A series of spontaneous demonstrations erupted in Baghdad on October 1 , spreading to towns in central and southern Iraq.  Demonstrators took to the streets demanding the improvement of public services, economic opportunities and the elimination of political corruption. Police reportedly responded with live ammunition which led to violence. The clashes have since resulted in over 100 dead and thousands more wounded. Despite being some of the worst protests of their kind, demonstrators have vowed that they will not accept anything less than radical change.

The System is Failing

Iraqis are not protesting for the downfall of the current regime. Rather they want an end to the existing political arrangement altogether. They believe it is responsible for the continuous debasement that has plagued Iraqi politics.

The current political system, known as “muhassassa,” is relatively new. Implemented after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, it allocates ministerial appointments to elected candidates based on sectarian or ethnic quotas rather than merit. Its intention was to reduce the prospect of another dictatorship by ensuring the administration was comprised of proportional representation. Instead, the outcome has been mainly politicians leveraging ethno-sectarian identities for votes and abusing their power to benefit their parties as opposed to serving the public.

“Aggrieved Iraqis say this [‘muhassasa’] has allowed Shia, Kurdish, Sunni and other leaders to abuse public funds, enrich themselves and their followers and effectively pillage the country of its wealth with very little benefit to most citizens,” writes Chatham House Researcher Renad Mansour for the BBC.

Iraq’s “muhassassa” procedure serves only the interests of the elite, who have left Iraq devoid of financial prosperity and functioning services. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi promised to bridge the gap between the technocrats and the rest of society. One year into his tenure, Abdul-Mahdi has failed effectively to tackle the country’s corruption.

Youth unemployment has soared above 25 percent. Iraq is ranked as the 12th most corrupt country in the world, with an estimated $40 billion of illicit funds smuggled out of the country annually. Iraq’s oil wealth remains concentrated within the government, accounting for 90 percent of the budget, yet the administration is failing to supply reliable electricity and drinking water. This leaves Iraqis with a lot to be angry about, especially when officials are lining their pockets with the country’s capital.

What began as a peaceful protest demanding jobs and services has rapidly developed into a fatal crackdown against protesters.

What began as a peaceful protest demanding jobs and services has rapidly developed into a fatal crackdown against protesters. The security forces who defeated ISIS have turned their weapons on unarmed citizens. Countless videos are circulating on social media showing protestors killed by snipers. Rather than protecting Iraqis, Abdul-Mahdi has chosen to protect the dishonest political system, furthering the disdain that citizens hold towards the country’s leaders.

Protesters in Baghdad Oct 2 2019 Image courtesy Xinhua News Agency PA images Copy

Protesters in Baghdad on Oct 2, 2019 (Image courtesy Xinhua News Agency)

In response to the protests, Abdul-Mahdi called for a Cabinet reshuffle and support for parliamentary reforms to address the demands of the demonstrators. His words have fallen on deaf ears. With an uncompromising populace calling for an “end to the regime,” another round of musical chairs will not cut it this time.

A Move Away From Identity Politics

It is not the first time that Iraqis have fought against the lack of economic opportunities and poor government services. Previously, rallies were largely sectarian in nature. In 2012,  mass demonstrations were held against former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki whose policies systemically discriminated against Sunnis. The recent protests are intra-sectarian, the actors a Shia majority dissenting a largely Shia government. Sunnis who have taken to the streets do so as those who cannot find jobs rather than as a religious minority facing discrimination. The protests are leaderless, further emphasizing a change from divisible politics to a fixation on a shared Iraqi identity.

Most of the demonstrators are young and unaffiliated with the civic and political forces of Iraq.

Most of the demonstrators are young and unaffiliated with the civic and political forces of Iraq. They lived through the post-Saddam era which lacked basic infrastructure and services. They grew up in a time of war and were governed by a debauched political elite. The current system is all they have known. Their demands for social justice and economic redistribution are interlinked with the claim for sectarian equality and political accountability.

The eruption in Iraq was triggered in part by the dismissal of Lieutenant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi. He played a critical role in the liberation of Mosul from the self-proclaimed “Islamic State.” His supporters alleged he was ousted to appease Iran, and his popularity is seen as a threat to Iraq’s Iran-backed politicians. Al-Saadi fought on the frontline under the Iraqi flag unlike the Iranian backed Popular Mobilization Forces who flew factional banners.

On the backdrop of increasing patriotic sentiment, al-Saadi is considered a hero to many of the younger post-Saddam generation.

“He freed Mosul. He’s a true nationalist and does not have a relationship with Iran or America,” said protester Ali Abdul Karim.

Al-Saadi is Shia, popular with Sunnis and rose through the ranks legitimately, an example for a generation who wants nothing more than to be rid of the current crooked system. Al-Saadi’s demotion is an example of how ethno-sectarian politics have been imposed from the top and institutionalized. It is not surprising that his demotion brought the public’s rage to the surface.

It is obvious that governments past and present are out of touch with the Iraqi people.

It is obvious that governments past and present are out of touch with the Iraqi people. Whilst the security forces attempt to push back the protests, they may certainly return given Iraq’s dreadful state of governance and economic crisis. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi must remedy the situation beyond his empty promises. A complete overhaul is needed to address the top-down corruption and pro-sectarian agenda caused by the “muhassassa” system.

These socio-economic grievances cannot be ignored. Abdul-Mahdi must act immediately to prevent further destabilizing an already destabilized region.