Anti-government protesters in Iraq have spent more than four months calling for political and economic reforms and venting their anger at the failure of successive governments to provide better living standards and economic opportunities.
Security forces, caught off-guard by the strength and resilience of the youth-driven protest movement, have responded with a campaign of repression that has killed more than 600 people and wounded tens of thousands more across the country. But the crackdown has only intensified the crisis, as Iraqis continue to take to the streets demanding justice for slain demonstrators and reforms of the political system.
The government has been largely ineffective in the face of the unrest. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has led a caretaker government since announcing that he would resign in late November, as the country’s leading political factions—the pro-Iran Bina coalition and the Sairoon bloc, which is headed by the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—took two months to settle on a compromise candidate to replace him: Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, a former communications minister. But immediately after President Barham Salih announced Allawi’s nomination earlier this month, protesters denounced Allawi as part of the same political establishment that they have been railing against. Like Abdul Mahdi before him, Allawi was chosen after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the leaders of the largest blocs in Iraq’s parliament.
That does not sit well with young Iraqis who make up much of the protest movement, and who have largely been left out of the political process. Nearly 60 percent of Iraq’s population is under 25 years old—too young to remember the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime. After Saddam’s overthrow in the U.S. invasion in 2003, this generation has grown up in the shadow of poor governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions that exist mainly to serve the interests of elites. They are worn out by years of mismanagement and continuous violence.
Their protests are a challenge to the elites framed not around sectarian identities but concrete political and economic issues. They are demanding an overhaul of the economy, better delivery of basic services, an end to corruption, and changes to the constitution and electoral system that make it easier for regular people to participate politically. Iraqis throughout the country are united in a rejection of the “isms” that have sequentially ravaged the nation for over a century: colonialism, monarchism, republicanism, communism, nationalism, Baathism, authoritarianism and sectarianism. With youth unemployment at 36 percent and the population growing by around 1 million per year, Iraq’s demographics are a ticking bomb. There is nothing close to an acceptable social contract on offer for Iraqis, which has led protesters to calculate that things will not improve without pressure, and they are willing to risk their lives to force change.
Despite being rejected by protesters, Allawi has nevertheless tried to distinguish himself from other Iraqi leaders through public statements in support of holding early elections and a commitment to meeting demonstrators’ demands for reforms. He has until March 2 to form a credible government that can win a vote of confidence from the parties that make up Iraq’s fractious parliament, while trying to remain relatively independent. But even if he is successful, he may not have enough political power to follow through on his promises and win back the trust of a skeptical population. Regular elections must be held by April 2022 but are likely to be called sooner, so Allawi will not have time to enact any far-reaching reforms.
Realistically, he can only hope to make progress on two issues. The first is protecting protesters and achieving a measure of justice for those who have died in clashes with security forces and other armed groups that operate with impunity. By restoring a sense of security on the streets and guaranteeing the freedom of assembly and expression, Allawi could give demonstrators space to take stock of their position and organize themselves so that they can engage in dialogue or outline a practical roadmap for reforms.
The second is delivering on early elections, which will require parliament’s cooperation to agree on a date and a vote to dissolve itself—likely a difficult task. Even if a date can be set, there is no guarantee that turnout would be higher than the alarmingly low rate of 44.5 percent in the last general election, in 2018. But recent changes to election laws, despite being widely panned by protesters, should make the process fairer and encourage new faces to participate. To ensure that demonstrators have a voice in the elections, the new government could help facilitate the creation of a new party composed of protest supporters and ensure that elections are conducted fairly.
The deeper reforms that demonstrators are calling for, however, will be beyond Allawi’s reach. The best he can hope for is to manage expectations until new elections can be held. Already, he is struggling to form a Cabinet of his own choosing, and there are rumors that he may not even be confirmed as prime minister.
That puts the protesters in a difficult position. Even if Allawi’s government is able to protect them in the short run and help give them a greater voice in elections, Iraq’s political system is fundamentally resistant to the kinds of substantial reforms they are calling for. The most influential parties and interests—including Bina coalition members like Asaib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization, which have seats in parliament as well as armed wings in the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces, and their rivals in the Sadrist Sairoon bloc—can call on vast networks of patronage and financial power. They also retain major influence in the state bureaucracy and over government ministers, and some enjoy substantial backing from foreign powers like Iran, making it unlikely that they will willingly give up power.
Even so, the events of the past few months have shaken the political elite. The resilience of protests, even in the face of killings and crackdowns, and the government’s loss of popularity have shown that the tide is turning against the status quo. Sooner or later, the rulers of Iraq will need to come to terms with the fact that they are not as popular or as acceptable as they once were. Every year that passes by without improvement in the daily life of the average Iraqi means an ever-greater loss of trust.
Iraq’s political elites are approaching the point of no return, after which the only possible result is the collapse of the system. For protesters, this means there is room to seek incremental reforms, if they are willing to compromise. The next two years may represent the last, best chance for those changes.