Throughout the month of October, protesters have gathered in Iraq to protest Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government, demanding an end to the corruption that has plagued the country since the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign. Over the past two weeks, there has been a pause in the protests, so that the government may have time to respond to their demands. However, since there is no sign of change, the protesters took back the streets once again this weekend. This second wave of protests was met with violent oppression from police forces, bringing the total death count for October to 224 people.
Iraq in Context
Officially, Iraq is a federal parliamentary representative democratic republic. It is a multi-party system where legislative power rests with the Council of Representatives, and executive power is shared between the Prime Minister, the President, and the Council of Ministers. However, the Economist Intelligence Unit has classified the country as authoritarian and Transparency International claims it is the most corrupt government in the Middle East. This is where the anger and subsequent protests stem from. Many young people are angered over the lack of jobs and the government’s unwillingness to do anything about it. Iraq’s economy has been slow to recover from the traumatic war on the Islamic State in 2014. War damaged infrastructure and sluggish oil prices have slowed economic growth. However, the stagnation of their economy is mostly due to the rampant corruption in government and elites pillaging the state for their own personal wealth. In the most recent elections, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi rose to power by promising to curb the system of patronage, yet after a year, it is clear he has been unable to cut ties with the powerful elites who control the country.
The Protesters and Their Demands
Protests in Iraq are not an uncommon thing. From 2015-2016 there was a series of demonstrations. In July of 2018 protests started and have been continuing up until the present. However, unlike most protests, the current conditions in Iraq are incredible volatile and the region has not seen this kind of instability since the end of the civil war against the Islamic State in 2017. The crowds are unorganized, with no leadership emerging and their demands are no small feat. They do not simply want to take down the current government or leading party. They want to take down the entire regime, which has existed since 2003, when the US toppled Saddam Hussein. Protesters are focusing on the failings of the state in terms of unemployment, inability to provide services (electricity, clean water, education, and heath care), as well as the corrupt system of government appointments, which are made based on ethnic quotas and patronage rather than merit.
During the first days of the protests, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called on the government to respond to the protester’s demands, saying their demonstrations were “righteous” and promised a reform so that “all families may live in dignity.” However, for sixteen years, Iraqi citizens have been hearing those same promises and now remain unmoved. The protests are escalating in violence with no end in sight. Snipers are taking down key protesters as state security tries to repress the demonstrators with tear gas and smoke bombs as well as randomly firing into the crowd. It is uncertain at this time if Iraq has lost control of their police force. International forces have condemned this violence and are urging the two sides to come to a peaceful resolution.
There are two possible outcomes to these escalated protests: revolution or fatigue. Iraq is no stranger to mass protests, yet October has shown a far more violent and turbulent scene that seen before in recent history. The firing of soldiers at the unarmed protesters and over 200 dead, seems to have fulled the fire rather than provide an incentive for a compromise. The promises of the government have done nothing to calm the fire either. The other outcome is where the protesters, in the face of the aggressive repression tactics of the government, concede to a compromise. The government has been promising better state functioning, yet has failed to follow-through every time. The protesters may not believe the government’s promises, yet they might just give in as the rage dies down. If the government fails to deliver, then the cycle will continue, with citizens rising up in protest only to be met with brutal tactics for oppressing the voice of the people. Neither option is ideal for Iraq. The question now becomes: Will the Iraqi government be willing and able to implement anti-corruption measures to the satisfaction of the protesters? History says no, but perhaps these protests will be able to pressure Adel Abdul Mahdi’s government into breaking the authoritarian patronage cycle.
“2018–19 Iraqi Protests.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Oct. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018–19_Iraqi_protests.e.V., Transparency International.
“Corruption Perceptions Index 2018.” Www.transparency.org, https://www.transparency.org/cpi2018.
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“Iraq Protests: UN Calls for End to ‘Senseless Loss of Life’.” BBC News, BBC, 6 Oct. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49949262.Mansour, Renad.
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“Death Toll in Iraq Protests Climbs to 63 since Friday.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 Oct. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/25/middleeast/iraq-protests-deaths-intl/index.html.