Mass anti-government protests over unemployment, poor public services, and corruption continue in Baghdad and other southern cities in Iraq. Tens of thousands of protestors have mobilized against the government. The Iraqi security forces have used tear gas, stun grenades, and even live bullets in an effort to disperse the protesting crowd, resulting in at least 319 people dead and at least 8,000 injured according to the U.N. The protest began peacefully in October 2019; however, as the government failed to announce a new Iraqi prime minister after the deadline set by the protestors has passed, they called for a general strike. Since January, the protest movement has been set on a more dangerous collision path with the government as they embrace tactics such as blocking highways and forcing the closure of government offices (NPR). The naming of a new presidential candidate could not even end what is arguably Iraq’s biggest grassroots socio-political mobilization in history. This is because the protestors are angered and motivated to change fundamental issues that plague the Iraqi political system.
The Iraqi government has the framework of a federal parliamentary representative democratic republic. For the past several years, the government had focused on the battle against ISIS. After the battle ended in 2018, a new government came into power under prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who is a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. yet was faced with a tremendous socio-economic crisis. The unemployment rate has reached 8%, and more than 60% of Iraqis are under 24, while 700,000 require jobs every year (Brookings). Such a substantial unemployed population is destabilizing as they may turn to illegal means to make ends meet. A high unemployment rate also undermines the government’s legitimacy by highlighting its incompetence to resolve an economic crisis. It also damages the credibility of the government since the promise to create more job opportunities falls empty.
Other than unemployment, the Iraqi government has also failed to provide citizens with adequate public services—basic services such as electricity, clean water, transportation, health care, and unemployment benefits (Atlantic). Despite the sizable export revenue of 65 billion dollars, a lack of public service even occurs in “the Shia heartland”—the oil-rich city of Basra. The lack of basic public services greatly jeopardizes the Iraqis’ sense of citizenship as the state fails to fulfill its fundamental role as a provider for the people. A lowered sense of citizenship leads to less support for the state among the people, which in turn mitigates the state’s legitimacy and triggers the protest. However, the lack of public service seems even more unjustified when one considers the fact that in the past decade, the Iraqi government has expended hundreds of billions of dollars (Brookings). This paradox can be explained by yet another issue that has been plaguing Iraq: institutionalized corruption. Iraq was ranked as the 12th most corrupt country in the world by NGO Transparency International in 2018. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has faced a weak capacity to allocate the influx of foreign aid properly and a lack of political will for anti-corruption efforts. It has been estimated that rampant corruption has devoured more than 320-billion-dollar of resources since 2003 (Atlantic). Most of the money has been stolen by politicians and ministries, who often divert the fund into individuals’ pockets through phantom projects and contracts (Atlantic). The corruption that pervades all levels of the government leads to an ineffective and inefficient bureaucracy, which explains the lack of public services despite the large export revenue and the influx of foreign aid.
Another factor that triggered the protest was the removal of Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi. The commander of the elite counter-terrorism unit that led the fight against ISIS, al-Saadi is popular among the Iraqis. It is widely believed that Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s decision to remove the commander from his post was motivated by the fact that al-Saadi refused to allow corruption to happen (TIME). The removal of al-Saadi from his office once again shows the Iraqi people that corruption exists even in the highest level of the government, causing them to protest for changes.
The protest is likely to continue until the Iraqi government decides to address the fundamental issues that caused the protest—unemployment, lack of public service, and corruption. Although many speculate that the Iraqi security forces will employ more violent tactics to suppress the protestors, such violence will only trigger more waves of mobilizations as the young protestors have shown remarkable resilience (TIME). According to TIME, the protestors aim to bring down the government and change the system to one that represents the interest of the people. While their goal is beyond admirable, it is also important to consider the potential consequences of their goals. Given that Iraq faces increasing political pressure from both Iran and the U.S, could one of these foreign powers take advantage of the vacuum created by the change of government? At the same time, considering the lack of transparency, could another interest group that seeks to gain more power mobilize the protestors? These are important questions to ponder upon as the protest continues in the future.
Alaaldin, Ranj. “The Irresistible Resiliency of Iraq’s Protesters.” Brookings, Brookings, 6 Feb. 2020, www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/01/31/the-irresistible-resiliency-of-iraqs-protesters/.
Arraf, Jane. “’We Are Not Going To Leave’: Iraq’s Protests Escalate.” NPR, NPR, 22 Jan. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/01/22/798492825/we-are-not-going-to-leave-iraqs-protests-escalate.
Bunyan, Rachael. “Iraq Protests: What Do the Protesters Want?” Time, Time, 13 Nov. 2019, time.com/5723831/iraq-protests/.
e.V., Transparency International. Transparency International – Iraq, 2018, www.transparency.org/country/IRQ.
“Press Briefing Note on Iraq.” OHCHR, www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25263&LangID=E.
Thompson, Mark. “Attack on Tikrit Preview’s Iraq Approach to Mosul.” Time, Time, 2 Mar. 2015, time.com/3728179/iraq-tikrit-mosul/.
Will Protests Herald a New Era in Iraqi Politics?” Atlantic Council, 31 Oct. 2019, www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/will-protests-herald-a-new-era-in-iraqi-politics/.