After years of suffering and neglect, angry Iraqis refuse to be silenced

After years of suffering and neglect, angry Iraqis refuse to be silenced

Comment: With anti-government protests spreading through the streets of Iraq, Abdul Mahdi's mandate may be over before it's really begun, writes Bashdar Ismaeel.
5 min read
08 Oct, 2019
Anti-government protests have taken place under live fire across Iraq [AFP/Getty]
As the death toll from protests staged by increasingly disgruntled Iraqis mounts, Abdul Mahdi's government looks increasingly shaky, and Iraq appears headed for a new social, political and sectarian crisis that it can ill-afford.

Iraq has been no stranger to mass demonstrations in recent years. Popular protests saw the Green Zone overrun in 2016 and in 2018 they served as a nail in the coffin of former Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

In spite of various pledges and promises of reform from successive governments, the reality on the ground has barely shifted. Now, in 2019, protestors will be much harder to appease.

On paper, Iraq should be one of the richest countries in the world, yet international indexes consistently rate it as one of the most corrupt. Large sections of the public live below the poverty line, with high unemployment, especially among the youth, and basic public services such as provision of water and electricity showing little improvement.

With years of costly battles fuelled by sectarianism and most recently, a protracted and deadly battle against the Islamic State, the end result is only an increasing repair bill that will take years, if not decades, to address.

And it is this notion of time that hits the protestors the hardest. Frustrated Iraqis are asking when they will finally see stability, basic public services, a serious effort to tackle corruption, state revenues invested in infrastructure, and a sense of opportunity for the future.

Whilst the protests have centred on themes of nationalism more than sectarian affiliation, their future hinges on key Shia figures

Addressing protestors, Iraqi prime minister Abdul Mahdi insisted their "legitimate demands" have been heard, but warned that there is no "magic solution". He pledged to fight corruption, work on laws granting poor families a basic income and provide alternative housing.

However, with Iraqis increasingly impatient, a sure way of stirring further emotions and anger is trying to silence them by imposing curfews and large-scale media blackouts.

Abdul Mahdi's comparison of security measures in the aftermath of the week-long violence to a "bitter medicine" that needs to be swallowed is hardly likely soothe public sentiment.

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The government is clearly scared of protests spreading across Iraq, pitting the public against government forces on a much larger scale.

One only needs to look at how violent crackdown of peaceful protests in Syria in 2011 turned into one of the most deadly civil wars in Middle East history.

While the protests have centred on themes of nationalism more than sectarian affiliation, their future hinges on key Shia figures.

Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged both sides to end the violence "before it's too late". Lamenting the loss of life, he blamed lawmakers for the current plight, warning that "the government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground."

Meanwhile, influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - a thorn in the side of previous governments and a central figure in previous mass protests - is unlikely to rush to bail out the government.

Sadr has been disgruntled with the political establishment in Baghdad for several years now, especially over corruption, monopolisation of power, lack of reform, sectarian policies, employment and declining public services.

Even with his Sairoon alliance forming the largest opposition bloc in parliament, there has been little progress to show over the past year, owing to political bickering and disagreements over cabinet posts and policies.

It came as little surprise, then, that in a recent statement he pulled his lawmakers from parliament, and called for the disbandment of the current government.

Sadr urged: "Respect the blood of Iraq through the resignation of the government and prepare for early elections overseen by international monitors."

The problem in Iraq is that the political circle have become so entrenched in partisan and sectarian agendas that it is difficult to form a true technocratic government that centres on serving public interests.

While Sadr may look towards fresh elections, most Iraqis who demand change don't see this as a legitimate solution, as a new election may take months to execute and is ultimately likely to change very little. Iraqi faith in the political system is already brittle as shown with weak turnouts at recent elections.

Further elections are unlikely to alter the reality of dozens of political groups and alliances that are symbolic of the polarisation of Iraq, and all too often, hinder government formation and effective governance.

While such deep-rooted issues remain, another prime minister would struggle just as much as their predecessors.

Iraqi politicians are even struggling to agree a united response to the protestors. Iraqi president Barham Saleh insisted peaceful protest was a "constitutional right", while Abdul Mahdi defended the security forces insisting they were abiding by "international standards" dealing with protests and blamed the violence on "aggressors who... deliberately created casualties".

These protests risk being used by many rogue forces to inflame tensions by attacking government forces

For now, Abdul Mahdi is unlikely to disband government or ease off in his clampdown of the protests, leading to a vicious cycle.

These protests risk being used by many rogue forces to inflame tensions by attacking government forces. This raises the prospect of Shia militias becoming more visible on the streets, and seen as patrons of the public.

It must not be forgotten that groups such as Islamic State used widespread Sunni discontent to bolster support and stir public sentiment. Other insurgent groups and militias may well manipulate local anger to promote their agendas.

This makes it more difficult for Baghdad to rein in already powerful militias, who provide wages, protection and a sense of belonging for many Shias.

Explainer: Why are people protesting in Iraq?

Such protests also threaten a wider regional impact. Iraq is already caught between growing US-Iran tensions, and the Iraqi public are divided on the strong Iranian hand in Iraq. 

The current state of affairs looks likely to end Abdul Mahdi's leadership before it has truly begun.

The end result is political platforms becoming as contentious and paralysed as ever, militias taking centre stage, deterioration in security as insurgent groups capitalise on anger, the public rejecting more pledges, and their key demands unlikely to be met in the near term, fuelling a vicious cycle.

Bashdar Ismaeel is a writer and geopolitical, energy and security analyst.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.