Iraq is in a tragically dark place. The pandemic ravages what is left of a tattered economy while armed militias gun down critics and rivals with impunity. Protests, the last refuge of an exhausted, desperate Iraqi populace, have ceased to be an effective tool to influence those in power. Even as streets swell with non-partisan, non-sectarian crowds, their pleas fall on the deaf ears of an increasingly entrenched political elite emboldened by a mostly uninterested international community.
The disastrous US-led invasion in 2003 and its woeful aftermath poisoned politics, particularly in the West, and most countries are loath to wade into Iraq and risk a repetition. What remains is hardened sectarianism and the ascendance of a new political class with free rein to use state resources to recruit and rally supporters and entrench their own interests. Iraq is now one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Depressed oil prices have turned promised reforms into an albatross around the government’s neck. Not only does Baghdad face an onerous task of deeply ingrained corruption, the government is also under pressure to exorcise US and Iranian influence and rein in wayward militias.
The result is pure misery, particularly for Iraqi youth. A lack of basic services and dwindling employment prospects have turned the concerned into the desperate and the bleak into utter despair. Hence, the years-long youth-led cross-sectarian protests.
However, as determined as Iraqis are to create a future free of foreign influence, partisanship and sectarianism, they face daunting challenges. First, instead of listening to the shared grievances of Iraqis or initiating fruitful dialogue with an inclusive group of stakeholders, the government has opted to bare its fangs, deploying lethal capacities to deter an enraged public. It has succeeded only in lighting a match to a powder keg.
Militias, fearing a sudden shift in the status quo should the government capitulate to the demands of protests, will escalate their violence. In fact, Iraqis would be wise to expect these groups to go to the furthest of extremes to preserve the lucrative grey area in which they thrive and are determined to continue occupying. It is not every day that heavily armed actors are independent enough to seek the support of an external backer like Iran, for example, while simultaneously claiming affiliation to Iraqi state security forces, which helps cover up their criminality.
The ensuing violence and chaos — whether instigated by militias, worsened by government or prompted by mass protest movements — would only justify a greater foreign presence in the name of “preserving stability.”However, the primary focus of such intrusions on Iraqi sovereignty are grander geopolitical rivalries, not the plight of ordinary Iraqis who are nearing two decades of constant upheaval.
Aside from foreign machinations, militias angling for spoils and a rudderless government, even the protest movement itself has developed an unintended blind spot — Iraqi small businesses and traders. They are caught in a never-ending crossfire, and rather than see the protests as a chance to get the government to pay to Iraq’s economic woes, business owners can only cast cautious and wary eyes as crowds descend on Tahrir Square. Most agree with or are aligned with the protest movement, but they also have to worry about their bottom line and how to sustain their families too. It is a major concern when potential destruction and looting force their shutters to close, while barricades and heavily policed streets choke off customer traffic.
In such a climate full of hopelessness and despair, there appears to be a silver lining in the June 2021 parliamentary elections that the prime minister has pledged will go ahead as planned. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi owes his premiership to the Iraqi protest movement, and while he has mastered the rhetoric, his failure to achieve meaningful reforms is likely to mean he meets the same fate as his predecessor. Nonetheless, on the surface, elections do offer a chance for Iraqis to deliver a reality check to Baghdad's entrenched elites and signal to external actors that their time is up.
Regrettably, sending assurances about an election that will take place eight months from now is emblematic of Baghdad’s knack for kicking the can down the road instead of confronting the urgency of the moment.
Even more concerning is that vested interests have begun targeting the protest movements, either to politicize them or co-opt their messaging to further their own aims rather than pursue reforms. Should they succeed, most protests by June will be indistinguishable from mere political rallies, with their calls for change chiseled down to support the very groups, individuals and institutions they initially rose up against.
It bears repeating. Iraq is in a dark place.
Iraqis should have gathered last week to honor the 600 who died and remember the 30,000 injured during the “revolution” last year, and renew the popular youth-led movement to account for the government’s progress or call for more reforms. However, discussions have only been somber accountings of what was lost and whether there was anything salvageable from a pile of mounting woes to at least point to a gain.
Iraqis must confront an uncomfortable reality, bogged down by entrenched self-serving elites, an intransigent government and intractable undue foreign influence. Some have sought to transform the “October Revolution”protests into a symbolic moment of freedom and a demonstration of cross-sectarian Iraqi unity bound by common interest in undoing the status quo. Others, however, are pessimistic — dismissing reports of “understandings” between protest leaders and the prime minister to participate in parliamentary elections on a single list.
The plan is to turn the protests into political action, but all it does is window-dress a familiar game of political musical chairs. These “leaders” — hemmed in by influential political parties, a meddlesome Iran and chastened by armed militias — will simply become the new entrenched elites.
Thus, without any room to budge, only desperation remains. Most Iraqis have already lost much and are left with little in the way of choice but to return to the streets that have already buried or maimed so many.