Ongoing mass protests across various parts of the world appear to emphasize that words alone can no longer calm a populace frustrated with governments divorced from the average citizen’s painful reality. It resonates across all movements, from climate action to anti-corruption, anti-austerity, and demands for more inclusivity, freedom and greater participation in key democratic processes.
Iraq is one of many countries experiencing such a surge in public anger, which has fueled the deadliest unrest since ISIS defeat two years ago. Statistics are not clear but estimates put the number of fatalities at more than 100, while the injured top 7,000 among both civilians and security officials. The once-peaceful anti-government protests have turned deadly, with the use of live ammunition by security officials further heightening tensions. The Iraqi government also shut down access to the internet in an effort to deprive the largely leaderless grassroots movement of platforms to organize, as well as broadcast the ongoing developments outside its borders.
Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s calls for calm have not helped assuage disenfranchised and disappointed Iraqis; neither did a promise to pass laws that would grant a basic income to the nation’s poor. On Saturday, the PM also established a public inquiry to investigate the protesters’ deaths. At the heart of Iraqis’ grievances are an out-of-touch government, poor basic services, exceedingly high unemployment and rampant corruption. The protests are linked to last year’s scuffles, which often targeted political entities with ties to Iran, such as the Badr Organization, Islamic Dawa Party and Tayar Al-Hikmah Al-Watani coalition.
Tehran has persistently sought to extend its influence into the war-torn neighboring land, which is stumbling as it begins a painful recovery process after exorcising the experience of the US-led invasion, followed by ISIS, whose remnants are still being isolated. As a result, sanctions-ridden Iran has often become a stumbling block to Iraqis’ aspirations of rebuilding in a post-ISIS era, notably with the drainage of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, which led to an increase in the river’s salinity and the poisoning of about 60,000 Iraqis.
Undue Iranian influence aside, protester antipathy also comes from Baghdad’s failure to transform oil wealth into sustainable economic growth. Iraq holds the fifth-largest proven oil reserves and is OPEC’s second-biggest producer at more than 4.5 million barrels per day — this is despite two decades of war and persistent civil unrest. The country is on track to produce nearly 6 million barrels per day within the next decade. However, economic growth has been sluggish, given the poor security situation, slow reconstruction efforts, dismal private investment and the lack of fiscal policy reforms focusing on comprehensive recovery, rather than merely patching up leaks.
The World Bank estimates that Iraq will need as much as $88 billion to completely recover from the years of conflict and internal strife. The country can certainly afford it, given that it makes more than $90 billion a year from oil exports alone, at current production and market prices.
Yet there are very few job or income-generating opportunities for many of the disaffected, particularly in Basra, where 90 percent of the country’s oil is produced. To protesters, the country’s vast oil wealth should be more than adequate to provide better living standards and some guarantee of jobs or economic opportunities. Yet citizens are grappling with unsafe drinking water, power shortages and untreated sewage flowing into waterways that are essential to the livelihoods of those living further downstream. Nearly a quarter of Iraq’s 40 million inhabitants subsist on less than $2 a day and a fifth of the country’s youth are either unemployed or underemployed. In addition, even though it has been two years since ISIS defeat, millions of Iraqis remain internally displaced, which deprives war-ravaged areas of the necessary manpower to jumpstart the much-needed recovery efforts.
It is no wonder that the government’s fumbling responses have fallen on deaf ears and, even more troubling, there is little urgency in Baghdad to transmit an openness about the solutions aimed squarely at the heart of these frustrations.
Shutting down the internet, curfews and failing to rein in the use of live ammunition against protesters signal that Baghdad is content with doubling down, while paying lip service to citizens’ demands. The situation reproduces an all-too-familiar refrain that is on display elsewhere around the world, where words alone are no longer enough. For those already struggling, fatalism becomes an attractive recourse, seeing as poverty, joblessness and deplorable conditions have left them with nothing to lose.
Iraqis want concrete action and, while important, the minutiae of transforming oil wealth to tangible reconstruction efforts and guaranteed economic opportunities is irrelevant at this point. Slogans and vacuous speeches must make way for bulldozers, trucks and armies of hard-hatted workers clearing debris, digging foundations, laying rebar, paving new roads and reconnecting utility lines. The ultimate aim being the revival of a largely decimated private sector that would, in turn, provide sustainable opportunities for Iraq’s disaffected.
To achieve this, Baghdad should have set clear goals within acceptable timelines and then accompanied that with the necessary nationwide momentum. Its failure to do so has only fomented further unrest, which delays critical recovery or reconstruction efforts, prompting a deathly spiral. The presence of ISIS and efforts to eradicate it may have given Baghdad cover for its glacial pace at stitching the country back together after more than two decades of chaos, conflict and internal instability. But there is no excuse anymore. If anything, a competent government would have finalized reconstruction plans inclusive of all stakeholders in the shadow of counter-insurgency operations. At their conclusion, it would have only been a matter of activating these plans and amending them as necessary. However, current fiscal policies and the national budget do not reflect any political will for the comprehensive actions now being demanded by protesters.
Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but the Iraqi government’s ambivalence is especially confounding given the potential consequences of its apparent policy failures. At worst, as more protests erupt, the country could see a re-emergence of the lawlessness that birthed ISIS. None of these outcomes bode well for an Iraq looking to establish a stable democracy, along with the fundamental institutions and processes that support it. Worse yet, an unstable Iraq will only further destabilize a region already reeling from Iranian adventurism, the Yemen war, Arab disunity, and now Turkey’s extended foray into Syria’s civil war.