Mass uprisings do not erupt without a trigger and in Iraq there was more than one
Unemployment is high, especially among the young who don't have access to basic services, their indignation prompted by the corruption of successive administrations
The maelstrom of factors leading to Iraq’s uprising, now in its sixth week, have been brewing for a long time. Some go back years and have their roots in the calls for reform during the government of Haider Al Abadi, which were supported by some parliamentarians but, as often happens in the political arena in Iraq, as soon as the ruling parties sensed a lull in the rage of the masses calling for change, they simply ignored their demands. Then, the pro-reform movement was limited to Friday gatherings in Baghdad’s Freedom Square, rather than the throngs of thousands that now fill the streets daily. The large majority of those crowds belonged to the Sadrist movement and were acting on the orders of the cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who has spoken in support of this protest movement.
In the face of widespread criticism in 2015, Mr Al Abadi proposed far-reaching changes, including holding an inquiry into corruption and scrapping sectarian and party quotas in the appointment of top officials. Yet despite the gravity of the factors leading to the uprising four years ago, those promises made by ruling parties went unfulfilled.
The protesters' cry for reforms go further than ever before: they want, among other changes, a new constitution that enshrines the separation of religion and politics
The majority of the demonstrators today are young people, some of whom were born after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or who were children at the time. So far, the protest movement has not nominated leaders through whom to channel its demands, perhaps because of the spontaneity with which the uprising began. But their indignation is clear, prompted by the corruption that has plagued a succession of administrations since 2003. It has manifested in organisations that override state institutions and in a collective failure to try corrupt officials, regardless of their social background or their political, religious and sectarian affiliations.
Protesters have also been mobilised into action by state bureaucracy that prevents them from getting anything done; the failure to provide basic services such as electricity, drinking water, education and health care; and high unemployment, particularly among young people.
They are demanding the dissolution of parliament, the immediate holding of free and fair elections, supervised by the United Nations, and changes to the Electoral Commission, enabling them to select candidates independent of the existing political parties.
Their cry for reforms go further than ever before: they want a new constitution for the country that enshrines the separation of religion and politics, the formation of an independent judiciary council, the disbanding of all militias and the use of weapons to be confined to the state alone. And they want to abolish all privileges enjoyed by the president, parliament and prime minister. Critically, they want to ensure Iraq is protected from Iranian interference in its national affairs.
So far, more than 260 people have been killed and thousands injured. There appear to be forces targeting the demonstrators with live ammunition as well as tear gas. While the government has publicly renounced the killing of demonstrators, who are expressing their legitimate right to protest, there are suggestions that elements linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are behind the shootings.
That has not stopped demonstrators gradually increasing their demands. Initially they focused on job opportunities but that quickly swelled to calls for a change in governance. This was illustrated by the rejection of all figures of the regime, from officials to leaders of parties and militias as well as top officials. Prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi offered his resignation, which was accepted by president Barham Salih conditional on finding a replacement, but that has not been enough to quell public outrage. Amid shifting allegiances, Mr Al Sadr’s attempts to forge an alliance with Hadi Al Amiri, head of the Fateh bloc, to unseat Mr Abdul Mahdi resulted in him being expelled from demonstrations in Najaf last month. Even the country’s most senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Al Al Sistani, has been ineffectual in establishing calm.
When Mr Abdul Mahdi first took up his post just over a year ago, there was hope of some of these endemic problems improving because he did not belong to a particular political party. He assumed power as a result of the bloody uprising in Basra, which saw Mr Al Abadi ousted as prime minister. Mr Abdul Mahdi was chosen as a result of an understanding reached by Mr Al Sadr’s Sairon bloc, the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, and Mr Al Amiri’s Fateh front. However, the major mistake made by Mr Abdul Mahdi was selecting his ministers on the basis of quotas, in the same way previous ministry appointments had been made. Mr Abdul Mahdi should have chosen his own ministers on the basis of competence and expertise. He should have rejected any request from the ruling parties in the quota system, even if this had led to his own removal by those parties. He would have gained the support and trust of the people as a result and might have had more success in instigating reforms.
Instead, the progress of his government has been very slow and it has fallen into the trap of once again making promises without delivering them. Mr Abdul Mahdi’s leadership has been marked by a failure to effect any meaningful change.
Despite the abundance of motives for revolt, the mobilisation of the masses has come relatively late. For some, the lack of earlier action was a result of religious and sectarian influence. The absence of a middle-class culture has also been a contributing factor. The people who need to see an immediate change in their situation are mainly Shiite, because the poorest provinces in Iraq are the nine Shiite districts in the centre and south. This has led to conflict between Shiite factions. Division between Shiite parties has long been a reality in Iraq, making it difficult for those parties to enter elections under a single electoral list. Disagreement has also erupted among parties whose first priority is loyalty to Iran. That conflict between Shiite citizens and parties reached its zenith in the October 1 uprising.
Mass uprisings do not erupt without a trigger. Iraq’s protests differ from Lebanon’s as there was no single clear trigger, unlike in Beirut, where the proposed taxes on WhatsApp proved a tipping point. Yet even those who called for demonstrations on social media cannot have anticipated the extent of what has transpired in Iraq.
The important thing that has unfolded over the past few weeks is the peaceable and persistent call – even in the face of violence – for the separation of religion and the state, and protecting Iraqi citizenship and soil from sectarian, tribal and regional affiliations. Although the majority of the protesting masses are Shiite, their demands do not play to sectarian intolerance. The demonstrators have also criticised the presence of armed groups outside the control of the state and Iran's blatant interference in Iraqi affairs. Women in particular have had an important role to play.
The biggest question for many remains: what can this uprising achieve? Will it be able to realise its demands? The answer to these questions is not easy because the parties that have ruled Iraq since 2003 have managed to enrich themselves by acquiring the best governmental commercial contracts for their own benefit. Financial and administrative corruption is endemic in all its forms and the deep state, made up of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties benefiting from the country's oil exports, will fight all attempts to disrupt it.
Nor will Iran give up Iraq easily. Iraq represents a political, economic and ideological partner and it will want to tightly control Iraqis willing to do its bidding, as long as it can.
Many of the demands of the uprising cannot be achieved immediately. It will take months and possibly years to undo the ill effects of institutionalised corruption and mismanagement.
It is difficult to predict how the uprising will end. There are a number of scenarios that could take place: an understanding could be reached between the government and the demonstrators by finding a middle ground between their demands and what can be delivered. This could be the best outcome. Alternatively, the uprising could be met with further force, which will severely isolate the government at a national, regional and international level.
That is not to undo the achievements of the uprising so far: namely, that it has raised awareness among Iraqi citizens, cemented the idea of a homeland and national pride among the Iraqi people, and raised the profile of female campaigners. Above all, it has destroyed the idea that the government can do as it likes, despite the will of the people.
Saad Abdulrazzak Hussain is a researcher for the Iraq Studies institute in Beirut and a former member of parliament in Iraq
Updated: November 7, 2019 06:55 PM