Hundreds have also reportedly been detained for participating in the demonstrations. An internet blackout, reported sniper fire, live rounds, and a 48-hour curfew are just some of the measures taken by the government in response to this latest outburst of rage from citizens. Government spending proposals to try to quell the protests and respond to demands have fallen on deaf ears.
Meanwhile, unidentified armed actors have violently targeted local media, and appear to be acting as a violent third actor in the protests, targeting protesters and security forces alike.
Following a horrific three-year war against the Islamic State across major provinces, the never-ending tale of modern Iraq’s failures in governance is now once again front and center. The optimism that surrounded the formation of a “technocratic government” in 2018 has quickly unraveled. Although the political and religious elite came together to form this current government following last year’s protests in Basra and a diminished voter turnout compared to previous elections, the past 18 months have seen most political actors relatively united, specifically the two main, Shia-dominated parliamentary blocs — al-Binaa, an Iran-backed alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri, and al-Islah, a bloc led by prominent Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — along with an array of other smaller political groups, albeit without any one party or actor able to take responsibility to solve any of the country’s urgent issues. The end result has been a near-complete stagnation in governance over the last two years, as bickering over government positions and blame-game politics entrenches itself even deeper than in previous governments. Seen as a lame-duck prime minister with no political authority, Adel Abdul Mahdi has struggled to fend off political attacks and has been unable to get parties to agree on nearly anything, whether it’s forming of a full cabinet, passing an annual budget, or developing post-war response and recovery plans. Abdul Mahdi was agreed upon as a consensus candidate by al-Binaa and al-Islah following last year’s elections.
But what about the protesters? What makes this different to Basra last year? Or the attempted storming of Parliament in 2016? What about the other periodic protests over the last decade? In terms of the demands, very little.
How we got here is a slow-burning story that spans the last 16 years, beginning with the US-led invasion into Iraq in 2003. The post-war political elite that emerged has now been in power for almost two decades. In broad terms, this Shia-led political order has shifted the political center of gravity away from Sunni-led groups post-Saddam Hussein, while attempting to engage representatives of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups. As a result, Iraqi politics has become a delicately divided pie that only represents the narrow interests of various powerful political groups, as opposed to a post-war political rebuilding project.
For Iraqi citizens, there has been no substantive improvement in the quality of life over that time. Promises of bringing back wealth, transparency, good governance and anything more than the piecemeal democracy we’ve observed have evaporated, leaving behind a tainted political elite that has overseen continuous cycles of violence and conflict. Possessing the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves and wealth that surpasses most of its middle-income neighbors in the region, Iraq is defined more by its centralized and inept governance structure and its inexcusably nonexistent reforms and social development. The corrupt nature of the political order since 2003 has poisoned any hopes that may have come out of the removal of Saddam Hussein.
In the years since the 2003 war, Iraq has not had an officially independent or internationally-sanctioned peace process. The social grievances of the Saddam Hussein era have been left to fester. Originally inherited by the generations that have come after, these grievances have been replaced and superseded by cycles of new grievances borne out of the failures of the post-2003 order to govern in a fair, equitable and just manner. These are failures that have led us to various rounds of conflict and a country that is seen by many as being in a perpetual state of war with itself. While the inability of the post-war order is to be reckoned with in understanding the current protests, it is important to circle back to the fact that this rather fragile order is itself an institution of the war, a byproduct of it with an ongoing tie its perpetrators. The US has been a security and military actor since it led the 2003 invasion and has secured a strong and immovable bilateral partnership with the political elite. Earlier this year, a prominent D.C. think-tanker told me their assessment of Washington’s current policy: “if we can get through five years of no conflict, that’s a win.”
But a more recent time period that can be used to frame the current protests is the three-year resistance against the Islamic State, which culminated in this most recent crisis of governance in post-war Iraq.
In 2014, as the Islamic State entered Mosul and continued to amass power, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims, called on citizens across the country to take up arms and join the fight to save the country. This led to the mass expansion and formalization of al-Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces), a military umbrella organization of dozens of mostly Shia groups. The call was heeded by tens of thousands, in their vast majority young men from predominantly Shia areas. Now, in the wake of the victory against the Islamic State, these men and their families insist on being paid their due. Protesters are not demanding welfare because the state promised it. They are not demanding services and jobs, transparency and justice because they believe their government should provide it. Many families lost loved ones — brothers, husbands, sons and cousins — in the battle against the Islamic State. Many fighters have returned to an abyss of dire (even nonexistent) economic opportunities and livelihoods. They fought for the country and they won. Simply put: the government owes them.
Yet, this is not the only story. Angry and spontaneous protests that break out in such a way are often not triggered by much. Sometimes the trigger seems almost inconsequential, particularly for those who have followed these socially turbulent years closely. Despite claims to the contrary, all reports from the ground seem to indicate that the protests are leaderless. And above all, they reflect a similar streak of anger that has been seen across the region in recent years. The type of anger that will stop at nothing short of breaking up the political order in its entirety, bringing down the system.
The trigger was Baghdad. When Baghdad rose up, the other provinces followed suit. But in Baghdad itself, the protests should not have come as a surprise. As Baghdad-based journalist Nabil Saleh told me: “The focus in recent months has been on the blast walls coming down (around the Green Zone), and the opening up of the city. But little attention has been paid to authorities rounding up street vendors, banning their work and removing their makeshift kiosks from the streets, while providing no alternative recourse from the state.” Several months ago, the government began removing the fortified blast walls around the Green Zone that was built in Baghdad in 2003 after the invasion to fortify government facilities, the parliament, embassies and international organizations — which were all based within it. The walls divided up the city, cutting off civilian access to these institutions, and vice versa. The walls were taken down earlier this year as a signal that Baghdad was now safe.
In a country where a majority of educated youth are unable to find work, parts of the informal sector such as street vending, black market trade and the like have become the only viable economic lifeline.
As the unrest has grown, some analysts have tried to use the locality of protests to argue that it is a Shia-led uprising, as Sunni-majority areas have remained quiet so far. But it is argued here that that is a wholly stereotypical approach to Iraq, viewing it solely through a sectarian lens. It has been widely reported that Sunni-majority areas are standing in solidarity with the protesters, with reports actions such as blood drives a potential general strike in the coming days. Rather, it has become an internalized risk among these communities that they will be accused of being terrorists or Islamic State-sympathisers or of infiltrating protests. Indeed, the quality of life in those Sunni-majority areas — especially those liberated from the Islamic State — is arguably worse in some cases than that in the protesting provinces. The war against the Islamic State has left Sunni cities decimated, with homes and infrastructure razed to the ground and services almost non-existent. The corruption, nepotism, and ineptitude of local authorities mean thousands cannot claim land property rights, housing, or even citizenship documents so they can return to their areas of origin. Instead, (officially) over 1.5 million people are left to pass their days in ill-equipped camps for internally displaced persons, two years after the government officially declared victory against the Islamic State.
And as we have seen in protests that have swept the region before, “narratives.” “analysis” and “conspiracies” quickly become synonymous with one another. The Iraq protests are no different. We have already seen people debate the sectarian element and question potential Saudi connections, and have read accounts from people who jump to label the protests as “pro-Baathist.” In truth, this analysis comes out of an inability to understand the protesters and their demands. All this does in practice, however, is deny those protesters their agency, the truth and rawness of their anger, their belief in what they can achieve — whatever that may be.
The nature of these types of protests makes them inherently confusing and difficult to analyze. Anger on such a level, so personal in different ways to each and every protestor is never coherently communicable. The rage takes over, leaving only the demand: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” To what? How? Who? All legitimate questions, questions we have asked of other countries and attempted to answer in eight years of an unraveling across the region, questions that are inherently difficult to answer in Iraq, a country that is not ruled by one strongman, but a collection of corrupt individuals, groups and parties, all guilty of denying Iraqis’ quality of life. They are questions we still don’t have answers too.
Iraq’s history, the current situation, and the broader social context are wholly unique, but these are not grievances we haven’t seen before. It does feel that this time, we have reached a tipping point. The political establishment and its security partners (domestic and foreign) haven’t learned the right lessons. They didn’t heed the periodic warnings from the street. Instead, in exchange for “stability” military partnerships and a security-dominated policy, the social ills that have been weathered by this civilian population continue to be ignored. Some of those who reject the real situation would argue that, so long as the oil keeps flowing and security is “adequate,” things are fine. Everything else is “resilience.”
If there’s one thing all governments in the region — and Western foreign policy towards the Middle East and North Africa (but quite specifically Iraq) — continue to do, is to overestimate this “resilience” of the region’s people. Silence is too easily taken for acceptance. This denial of the agency of Iraqi citizens across the country has, for years, translated on the street to “you don’t deserve any better.”
This new unraveling, as we have seen across the region for years — if not decades and generations — has always been a fight for self-determination and freedom: the freedom to choose your own path and choose the type of country you want to live in, the freedom to change your mind, the freedom to decide for yourself, the freedom to not be stuck or poor because those who govern you stole it all, the freedom to make something of yourself, for yourself, your family and your community.
No one truly knows how this chapter will end in Iraq. Some relay fears of a civil conflict breaking out if this continues — a threat that feels very real right now. Some still believe that the government will weather the storm and that the anger will ultimately abate. I do not pretend to know what exactly will happen now, nor is this article an attempt to map out the political options for the government or offer a resolution to the current strife. It is merely an attempt to humanize the voices in the street, which are all too easily drowned out by security concerns and strategic priorities in the glossy halls of foreign ministries and international organizations. As Nabil in Baghdad told me: “Whatever happens in response to government proposals to address concerns, this doesn’t go away. People are fed up with the entire political system. Even if the protests die out, another wave will emerge, this will happen again. No one believes the politicians truly will want to or even have the capability of making a positive and significant change.”
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a “third party” that has violently targeted both protesters and security forces, this has been changed to “third actor.”