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In Iraq, demonstrators demand change — and the government fights back

Initially described as protests over the economy, they have become a call for revolution.

- October 7, 2019

Thousands of young men started demonstrating in the streets of Baghdad this month. Protests against the Iraqi government keep reoccurring in recent years, as youth activists have spoken out against pervasive corruption, failed governance and economic struggles.

The leaderless and spontaneous protest movement quickly spread across the country, primarily in the Shiite-dominated areas of the south and center. While initially described as being about the economy, the protest demands are going beyond the call for functioning state services. The slogans show that protesters want radical change: “There is no homeland,” “We want a country,” and the slogan commonly heard during the Arab uprising, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

If the scale and scope of the protests have been remarkable, the violent repression of the demonstrations has been unprecedented. In less than a week, Iraqi government security forces killed more than a hundred people, and thousands were wounded. With live ammunition, machine guns, stun grenades along with tear gas, anti-riot tanks and mercenaries, the Iraqi regime is launching a war against unarmed protesters. It has also cut Internet access and imposed a curfew to try to prevent the demonstrations from spreading.

How this is unlike earlier protests

This month’s demonstrations show an evolution in popular protest in Iraq. Demonstrations are growing more and more leaderless, unpredictable and radical. Protesters question the entire religious political elite, and denounce institutionalized and generalized corruption, the lack of basic services such as electricity and water, the absence of functioning health and education infrastructures, as well as endemic unemployment. They want to get rid of the establishment altogether.

In 2015, men younger than 30 led protests. They were educated and middle class — mainly teachers or state employees. Those demonstrations, starting in July 2015 and continuing every Friday for several months, began with thousands of protesters and expanded — at their peak — to a million.

From demonstrators’ slogans, we see a fundamental rejection of the muhasasa system established in 2003 by the U.S. occupation, which determines political representation based on communal identities (religious, ethnic or sectarian). Protesters further demanded an end to rule by what they considered a corrupt elite and the creation of a functioning welfare state redistributing Iraq’s oil wealth to its citizens. The protesters also expressed patriotic demands — and used the Iraqi flag extensively and solely — showing their opposition to any foreign influence in the country.

The individuals who then took leadership of the protests belonged to the older generation, mainly men with experience as activists and affiliated with civil society or political organizations. And the Shiite Islamist Sadrist movement quickly appropriated the protests and forged an alliance with secular parties and individuals. It turned the protest into a movement of reforms and created a coalition that ran in the 2018 general elections.

By 2018, protests in Basra refused any type of leadership and stayed away from political groups and coalitions, and any centralized organization. The protesters were mainly young men whose demands went way beyond those in 2015 — and grew toward the rejection of the political system altogether and a change of regime.

The current protests are following the Basra model in their forms and demands. It is wider than a lower middle class seeking to assert itself — it is about the disempowered demanding a whole new system. And none of the old political movements or parties has successfully put itself forward to represent or lead the movement.

A war against unarmed protesters

These protests are profoundly shaped by the Iraqi security forces’ violent repression, which includes armed groups and militias led by members of the Iraqi political elite. The previous waves of protest in 2011, 2015 and in Basra in 2018 started similarly as small and sporadic demonstrations that turned into massive demonstrations spreading all over the country after the killing of unarmed demonstrators by security forces.

The protesters are challenging the Iraqi establishment. And it is not a strong and centralized political apparatus. The state is weak and structured by militarization — and competes with various armed groups deeply embedded in the sectarian and corrupt political elite that came to power in 2003.

The role of the Popular Mobilization Forces in the war against the Islamic State in Mosul normalized these groups — they were part of the general parliamentary elections in May 2018. Leaders of paramilitary forces and militias are members of the parliament, despite being responsible for threatening, kidnapping and killing civil society activists and for many human rights violations in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq.

Armed violence is not the prerogative of only paramilitary groups, militias or even the state. It is also widely practiced by the biggest social actor after the state: tribal leadership. The war against the Islamic State increased militarization of Iraqi society — weapons were widely distributed, and soldiers have returned to civilian life.

What’s next?

Since 2003, the fragmentation of the political system has reached an extreme: division between sects, privatization that benefits political and tribal leaders and their base, and the centralization of oil resources at the hand of a corrupt elite. All of this was at the expense of ordinary Iraqi citizens. Elections were boycotted by part of the youth, including many of those who had launched the 2015 protests.

The division between the people and the Iraqi government is broad — and includes the army, police and security forces — and members of the Iraqi army have expressed solidarity with the protesters. The unprecedented use of violence by the Iraqi state to repress peaceful and unarmed demonstrators has concrete consequences. It exacerbates the gap between state and society and can lead to more violence in a country where weapons are so widely distributed and used, whether by tribal groups to settle disputes or by various militias.

This is a very dangerous strategy. While the government and parliament announced some reforms — including land distributions and welfare stipends — they are intensifying the violence against demonstrators. In the meantime, more and more Iraqi protesters are calling for a “revolution,” marching in the streets, and announcing another protest on Friday.

Zahra Ali is an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University and author of “Women and Gender in Iraq: Between Nation-Building and Fragmentation.”

Safaa Khalaf is a scholar and journalist. He is the 2017 recipient of the Naseej Prize.