Protests Reveal Iraq’s New Fault Line: The People vs. the Ruling Class

Renad Mansour Friday, July 20, 2018  – Renad Mansour is a research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

In what is becoming a summer ritual in southern Iraq, protesters took to the streets to voice their grievances amid scorching heat over the course of the past several weeks. Their government’s inability to provide basic services, namely electricity and water, makes the harsh summer unbearable to many Iraqis. The high unemployment rate means that many cannot afford a basic standard of living.

Reflecting a heightened mood of desperation, the latest round of protests turned more violent than in previous years. In nine Iraqi provinces, protesters stormed government buildings and infrastructure as well as political party offices, at times setting them ablaze. No major leader or political party was spared. Demonstrators even attacked the offices of populist cleric-turned-politician Muqtada al-Sadr, who in the past has been a leader of the protests.

While the latest demonstrations may not lead to immediate and significant change, they signal a shifting reality of conflict in Iraq. For the first time, the government in Baghdad explicitly targeted demonstrators in the south, leading to an unprecedented number of deaths and injuries; at least eight demonstrators had been reported killed as of this week. At its core, this recent wave suggests that the next fault line in Iraq will not be between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, but between the people and the ruling class, which has failed to govern for the past 15 years.

Although this summer’s protests have been sporadic and without clear leadership, and although they will not lead to drastic change, they reflect an undercurrent of popular disillusionment that questions the social contract in Iraq. Beginning in the summer of 2015, this protest movement first emerged in Basra and spread throughout the south before making it to the capital in Baghdad. The crowds grew from a few hundred thousand to over a million in September 2015. Since then, on several occasions, millions have again marched in the streets of Baghdad and southern Iraq to demand change. This summer’s protests signal that the grievances driving this movement have not faded.

An important factor explaining the rise in the protest movement is the improved security situation in Iraq. Most cities, including Basra and Baghdad, have not witnessed extreme violence for a number of years. Shiite Iraqis are now protesting against their own Shiite leaders because, beyond the provision of security, the state is not responsive to their basic needs.

What the current protests make clear, also, is that it is no longer enough for an aspiring Iraqi political leader to mobilize ethno-sectarian identities to build a constituency and gain legitimacy. The protest movement emerged in 2015 at the height of the Islamic State’s territorial rule over other mainly Sunni parts of Iraq, at a time when political leaders were still attempting to win favor by using ethno-sectarian logic. Many protesters, however, equated their leaders to the Islamic State, arguing that “the corrupt official is similar to the terrorist.”

The core grievances of the movement, then and now, revolve around the government’s inability since 2003 to provide essential services and employment. For instance, Basra sits on most of Iraq’s oil wealth, an irony that is not lost on its residents. International oil companies and the Iraqi elite have profited from billion-dollar deals throughout the province, with very little of it trickling down to its residents. As one protester put it on a banner, “2,500,000 oil barrels per day; $70 USD per barrel; 2500000×70=0.”

Many Iraqis are concluding that change can only come from outside the system.

The protesters are now holding the post-2003 Iraqi leadership, many of whom continue to govern today, responsible for the state’s failure to provide for or represent its citizens. That failure has been underscored in recent years by Baghdad’s inability to satisfy the protesters’ demands or bridge the gap between citizens and the political elite. On a number of occasions, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has attempted to quell the protests by making personnel changes to his Cabinet. In 2016, for instance, he reshuffled six ministers as a symbolic gesture of appeasement after demonstrators, led by Sadr, stormed the Green Zone and occupied Parliament. However, for many protesters, these cosmetic changes do not address the systemic problems in the country.

Rather than a change in the leadership akin to the 2011 Arab uprisings, the Iraqi protest movement is demanding systemic change to the post-2003 political order, and particularly the quota power-sharing system known as muhassasa. Under the guise of inclusivity, this system has empowered and enriched Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni leaders, who have not shared the power or wealth with the Iraqi population.

Further exacerbating the problem, state institutions remain weak and beholden to the long-established political parties. This was evident during the recent elections, which featured the lowest turnout since 2003. In Baghdad, Basra and other areas where the protest movement has been strongest, the turnout was lower than the national average. Many citizens in these areas decided to boycott the vote, arguing that change would not come by elections that reinforce the same leadership.

To a large extent, the boycotters were right. Although the vote resulted in about 65 percent of the members of parliament being new faces, the leaders and parties that will govern for the next four years remained the same. The government-formation process after the elections featured negotiations between familiar political figures, all willing to make compromises to get a piece of the governing spoils. Even Sadr, who won the most seats by running an anti-establishment campaign, joined negotiations with the very establishment figures he had attacked on the campaign trail, striking alliances with the head of the Badr Organization and Fateh List, Hadi al-Ameri; current Vice President Ayad Allawi; and the head of Hikam, Ammar al-Hakim. He also is in ongoing negotiations with Abadi, the current prime minister. To many Iraqis, this process revealed that elections serve to reinforce the elite rather than provide a conduit for systemic change.

At the same time, the other institutional mechanisms to bring about change—the judiciary, independent commissions and local governing bodies—are compromised, weak and politicized. As a result, many Iraqis are concluding that change can only come from outside the system, making the status quo unsustainable in the long term. They will continue to use protests and disruptions to express their frustrations. And because the latest round of protests will in all likelihood not lead to real change, the sense of disillusionment—marked by the gap between governors and governed—will continue to fester.

Renad Mansour is a research fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

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