“We reached a level of injustice we could no longer take. For every action, there is a reaction,” explained one civil society activist following the Oct. 1 outbreak of protests in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq.
Reacting to deficient state services, high rates of unemployment, and rampant corruption that channels largesse to the elite for political and paramilitary purposes, protesters rejected ills that have plagued Iraqi governments since 2005. “We have been waiting since 2003 for democracy. Until now, we haven’t seen it,” one protester said.
Long-standing complaints, compounded by recent events such as the late-September crackdown on protests calling for employment opportunities for university graduates, removal of informal housing settlements, and the demotion of popular Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, are among the various reasons propelling protesters to the streets. Whatever one’s exact reason, most agreed that political elites have reneged on their promise to reform and the system needs an overhaul.
Originally loosely coordinated by civil society activists and long-time protesters via social media shortly before Oct. 1, unemployed and underemployed youth in majority-Shi’a areas poured onto the streets. “The new youth generation showed up in force to push these protests forward,” one female activist and protester said. Decentralized and spontaneous protests continued for days, with numbers swelling in response to casualties inflicted by official security forces and government-aligned paramilitary groups upon mostly peaceful protesters.
Throughout Baghdad but also Dhi Qar, Maysan, Diwaniyah, Basra, Muthana, Babil, Najaf, Karbala, and Wasit governorates thousands of protestors, mainly youth between the ages of 18 and 25, stood in the face of bullets, snipers, and excessive force. “They’re killing us with the weapons they used to kill ISIS,” one protester said.
Within a week, killings and widespread arrests had ground the protests to a halt. The result is at least 165 fatalities and more than 6,000 wounded, including women and children. Doctors, activists, and protesters all separately claimed the actual number is much higher. Intelligence and government-aligned paramilitary groups are reportedly raiding houses, arresting protesters, activists, and journalists. Hundreds remain detained, facing accusations of everything from property destruction to supporting terrorism, according to lawyers familiar with the situation. Others have disappeared. Some fled the country or went into hiding elsewhere in Iraq. In Baghdad, youth report being stopped at checkpoints, their phones searched for protest-related imagery, sometimes arrested on the spot if such images are found. The tactics mirror repressive measures employed against protesters in Basra since summer 2018. Baghdad is a much bigger city with rival and fragmented factions competing for influence, which results in a less cohesive system of repression, but one that’s deadly nonetheless.
Sunni and Kurdish-majority provinces didn’t join the protests even though youth there share similar grievances as their Shi’a counterparts. Sunni-majority areas are still reeling from the destructive aftermath of the war against ISIS and fear any confrontation with the government, even peaceful, could end in their arrest due to often overbroad accusations of affiliation with ISIS or Baathists. Still, some mobilized remotely. During internet outages, activists with internet access in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region uploaded videos online for the world to see. Some Sunni youth in Anbar said they attempted to travel to Baghdad to join the protests but were blocked by road closures into the city. Instead, Anbar and Mosul youth called their friends in Baghdad to say they couldn’t join but assured them of their full support from afar.
Shi’a youth rejection of political elites
Since 2011, protests have mostly been led by secular, civil society activists, at times co-opted by political elites when deemed politically expedient. One long-time civil society said, “Mainstream Shi’a youth normally never joined without the green light from religious figures like Ayatollah Sistani and Muqatda al-Sadr or politicians. Sometimes they rejected our call to protest, saying they can’t involve themselves in secular movements which may destroy their customs. When hundreds of Shi’a youth showed up on the first day of protests and the days after, it really surprised us at first. They came out on their own and were rejecting the establishment. Some were chanting ‘Sadr and Sistani, you let us down! Iran, get out!’”
Shared grievances and common demands therefore united a diverse group of people under one banner outside of the direction of a political or religious leader. “If there is one thing that unites Iraqis, it's this: the corrupt political elite, regardless of denomination, do not represent them, and are not invested in political and social progress,” said Ruba Ali al-Hassani, Iraq watcher and PhD candidate.
Many Shi’a protesters said they viewed political parties, and often Iran, as complicit in the country’s governance failure and corruption. And others felt betrayed by pro-Iranian paramilitary groups that used force to silence them. “Iran isn’t here to help us but rather use us to achieve their political goals here and in the region. The violent crackdown on protests in Basra in 2018 was a wake-up call for many Shi’a. It opened my generation’s eyes,” one journalist and protester said.
Protesters’ criticism of Iran, however, should not be analyzed within the context of the ongoing Iran-U.S. tensions but rather as a rejection of the violations of a dominant actor on the ground. Many protesters interviewed said they view Iran as complicit in the government system’s oppression of Iraqis. Some also occasionally criticized the U.S., calling for an independent Iraq free from foreign influence, but this time most criticism was aimed at Iran.
Some of the protesters themselves were former members of state-backed paramilitary groups. The Hashd al-Shaabi — or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) — is an umbrella organization of armed groups institutionalized by the Iraqi parliament in 2016. The mother of a protester killed in Sadr City said, “My son fought ISIS in Baaj with the Hashd. How can they accuse protesters of being Baathists? My son did more for Iraq than this government.” Many of the protesters come from Shi’a areas of Baghdad and southern Iraq where many male members of their communities lost their lives fighting ISIS.
“Shi’a have been oppressed for centuries. Once the new government came to power in Iraq, we thought, finally a pro-Shi’a government. When there were problems, we thought we should hold our tongue, we can’t undermine those who represent us. But now politicians are benefitting from everything and we don’t even get basic services,” one protester in Baghdad said.
While protesters’ broad demands are not religiously-specific and resonate widely among Iraq’s diverse population, some of the overwhelming majority of Shi’a protesters did utilize Shi’a religious references in their denouncement of the government. Ahead of Arbaeen this month, the religious remembrance of the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, protesters linked their struggle against the Iraqi government’s oppression to that of Hussein’s.
“Some protesters beat their chests and carried Hussein flags. They shouted sayings of Imam Hussein like hayhat minna al-dhilla [‘no to humiliation’], indicating that they would protect their dignity to death against an oppressor,” one protester said.
The wholesale rejection of the political system is evidenced by the fact that protest activity in several cases in southern Iraq escalated into arson attacks against political party and PMF offices, especially in Maysan and Dhi Qar. In one area, no political parties’ offices were spared, including those of the Communist Party, which is aligned with Muqatda al-Sadr’s Sairun election coalition. “We reject them all. This is why the government is so scared,” one protester said.
Street protests introduce an element of uncertainty and are especially concerning for Iranian-affiliated groups. In an interview with a local pro-Iranian PMF leader from southern Iraq, the leader maintained that the Fatah political alliance enjoys widespread support and remains the strongest alliance in Iraq. When asked why in some cases protesters attacked political party and PMF offices, he accused “suspicious actors” of “changing the protesters’ path.” He further blamed “opponents from secular parties” of “leading protesters in this direction.”
“If there is one thing that unites Iraqis, it's this: the corrupt political elite, regardless of denomination, do not represent them, and are not invested in political and social progress,” said Ruba Ali al-Hassani, Iraq watcher and PhD candidate.
Sympathy with protesters
Raids on and threats against media outlets, an internet shutdown on Oct. 2 (which has since been lifted, at least for now), and senior government officials’ denunciations of protesters seek to distort the mostly peaceful image of the protests and hide official actors’ complicity. Despite such efforts, protesters appear to have widespread sympathy among the larger population.
“Who can argue with their demands? Everyone wants better services and less corruption. We just despair change will never come,” one Baghdad resident said.
Even one Ministry of Interior police officer informally acknowledged, “We’re scared of the protesters because their demands are real.”
When asked about the youth’s political saviness, activists interviewed deflected criticism leveled at protesters accusing them of being unorganized and lacking a proper political platform. One activist from Dhi Qar said the government is more to blame for this than the youth. “How do you expect a poverty-stricken youth population for whom the government has failed to provide a proper education and work opportunities, to develop a sophisticated advocacy platform?”
Another activist said, “We have tried for years to get alternative voices in government. The system and its protectors mostly don’t allow it. In fact, they actively suppress it.” International Crisis Group Iraq Senior Advisor Maria Fantappie notes that, “For a growing segment of the population, street action has become the only meaningful form of participation in politics.”
Structural barriers prohibit greater participation by independent candidates. And it may get worse. Some analysts call the new election law for the upcoming 2020 provincial elections the most “pro-big bloc” law to date. According to the September 2019 edition of Inside Iraq Politics, “The final bill adopted a seat allocation formula designed to exclude small parties and local independents while also rejecting the government’s compromise provision to help local candidates.”
Government's lack of engagement with protesters' demands
Most protesters and activists saw government plans for reform and accountability as band-aid measures and not efforts at real reform. They also denounced what they saw as government publicity stunts to engage with disgruntled youth.
Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and other senior government leaders met with “protest leaders” in Baghdad earlier in October to discuss reforms. But neither protesters nor activists interviewed knew who these people were. One human rights advocate asked, “How did the government identify these leaders when the protests are, in fact, leaderless?”
One activist in Dhi Qar said local officials requested several civil society members to submit a list of names to discuss reform but they refused. “Considering the ongoing violent crackdown at the time, they were obviously not going to consider demands for reform. They just wanted a list of people to arrest,” he said.
On Oct. 7, Iraq’s military admitted for the first time that it had used “excessive force outside the rules of engagement” and promised to hold those guilty to account. Over the course of the next few days, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced a series of reforms pledging to tackle corruption, create jobs and social welfare programs, and provide compensation for those killed during the protests, both protesters and security forces.
On Oct. 11 Iraq’s top Shi’a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, blamed the government for the protesters’ deaths and denounced the use of excessive force against them, giving the government a deadline of two weeks to hold “undisciplined elements” to account.
Most Iraqis interviewed doubt real reform will come. First, the government reportedly lacks the funds and administrative capacity to carry out such an undertaking. One Iraqi university professor and former government employee dismissed the announced reforms as “totally illogical” and impossible to implement. “The government just wants to deflect criticism from them to the ministries slated to provide services to the victims of the protests,” the professor said.
Perhaps more importantly, politicians view real reform of the system as an affront to their hold on power. “We have been protesting since 2011. Prime Ministers Maliki, Abadi, and now Adel Abdul-Mahdi all promised similar reforms and then broke all their promises,” one long-time protester said.
Future of protests
The government’s harsh crackdown and the upcoming religious commemoration of Arbaeen have put the protests on hold for now. Protesters say they plan to take to the streets again on Oct. 25.
The high casualty rate will not be forgotten by victims’ families and their communities. One protester from Sadr City said, “The extreme violence has created a gap of trust between the security forces and us youth.” The mother of a son killed during the protests in Sadr City said, “Security forces have deployed in our neighborhood to protect the government, not its people.”
The arrest of protesters, journalists, human rights activists, civil society actors, and academics seems aimed at silencing whatever groups could work to translate the demands of the spontaneous protests into a more actionable framework for reform. Freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of the press are threatened.
The government’s crackdown, described by some analysts as a slide toward a more repressive and authoritarian state, against a mainly youth protester population who see themselves as having “nothing to lose” does not portend well for the future. Whether this translates into further protests in spite of the repressive environment remains to be seen.
The government meanwhile will try to weather the storm to preserve the status quo, but some factions have already called for its resignation.
Protesters have particularly slammed paramilitary groups, some of which do not appear to be under the full control of the prime minister. “Their actions are certainly not in his interest as they are only stirring hatred of the government,” Iraq analyst Kirk Sowell said.
Many fear what will come next. Protests and activists are unanimous in their criticism of the international community’s inadequate response to the protests. One protester cautioned, “We need the international community to say more. Local media and Iraqis are being silenced.”
Haley Bobseine is a Middle East-based researcher and analyst. The views expressed in this article are her own.
Photos by Ameer Al Mohammedaw/picture alliance via Getty Images and HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images