The persistence and magnitude of protests in Iraq since early October and the brutality of Iraqi government forces and militias seeking to crush them have shaken the country. More than 275 protesters have been killed and thousands injured, but the protests continue unabated.
Iraqis initially protested against corruption, unemployment and the failure of the government to deliver services, but after a month of brutal state violence, the protesters have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a complete overhaul of the political process in the country and disbanding of powerful political factions and their militias, most of which are backed and run by Iran.
The Iraqi government and the political elite have failed to respond in any significant manner to the protesters. On Thursday, Barham Salih, the president of Iraq, promised to draft a new electoral law, claiming that it would allow more young people to join the political process and put an end to the current system of deal-making in government formation. He also promised to reform the country’s election commission by bringing in independent experts as its members. And yet these promises were quickly dismissed by protesters as too little, too late — cosmetic changes aimed at upholding a discredited political system.
The protests and the violent response have shredded the myth of sectarianism as the organizing principle for political power: State-sponsored sectarianism has failed to offer protection and progress to the citizens.
The trouble lies largely in the political system imposed on Iraq by the United States-led alliance in 2003, which fostered the lie that Iraqis did not have a unifying national identity and that their overriding identity was sectarian or ethnic: Shia, Sunnis, Kurds. Apart from isolating the majority of Iraqis who believe in their national identity, these division also isolated Christians, Yazidis, Mandaens and other minorities in Iraq.
In contrast, the young Iraqi protesters have been carrying the Iraqi flag and rejecting all other political and sectarian symbols. Iraqi patriotic songs that were sung in the 1980s during the war with Iran have filled the streets once more. The slogan that has resonated the most is, “We want a homeland,” calling for an Iraq that does not suffer from the ills of sectarian divisions or is manipulated by politicians. Another popular slogan insists, “I am going to take my rights myself.”
Rather than build on the principles of citizenship after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the political class in Iraq since 2003 worked on a sectarian system of patronage to win political power and profit. It enshrined sectarian identity as an unwritten basis of power-sharing — a Shia prime minister, a Kurdish president and a Sunni speaker of Parliament — solidifying sectarian divisions and undermining meritocracy or electoral legitimacy. Government formation has become a cynical exercise in power brokering based on coalition-building before and after the vote.
A significant section of the Iraqi political class’s being beholden to Iran makes things worse. Anger against Iranian influence over the political establishment of the country has increased significantly as credible reports have shown that a majority of killings have been carried out by the militias backed by Tehran.
The mostly Shiite protesters have taken to chanting, “Iran! Out! Out!” Protesters have burned Iranian flags and torn down posters of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who blamed the United States and Western intelligence agencies for the protests in Iraq — and Lebanon — and called upon Lebanon and Iraq to “stabilize these security threats.” On Sunday, protesters attacked the Iranian consulate in Karbala.
The protesters are calling for a nationalist government not beholden to any external power and have singled out Iran because it controls a majority of political parties and militias in Iraq. Tehran had sent Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, to Baghdad to oversee the militant response to the uprising. General Suleimani has ensured that Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi does not resign, despite the latter indicating that he is willing to do so.
Images emerging from cities like Nasiriya, Basra and Baghdad generate a mixture of hope and fear. The courage of the protesters has given Iraq hope that change is possible, and the brutality of the response by the government forces and Iran-backed militias has shown that Tehran and its clients will do everything in their power to protect their interests and investments. Iran today relies on Iraq to circumvent international sanctions, sell its gas and agricultural products, and project its power in the Arab world.
Young Iraqis continue protesting night after night, defying the government’s repeated attempts to impose a curfew. The political class, which remains barricaded in the Green Zone and disconnected from the street, does neither know nor understand the activists leading the protests.
The callousness of the Iraqi government was epitomized by its recent statement that it did not know the identity of government snipers who shot and killed numerous protesters in Baghdad.
As the protest enters the second month, the Sunni-majority provinces and cities have been sitting out the protests for fear of being branded Baathists or Islamic State supporters. They also worry about a return to lawlessness that they endured when the Iraqi state collapsed between 2014 and 2017. Some protesters from these provinces have joined the protests in Baghdad, carrying banners expressing solidarity from their cities.
Although economic depravation and political collapse drove Iraqis to the streets, a sense of pride has risen out of the protests and cohered around the ultimate demand to see Iraq as a sovereign country.
At this point, the government’s promises to improve job opportunities or to start a drawn-out process to reform the electoral law will not suffice. Millions are calling for overhauling the political system.
A lasting solution to tackle corruption and state capture will mean holding corrupt officials to account, ensuring a transparent system in forming the next government and ensuring that Iraq — which holds the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves — can deliver basic education and health services to all its citizens.
People are tired of the current power-sharing system where several political parties have a seat at the table but none of them takes responsibility, simply blaming a rival for the collective failure. Calls for a presidential system, where a leader would be responsible for the welfare and sovereignty of the state, are growing.
Iraqis are essentially demanding competence and accountability from their political leaders. Whoever fails to deliver can no longer hide behind “the system.” They are “the system,” and if they don’t fix it, they will be overturned with it.