Over a year has passed since protests first erupted in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on October 1, 2019. But for the Iraqi people, the domestic situation is getting worse. Thousands marched and expressed their frustrations on the one-year anniversary, promising continued pressure on the ruling elites should they not grant reforms, while security forces tried to disperse demonstrators with tear gas.
Thousands marched and expressed their frustrations on the one-year anniversary.
“Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for you Iraq,” hundreds of demonstrators chanted, during further protests last October.
Protesters initially demanded improvements to Iraq’s widespread corruption, mass unemployment, deteriorating public services, and external interference in the country’s politics.
“The October movement was a milestone in recent Iraq history and a surprise for many, including us Iraqis,” Ahmed Rasoul, an Iraq analyst, told Inside Arabia.
“It was formed by a different generation that cannot be labeled as Sunni or Shia, one that did not experience Saddam’s rule. They only care about their country’s stolen future and wanted to rebuild one themselves. Though it was unlikely to trigger a dramatic change like the Arab Spring revolutions, the October protests redrew the map and made all political sides recalculate,” he added.
As the recent antigovernmental protests continued, security forces have responded harshly, killing one man called Omar Fadel and injuring at least 40 others during a crackdown in the southern province of Basra on November 6. The protester’s death was the first since May, when incumbent Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi took office.
Al-Kadhimi condemned the violence, tweeting on November 7: “The state will not be lenient with any member of the security forces who violates orders to not use bullets against protesters,” adding that Fadel’s killer will be prosecuted.
While the protests triggered the resignation of former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, and his successor presents himself as different from the past corrupt leaders, people’s woes are deteriorating due to the failures of the wider establishment to alleviate society’s problems, along with regional geopolitics and a global pandemic that affects Iraq’s oil driven economy.
Ahmed al-Kinani, an Iraqi researcher, told Inside Arabia. “Historically, the state had been the main driver for the economy in Iraq to build very strong and stable institutions that could integrate into free market economy in an event of privatization.”
“However, these institutions were weakened by US sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s. After 2003, the failing Iraqi economy was mainly [hopeless] since the post-invasion government ignored strengthening its institutions before seeking economic reform,” added al-Kinani.
“I believe Iraq needs to adopt an interventionist approach to its economy, whereby the government helps to restore state-owned projects, strengthens them, and then reforms the economy. “
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already dire economic situation.
Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already dire economic situation. Iraq’s Ministry of Planning reported in July that 4.5 million more individuals, or 11 percent of the population, have fallen into poverty due to the pandemic, most of whom are children. It also found that one in three Iraqis could fall below the poverty line by the end of 2020. Many Iraqis also are torn between losing out on income due to a lack of governmental financial support and risking starvation, or exposing themselves to the virus.
With these worsening living conditions, further social discontent is possible, and could lead to more protests.
“There are many contributing factors that may spark a second wave of protests,” Rasoul explained. “Maybe this time there could be new participants; such as employees of the huge public sector and others who had their wages and salaries go intermittent would join the youth protests, who are disappointed with new government’s abilities to address their needs and demands.”
However, al-Kinani argues that any potential protest movement may not reach the October 2019 movement’s scale.
“It is unlikely that we would witness a protest movement like that of October 2019 mainly because many stakeholders are currently seeking to deescalate the situation and prevent further division in the country. After all, it is very polarized between a pro-US vision of the Middle East and an anti-US one allegedly backed by Iran,” he said.
On the other hand, al-Kinani suggested that supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the prominent Iraqi Shia cleric and militia leader, “could lead an anti-government protest mainly because his supporters criticized Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s administration for forging an alliance with Egypt.”
This is in reference to Baghdad and Cairo signing 15 agreements in various fields including judiciary training, oil and water resources, investment, and environmental protection on November 3. Egyptian companies were also granted permission for development projects in exchange for oil, Iraq’s main resource.
“The agreement with Egypt was a response from al-Kadhimi to the agreement with China by his predecessor for developmental projects in Iraq, which the US strongly opposed. Many observers speculated that last year’s protests were amplified by US-backed actors to overthrow Abdul Mahdi and bring in a government that would cancel the economic agreement with China,” al-Kinani added.
“Sadr is right when he described the agreement with Egypt as ‘shameful,’ there is no comparison between China and Egypt but mainly because Iraq will end up purchasing Egyptian electricity powered by Israeli gas. So, these dynamics could trigger further tensions.”
Trump and Iran’s dispute over Iraq has also been a partial factor, as Trump pursued his so-called “maximum pressure” campaign on Tehran, imposing harsher sanctions on the country. And as the Trump administration has promised a “flood” of new sanctions on Iran until January 20, when President-elect Joe Biden will assume office, renewed tensions could spill over into Iraq in the short term.
Iran has become a dominant actor in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, having supported several politicians and militias.
Iran has become a dominant actor in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, having supported several politicians and militias under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of militias loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Critics say Iran has played a malign role by interfering in the country’s politics and hindering reforms.
On July 31, al-Kadhami announced early parliamentary elections for July 2021, previously scheduled for May 2022. The United Nations welcomed this, claiming it would create “greater stability and democracy” in Iraq. As protesters previously demanded new elections, one of their key desires could hopefully be met. However, observers feel there is more work to be done, to deliver a system that could improve Iraqis’ livelihoods.
“There should be efforts to establish real institutions, a real rule of law, though all of these requirements seem distant currently, with new election laws and the establishment rigged to serve big corrupt players,” said Rasoul.