Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 25 September 2020

Iraq's political elites ‘doubling down’ in defence of the status quo

Chatham House expert views the protests as an ‘existential threat’ to the country’s political system

An Iraqi demonstrator waving the national flag is silhouetted during clashes with security forces in the holy shrine city of Karbala on November 29. AFP
An Iraqi demonstrator waving the national flag is silhouetted during clashes with security forces in the holy shrine city of Karbala on November 29. AFP

Iraq's leaders are scrambling to defend their position in the country’s political system in the face of violent anti-government protests that have entered a third month.

Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the UK’s Chatham House think tank, on Tuesday said Iraqi political elites were “doubling down for a pragmatic defence of the system” amid increasingly radical protests.

The Iraq expert said the ongoing protests posed an “existential threat” to the country’s political system and were pushing not only the dominating Shia parties to rally behind the existing power structure but also but Kurdish and Sunni parties as well.

The most likely near-term response to the protests, he said, was for politicians to entrench their positions by relying heavily on armed groups and judicial allies.

With fault lines deepening, the protesters have been targeted by militias and armed groups.

The researcher said the “diffuse” network of armed groups and militias in the country made it nearly impossible for those cracking down on the protests to be held to account.

Though the groups in Iraq are fragmented, he said, their crackdown on the demonstrations is part of a “comprehensive response” to the unrest.

Mr Mansour explained that although Iraq was not returning to authoritarianism, political control over the violent response to the protesters was being strengthened.

“What we’re seeing in Iraq, just like in the political field, is the coalescence of violence but with no accountability,” Mr Mansour said.

“They actually have a plan and it’s a very violent one,” he added.

“The same groups saying they were protecting Iraq against ISIS are now twisting that same narrative to portray themselves as protectors of the state against the ‘chaos’ of the protests.”

More than 400 protesters have been killed and thousands more injured in a vicious crackdown on the protests which began at the beginning of October.

Citing Chatham House research into the backgrounds of Iraq’s protesters, Mr Mansour said that in 2016 the protesters were mostly married men on government salaries. The ages of the demonstrators also varied widely, and their demands were “much more cautious”.

Conversely, those who have taken to the streets since October are predominantly unmarried, younger men without permanent employment.

This, he explained, gives longevity to the protests because the youthful demonstrators do not have anyone depending on them.

But it is in the protesters’ demands that the radical component of the recent wave of unrest lies.

Pointing to protesters’ demands for “dignity” and “state,” Mr Mansour said Iraq was witnessing “a much more radical form of protest than in 2016”.

Late last week, the country’s parliament accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi after the country’s most prominent Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called for the installation of a new government to be considered.

But the announcement was met only with more determination from protesters, who vowed to continue their demonstrations.

Updated: December 3, 2019 09:35 PM

Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email
Most Popular