by Gareth Jonas and Tom Webster
On October 25, thousands of Iraqi protesters mobilised throughout the country to commemorate the October 2019 “Tishreen Revolution,” with huge demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement. Their latest demands? Much the same as the original grievances that first drew Iraqis to the streets last year: economic reform, and tackling corruption and constitutional change—albeit now with the additional call for justice for the 600 protesters killed by pro-Iran militia groups and security forces since the initial protests. Despite these waves of mass protest, progress continues to be extremely limited with the Iraqi state remaining constrained by pro-Iranian parties, economic crises, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The perpetuation of demonstrations since October 2019 highlights the limited progress made by the Iraqi state to address protester demands. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that further progress will be made anytime soon.
While the original grievances in October 2019 centred around corruption and a lack of economic opportunities, the extensive use of violence against protesters has since made security sector reform the core demand of protests. Yet, justice for the deaths of protesters continues to be absent, magnifying the glaring lack of accountability within the Iraqi security sector. The July raid in which 14 Kataib Hezbollah members were arrested, only to be released days later after threats from the group, underscores the difficulty Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi has in enforcing that accountability. Therefore, though Kadhimi has repeatedly emphasised his support for the protesters and dedication to serving justice for the ‘martyrs’ of the protests, his actions (or lack thereof) suggest that these are empty promises. Protesters’ concerns will be little allayed by the reinstatement of Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi to the head of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. That was a victory for protesters, but a pyrrhic victory when one considers the death toll of the protests and the much more far-ranging demands to improve public safety. Today, protesters continue to place improved security and justice for the 600 or so killed protesters at the top of their agenda. That this remains the case six months after taking office, combined with the continued assassinations of high-profile activists and intellectuals across the summer, shows the evident lack of progress Kadhimi has been able to make in this area.
On the economy—the original core issue of protesters demands—the picture looks even bleaker. Mass rallies began in October 2019 in Tahrir Square calling for more job opportunities and improved services. One year on, it is hard to point at anything resembling progress as Iraq’s struggle with COVID-19 has only exacerbated its pre-existing economic woes and deprived the government of the resources to combat them. This, combined with the overinflated public sector, has led to a new strain of protests, in which medical workers and employees of the Ministry of Electricity across the country are demanding the disbursement of unpaid wages. It is thus apparent that Kadhimi has even more to contend with economically now than when he entered office.
The government’s greatest success in this area could be said to be the white paper published in October 2020 containing a historical diagnosis of Iraq’s financial woes and a prescription for a way out of it—by diversifying Iraq’s economy away from its dependence on oil whilst providing economic opportunities for Iraqis. It aims to achieve this by following International Monetary Fund guidelines which require spending cuts on basic needs such as health and education, alongside the devaluation of the currency to increase exports. However, the estimated 450 articles of legislation needed to be approved for the implementation of these recommendations are highly unlikely to pass due to opposition from various political parties who were not consulted, and little political will exists to pass them anyhow. As the country continues to teeter on the edge of an economic implosion, most protesters now seem resigned to simply wait out the pandemic until Iraq sees an increase in oil revenues.
There has also been very little progress towards domestic political reform. Calls for early elections and electoral reform to tackle corruption have increased throughout 2020 as protesters seek to do away with sectarian politics. Yet, the Iraqi Parliament is beset with factional infighting along sectarian lines as members of parliament continue to advance their individual and party interests at the cost of political reform. Whilst the recently passed electoral law goes some way towards weakening the dominance of traditional parliamentary blocs by dissolving provincial constituencies into electoral districts, protesters have accused it of dividing constituencies along ethnic and sectarian lines. This has effectively worked to buttress the reviled Muhasasa system; that is, the ethno-sectarian quotas by which cabinet positions are awarded amongst Iraq’s demographics. In addition, whilst early parliamentary elections have been scheduled for June 2021, the continued understaffing of the Independent High Electoral Commission and Federal Supreme Court—necessary to manage the elections and ratify the results—calls into question the current timeline for next year’s elections.
It is thus apparent that the majority of protesters’ demands have yet to be fulfilled, and the opportunity for progress in the short-term appears bleak. However, in considering the evolution of the protest movement’s response to the changing security and economic conditions that Iraq faces, we must acknowledge the limitations which the government faces in trying to meet many of the protesters’ demands. As a caretaker prime minister predominantly intended to navigate Iraq to new elections next year, whilst facing staunch opposition from pro-Iran parties and blocs in Parliament, there is little hard progress which Kadhimi can achieve. Nevertheless, the frustrations behind the protests are deep-set and not going away anytime soon. The antipathy voiced against Kadhimi at Tahrir Square in October was a significant moment in a movement which had hitherto been hesitant to criticise a leader who wants to clamp down on the militias and make progress on security and economy. The patience of protesters is quickly running out, so it seems as though Kadhimi will have to make a better effort in co-opting the energy of the streets if he is to bolster Iraq’s security and drive meaningful change in the lives of millions of Iraqis.
Gareth Jonas is a Regional Security Analyst at Le Beck International. He can be found tweeting about identity, ethnic conflict, and international security at @jonas_gareth. He is a Senior Editor at Strife.
Tom Webster is a Regional Security Analyst at Le Beck International who has conducted extensive research on the Popular Mobilization Units and their place in Iraqi state-building.