Protests in Iraq: a popular cry to reform a broken political system

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A week of deadly protests against corruption and unemployment has posed the greatest challenge to the Iraqi political elite since the threat from the Islamic State in 2017. And the violence raises a fundamental question: Has Iraq leadership and democratic institutions to respond to the anger of citizens in a substantial way?

Young Iraqis in particular are disappointed with a weak government and officials who still rule, 16 years after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, through ethnosectarian parties and militias even as they use public funds to satisfy networks of patronage.

Why we wrote this

On the surface, the Iraqi anti-government protests focus on unemployment and corruption. But they expose a much deeper challenge: the lack of democratic institutions to translate this anger into meaningful reform.

Iraqi expert Renad Mansour notes that last year’s elections saw the lowest turnout since 2003. And while two-thirds of parliamentary seats have changed hands, early hopes for meaningful change have faded. .

“This [protest] is the only way – they think – to have a voice, ”he says.

In a recent analysis, Maria Fantappie of the International Crisis Group wrote that the appointment of technocrats to ministerial posts “marked an attempt to trigger a transition from a dysfunctional political system. Yet technocrats remain dependent on old political figures. …

“Iraq is at a crossroads. A sense of hope and a desire for reform go hand in hand with a stubborn belief that a failing system will continue to falter. “

London

The overwhelming outburst of anger in Iraq last week – and the unprecedented violence it has faced – shocked many Iraqis, though its sources are familiar: unemployment, poverty, corruption.

And as the Iraqi security forces end their high alert today and the nation begins to take stock, questions arise as to whether the country has the leadership, the will and the democratic institutions to translate this. powerful expression of citizen anger in meaningful action.

The short answer is “not yet,” analysts say, although Baghdad itself has experienced relative calm and a renewed sense of security and normalcy since Islamic State (IS) militants were declared defeated in 2017.

Why we wrote this

On the surface, the Iraqi anti-government protests focus on unemployment and corruption. But they expose a much deeper challenge: the lack of democratic institutions to translate this anger into meaningful reform.

But deep underlying issues have created the greatest challenge for Iraq’s political elite since then, with street violence claiming some 165 Iraqi lives, according to one count, and more than 6,000 injured.

Widespread anger over the lingering lack of hope in Iraq – fueled by a weak government and years of failed top-down reform – has spilled over into Baghdad and the Shiite towns of southern Iraq.

Popular outrage was met with live ammunition and tear gas as Iraqis on the streets, many of whom were young men who said they had “nothing to lose”, called for fundamental political change.

Anti-government protesters set fires and block roads as security forces fire tear gas during a protest in Baghdad on October 2, 2019.

“People are shocked at what they see and what they hear,” said an Iraqi analyst in Baghdad who asked not to be named for security reasons.

internet failure

Until an Internet blackout, imposed to prevent any new organization and the dissemination of information and images of the protests, began to be lifted in recent days, “it was very difficult to say what was happening. was happening unless you went there, ”he said. “And if you did go, there was obviously a chance you wouldn’t come back. … But now the pictures are starting to come out, the videos are starting to come out, the numbers, quotes from hospital officials and people are shocked.

Rolling over the protesters is not just a disillusionment with the ballot box, but anger against a political elite that still reigns through powerful ethnosectary parties and militias – some of them backed by Iran – even s ‘they use public funds to satisfy patronage networks.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi said there were “no magic solutions” when he offered protesters a 17-point proposal, including handouts for the poor, in his first public statement since start of unrest on October 1. But it is the weakness of Mr. Abdul-Mahdi’s one-year-old technocratic government, and its inability to tackle deep-rooted Iraqi problems, have failed to bridge the gap between the people and the state.

More than 16 years after an American invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq is enjoying the revenues of an underground ocean of oil. But he was also pummeled by the US occupation, an al-Qaeda-led insurgency and finally an invasion by ISIS in 2014, all of which crippled the building of institutions that could have bolstered confidence in the government and even employment prospects.

“Nothing has changed,” said the analyst from Baghdad. “It’s still the same kleptocracy we find ourselves in. The frontline services that people experience every day are still as bad as they were many years ago, in some places they have gotten worse. “

He blames inefficiency, corruption, unwillingness and fiercely competing interests, so that coalition governments are “made up of rivals and enemies … to maximize their benefits,” he says. “So no one is thinking, ‘Well, how can we do something for the good of the citizens and the country? “”

The demonstrators, mostly from the Iraqi-majority Shiite population, called for the fall of the regime, which is dominated by the Shiites. Yet the Shiite militias, a set of predominantly Shiite paramilitary units known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (FMP), which were instrumental in protecting the system, reached some 150,000 troops and consolidated their position. role during the fight against ISIS. They have now been largely absorbed into the security and political structure of Iraq.

Strive to be heard

Iraqi security forces apologized for the excessive use of force and said commanders never ordered deadly tactics and did not know the identity of the snipers who played a key role in the attack. increase in the death toll.

“I spoke to a doctor, and, on snipers, these are precision shots, aimed precisely at hearts and heads, ”says Renad Mansour, an Iraq expert from Chatham House think tank in London, referring to the cramped and destitute Shiite enclave where a third of the 8 million people live. inhabitants of Baghdad.

The Prime Minister and his collaborators have no control over the security forces, and “no idea of ​​the armed groups behind it all, who are committing the killings,” said Mansour, who was in Baghdad until ‘on the eve of the protests.

He notes that last year’s elections saw the lowest turnout in Iraq since 2003. And despite the fact that two-thirds of the seats in parliament have changed hands and a party of populist cleric Moqtada al- Sadr has recorded impressive gains, initial hopes for meaningful change have faded.

The Iraqis “have given up believing in elections, in parliament, in technocrats, and that [protest] is the only way – they think – to have a voice, ”says Mansour.

The Iraqi Prime Minister on October 7, 2019 ordered the federal police to replace the army in Sadr City, a densely populated Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad where dozens of people were killed or injured in weekend clashes resulting from anti-government protests.

“And you can see how important that is, by the way the elites are reacting,” he adds. “They learned from Basra [protests] last year that those who want to protect the system, if they kill enough, if they intimidate enough, if they shut down the internet, they could stop the protests. This equation is therefore now used, not only in Basra, but in Baghdad and elsewhere.

PMF leader Falih al-Fayyadh blamed the unrest on infiltrators working for foreign enemies. “Our response to those who want evil for the country will be clear and precise through the state and its instruments. … There will be no chance of a coup or rebellion, ”he said on Monday.

Really engage with citizens

Even as the street protests come to an end, the fact that discontent has grown to such an extent means that it is already “too late” for a quick solution, and that a new round of protest is inevitable without strategic efforts from the outside. reform, says Maria Fantappie, an Iraqi Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The interim measures won’t do much,” Ms. Fantappie told Al Jazeera English. “The government needs to really engage with a section of what I call the ‘society of protesters’. It is very important to [remember] that not all demonstrators are violent, [many] are well educated, who are generally engaged in civic activism, volunteering. “

She posed the challenge of Iraq in an analysis published last March, after five months of research in Iraq. The appointment of technocrats to ministerial posts, Ms. Fantappie wrote, “marked an attempt to trigger a transition from a dysfunctional political system. Yet technocrats remain dependent on old politicians who have little interest in reforming a system that serves them.

“In this sense, Iraq is at a crossroads,” she wrote. “A sense of hope and a desire for reform go hand in hand with a stubborn belief that a failing system will continue to falter. “

So many graduates, so few jobs

But how broken is this system in Iraq? A few figures tell the story of the discontent and explain why it is young Iraqi men who keep the barricades on fire. Each year, around 700,000 Iraqis become employable in a country that, at most, only produces 50,000 jobs.

“The majority of these [jobs] are only well-being, repackaged in the form of employment, explains the analyst from Baghdad. “You have a factory that needs 200 people to run it and you have 3,000 people on the payroll. You have 1.25 million security forces, but you still have a problem when fighting ISIS because the vast majority of them either don’t show up or are given clerical duties. “

“It cannot be denied that a significant proportion of the population benefits from those in power,” says the analyst, referring to patronage networks. But institution building was hampered, he says, first by Iraqi leaders who came from abroad, after 2003, installed by the United States and getting rich, and then by the Iraqis themselves: “In because of ignorance, [and] there is a lot of tribal and religious hatred.

“We’ve had Al Qaeda and ISIS, all of those things, and that means we haven’t had a break from saying, ‘How do we improve our governance and fix our problems?’ without constantly looking at the geopolitics of all this, ”explains the analyst.


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