Protests against corruption, poor services and unemployment are challenging the Shiite political class that since 2003 has pilfered the country’s resources. Demonstrations in Iraq are not new, but these are different.
Mass protests that started in Basra two weeks ago have since spread to nine predominantely Shiite southern provinces and the capital, Baghdad.
Provincial governorate buildings have been sieged, political party offices stormed, Shiite militias attacked, an airport torched, and oil and port facilities blocked. At least a dozen protesters have been killed and hundreds wounded, either by militia or unknown gunmen. Hundreds more have been arrested and internet and social media curtailed in a bid to stop the protests.
At their core, the protests represent a rejection of the post-2003 corrupt political elites that have ruled the oil-rich country, or more precisely, pilfered and wasted its resources.
It is not difficult to understand why Iraqis are angry. Basic services are lacking, unemployment is high and corruption is rampant. Meanwhile, Iraq’s oil exports have more than doubled in the past decade to 3.9 million barrels a day. A quarter of the population lives in poverty and cut off from narrow patron-client relationships that are a key feature of Iraq’s political economy.
Neglected Basra province is illustrative. It produces the vast majority of Iraq’s oil output, yet citizens face electricity and water shortages. Once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East,” Basra city’s dwindling canals are now putrid sewage and its streets filled with trash.
As Iraqi’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, put it when he gave the protesters his backing earlier this month: “Basra is the number one in providing the country with financial revenue … So it is not fair, indeed it is not acceptable, that this governorate is one of Iraq’s poorest.”
The protests are no “Arab Spring” style event directed at toppling a strongman or overthrowing the political system. Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, a researcher focused on Iraq at the University of Edinburgh, describes the protests as mainly transactional “ad hoc mobilizations” to extract benefits and concessions.
“The state is the arbiter of resource distribution and thus the target of competition amongst patronage networks,” he told DW. “Those at the bottom of the pile, ordinary Iraqi citizens, who do not benefit from these networks, have to resort to protest and disruption of economic activity as a means of ‘buying into’ the system of resource distribution.”
Protests are not new…
Protests in Iraq are not new. Since 2015, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has regularly led protests against corruption and mismanagement, leading to his followers briefly occupying the fortified government Green Zone in March 2016. Sadr’s Sairoon political alliance came first in national elections in May that saw a historically low turnout and boycotts, in an early sign at the ballot box that Iraqis were fed up with the ruling political elites.
In southern Iraq in recent years, protests against poor services and electricity shortages have become a regular summer event, as temperatures soar to 50 Celsius (120 Fahrenheit). Scores of small and large demonstrations over localized issues or regional ones have occurred in the past year.
Separately, there have also been protests – and violent crackdowns – over the past year in the autonomous Kurdistan Region in the north against the corruption and misrule of the two main political parties and their militias, who rule their zones of control like fiefdoms.
…but these are different
However, this summer’s protests in southern Iraq are distinct from previous ones. They are organic and leaderless; larger in scale and scope; and pivotally, constitute Shiites of the south rising up against the Shiite political class and militias that claim to represent them.
Few political parties have been spared from the backlash, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Dawa and Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah Alliance, made up of Iran-backed Shiite militia that fought against the “Islamic State” (IS).
“What is significant for the legitimacy of the post-2003 political order and its identity-based organization, has been the attacks on political party offices and militia offices of the main Shiite Islamist parties across the board,” Robin-D’Cruz said. “This has not happened before, especially not on this scale. It points to a profound rupturing of the relationship between the political elites and their core constituency in the Shiite south, whose interests they have claimed to be advancing.”
Protesters have even attacked the hard-line, Iran-backed Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah militias that have fought IS, something Robin-D’Cruz described as “incredibly risky.” Ominously, the militias have threatened protesters, dubbing them Zionist-American and Saudi “infiltrators.” Abadi, on the other hand, considers the protesters’ demands to be legitimate but has warned of saboteurs behind the violence.
The Sadr factor
Only Sadr’s populist movement appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from the protests. However, Sadr has sought to form a broad coalition with other parties, including Abadi’s Dawa and Ameri’s Fatah, despite his years of railing against the political establishment and using street politics as a weapon.
A move by Sadr to fully back the protests and bring his weight on the streets of Baghdad would change the nature of the protest movement. “The question is to what end that weapon could be used. Sadr just won the elections, emerged as the largest party, he’s not likely to seek to fundamentally overturn a political system he is himself heavily invested in,” Robin-D’Cruz said.
Fanar Haddad, an Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, describes Sadr as a “wild card.” He says that “the protests might be so anti-system that they may even scare off Sadr,” who appears to have been caught off guard.
The southern Shiite protest movement against the Shiite establishment may signal another new phase in post-2003 Iraq. Haddad, who researches sectarianism in Iraq, said there has been a lessening of identity politics in Iraq in recent years. That retreat from sectarianism has come to the fore following the elimination of existential threats to Shiite control over the Iraqi state, Haddad said.
First there was a Sunni insurgency during the US occupation and an initial wariness by Sunni regional powers to accept Shiite control in Baghdad. Then there was the defeat of IS and the squashing of a Kurdish bid for independence last year.
Having waited 15 years and sacrificed so much, the Shiites of the south are no longer willing to hear arguments that they must buckle down because of “the enemy,” Haddad said. Instead, they want a peace dividend and good governance.
“Shiites used to say of their leaders, ‘They are bastards, but they are our bastards.’ That dynamic is not there today. Now they are saying, ‘They are bastards,’ full stop,” he said.
Increasingly, he added, “people look at the political class as one that is complicit with each other despite the sectarian label of Sunni, Shiite or Kurd.”
The Iraqi government has traditionally sought to quell unrest through co-optation with promises of jobs and money, or the use force.
Abadi has promised to invest $3 billion (€2.6 billion) for Basra province and to provide jobs, housing, schools and services. He also sent military reinforcements to the south, including from the elite counterterrorism unit. Neither measure has cooled the protest movement.
The protests come as Abadi is in charge of a caretaker government following May elections. The already complicated Iraqi government formation process has been drawn out by a manual recount of some of the votes amid allegations of fraud.
Abadi’s caretaker status and ongoing government formation talks mean that his pledges to invest in Basra may not be implemented.
Even if they were, there is little guarantee that money would not be siphoned off through corruption or that the provincial government has the capacity to implement projects. In any case, promises of major investment wouldn’t yield benefits to the population immediately.
“The nature of the problems defies quick fixes. These are structural problems,” said Haddad, adding that at best the government could make symbolic goodwill gestures. “But the bar to gain people’s goodwill is so high now because all trust has been lost.”