The Rising Tide of Change in Iraq: An Assessment of the 2018 and 2019 Protests

Protests have erupted again in Iraq with protesters demanding the removal of a deeply corrupt government and an end to foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs. This paper provides an analysis and assessment of the different waves of protests in the country in the last two years and the need for real reforms to address a process that is gaining traction with each wave.

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Iraqi protesters in Tahrir Square, Baghdad - October 2019© Private

The stability and legitimacy of the post-2003 Iraqi state are undermined by the provision of poor basic services, soaring unemployment, and political paralysis. This has driven ordinary citizens towards waves of protests that peaked in August 2018 and re-surged again in October 2019, demonstrating that without addressing the underlying causes behind these protests, much larger and more aggressive protest waves may shock the system, again and again, threatening its existence.

The initial phase of the 2019 protests was similar to the first period of 2018 protests (April - June) in terms of their small scale, their focus on specific issues such as unemployment, and their largely peaceful nature. But quickly, within a few weeks, the 2019 protests escalated with protesters blocking key economic facilities and attacking government buildings and political parties’ headquarters. This escalation mirrored the trajectory of the 2018 which also intensified over time, but what is striking is the speed with which the 2019 intensified and moved from socio-economic focused demands to demands for fundamental political reforms, including new elections. While the involvement of political actors was evident in efforts by politicians, such as Muqtada Al-Sadr, to try to ride the wave of protests as well as the crackdown on protests by armed elements of certain political parties, the 2019 mobilization has also shown the emergence of a new generation of protesters and the rising role of new social actors, such as professional groups.

The increasing frequency of protests since 2018 and their widening and deepening scope suggest that the post-2003 Iraqi governance model, with its stalemate between the different political actors, needs a fundamental new formulation that is able to renew trust in a reformed political system. The stalemate could either develop into genuine reforms to address the ills of the post-2003 political and economic system, away from ethno-sectarian politics, or descend into violence.

A Typology of Iraq’s Protests

Protests have rocked Iraq in different waves since 2015.[1] These protests can be broken down into two types: politically motivated and socio-economically driven. Politically motivated protests – usually based on grievances of political parties – tend to be centralized and limited to major urban areas (for instance, Tahrir Square in Baghdad), large in scale, and more periodic. Socio-economically driven protests tend to be geographically scattered, issue-specific, and mobilized through social media networks.

Since 2003, political factions, including those represented in parliament and government, frequently resort to protests to express their demands beyond regular political channels. These protests are a tool used by political parties to mobilize their popular base, send certain messages domestically and regionally, and exert pressure on partners and rivals alike to increase their share of the pie or align with their agenda. For example, in December 2017, Sadrists protested against President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem,[2] and supporters of the State of Law coalition party, led by former PM Nouri al-Maliki, protested against the Independent High Electoral Commission,[3] demanding the quick release of the results of the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Socio-economic protests have increased exponentially since early 2018 and are generally small, with dozens of unemployed individuals protesting in front of the headquarters of state ministries, and residents protesting in front of municipal administration offices against the lack of basic services. In such incidents, influencers on social media platforms, mainly Facebook, play the role of mobilizers and civil society activists and tribal leaders assume a representative role. However, the 2018 and 2019 waves of protest showed that the government does not bother to appease the protesters or heed their demands, until they escalate their measures, such as blocking key roads as in July-September 2018, following which the government responded by offering jobs and deploying serious efforts to enhance services.

The 2018 Protests in the South

Basra was the focal point of the 2018 protests in the south. As an economic hub (most of Iraq’s oil wealth comes from Basra) and the second-largest constituency for Shia political parties after Baghdad, Basra’s protests were triggered by a mixed sense of entitlement and marginalization. The same sense of entitlement is echoed in surrounding areas in the south which feel that the wealth from their natural resources is not reaching them. Protests erupted in April 2018, and for the initial period that lasted until June, they were mostly small scale, peaceful and focused on specific socio-economic grievances (such as unemployment).

July 2018 was a turning point where summer heat coupled with worsening electricity cuts – especially after Iran decided to suspend its portion of national power supply of 1000 MW of electricity in early July due to funds it was owed by Baghdad – pushed Basrawis into large-scale demonstrations.[4] Protests also intensified in other southern provinces with hundreds of protestors storming the PetroChina facilities in al-Kahla, in neighbouring Maysan province, on 13 July 2018, while others closed roads around the home of the mayor of al-Khidir district in the Muthana province on 16 July, and others rallied in Umm Qasr on 15 July.[5]

This trend was sustained and strengthened during August and September because of acute water shortages, which worsened already endemic tribal disputes over water distribution, and the contamination of drinking water resulting in 118,000 poisoning cases amongst Basra residents.[6] This situation was compounded by other systemic problems, such as high unemployment rates affecting hundreds of thousands of youth, and the government’s decision to freeze public sector recruitment despite the lack of job opportunities in the private sector.

Protestors were mobilized through Iraq-based influencers on social media who determined the location and date of the demonstrations. Gatherings occurred in front of government buildings and locations essential for economic activity, such as main highways, border crossings, and oil fields. Then, protesters escalated their measures by cutting off roads and storming government buildings to pressure the government to respond to their demands.

The existing evidence suggests that the 2018 protesters did not have specific links to political parties or a particular political agenda, as they were initially engaged in scattered, local demonstrations in response to frustrations over lack of services and jobs. As protests grew in numbers and came to dominate political discussions, tribal networks and civil society organizations played a role in coordination and representation. This does not mean that certain political actors did not attempt to hijack the protests by burning the headquarters of their political rivals, which then responded by launching a campaign of co-optation and intimidation of prominent figures of the protest movement, such as the assassination of Dr Suad Al-Ali in Basra on 25 December 2018.[7]

The 2019 Protests

While protests wound down in October 2018, the protest movement did not really die down and regular, small-scale protests became a common feature in southern and central Iraq in 2019 as shown in Table 1 below. The rise in the number of protests in 2019 highlights the fact that more people are willing to protest and make their voices heard, and that such protests continue to enjoy wide support in society – an observation confirming a finding from a National Democratic Institute poll conducted from August to October 2018, where 76% of respondents indicated that they supported the protests.[8]

Protests intensified in October 2019 in Baghdad and provinces in southern and central Iraq due to the accumulation of grievances, as security forces had hosed down female PhD holders protesters using hot water cannons on 25 September, and the prime minister demoted, a few days later, the Commander of Counter-Terrorism Services, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wehab al-Saadi, who enjoyed broad popularity due to his prominent role in the fight against ISIS. Hence, a social media campaign to protest, launched by Iraqi influencers who live abroad, received significant support, where hundreds protested in Tahrir Square in Baghdad as well as in Southern provinces.  However, the government’s decision to crackdown on protests, cut off the internet, and impose road curfews, had the effect of transforming what was a centralized, peaceful protest into scattered, violent rioting in the outskirts of Baghdad and the South. The al-Abra'een pilgrimage – a major religious occasion for Shi’a who commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Al-Hussein, grandson of Prophet Muhammed – and government promises to investigate violence calmed protesters for two weeks. This first wave of protest (1 to 9 October) resulted in the of 157 protesters killed and 5,494 wounded, including amongst the security forces.[9]

Table 1: Protest Incidents in the South (April 2018 – October 2019)[10]

Date/Province Basra Thi-Qar Muthanna Maysan Wassit Total Violence
Killed In-

jured

April 2018 13 8 3 0 0 24 0 0
May 6 8 4 0 0 18 0 0
June 9 11 2 2 1 25 0 0
July 61 17 9 8 1 96 2 104
August 41 8 11 0 0 60 0 7
September 92 6 4 1 0 103 6 32
October 6 2 4 0 0 12 0 0
November 21 2 8 0 0 31 0 0
December 33 14 5 1 0 53 0 0
January 2019 13 8 3 0 0 24 0 0
February 29 12 14 0 0 55 0 0
March 15 15 12 1 0 43 0 1
April 18 6 5 2 0 31 0 0
May 11 6 4 0 0 21 0 0
June 24 12 6 4 5 51 0 0
July 21 21 12 1 13 70 0 0
August 12 4 10 3 0 33* 0 0
October 115** 208 9.7K***

**without including the number of incidents in Baghdad.*included 4 protest incidents in al-Diwaniyah province.

***causalities calculated based on Press released of Iraqi High Commission on Human Rights on October 11 and October 30 on the following link: https://ar-ar.facebook.com/ihchr/

 

Protests renewed peacefully on 25 October in Baghdad and provinces in central and southern Iraq, expressing their frustration over the harsh government response towards the first wave of protest (1 - 9 October) and the government failure to identify and punish perpetrators. Despite security forces demonstrated more restraint, following the PM’s order to deploy them without being armed with live ammunitions, reports of casualties have continued to emerge due to the security forces firing tear gas canister directly into crowds of protestors and armed elements belonging to political parties shot live ammunition to prevent protestors from storming their parties’ headquarters in Missan, Dhi Qar and Babil governorates. From 25 October to 4 November, 97 protestors died, and thousands were wounded, including security forces.[11]

The protest movement, which continues to this date, is now best categorized as a large scale movement engaged in diverse activities and enjoying large logistical support, having been sustained for more than a month and not been deflated by government's initiatives of offering 100,000s of jobs or expand social welfare programmes nor its harsh security response. What started as a mostly limited demand for socio-economic rights has evolved into a political movement demanding government resignation and early elections. This is evident in the four-page newspaper, TukTuk, published by Tahrir Square protesters, which called for government resignation, the formation of a three-month transitional government, and the holding of early elections. Multiple political parties, such as Sadr’s Sairoon bloc, which joined parliamentary opposition and called for government resignation,[12] Abadi's victory list, Allawi’s National list, and Nujaifi's Decision list, all supported demands of early elections,[13] despite protesters’ rejection towards the entire political class, as evident in their chants.

Other significant trends of the October protests have been  the predominant participation of youth  with an unprecedented high level participation of women  ; a cross-class support to the initially excluded masses at the peripheries of Baghdad and Southern provinces; a large support from professional syndicates, unions, and associations, as well as the religious authorities in Najaf. In addition,  as a result of the co-optation and intimidation campaign launched by security forces and political parties against prominent activists during the 2018 protests, the 2019 movement has remained generally leaderless and  protesters adopted more direct confrontation measures as evidenced by their determination to push the protest  to the International zone, as they expanded their mobilization from one bridge (Republican Bridge) to four key bridges in Baghdad in the first ten days of November.[14]

Regional Rivalry and the rejection of foreign meddling

The rivalry between the US and its regional allies, on one hand, and Iran, on the other, led each of them to take divergent stands towards the protest. The United States White House publicly supported the protesters and their demands for early elections, accusing Iran of using "armed groups and political allies" to stop the protest.[15] On the contrary, Iran's Supreme leader Khamenei accused the United States of destabilizing Iraq and Lebanon, by "depriving people of their security," adding that the priority should be " addressing instability," acknowledging the "legitimate demands" of protestors should be addressed through existing legal frameworks.[16]

This led protesters to voice anti-Iran sentiment and prominent Iraqi political actors in their turn condemned what they considered US “intervention”, as evident in the statements of both leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qias al-Khazali, and leader of Sairoon, Muqtada al-Sadr. President Salih’s office also put out a statement, stressing that desired reforms are “Iraqi by excellence, as a response to the will of Iraqis, and can’t be subjected to foreign meddling, as any foreign intervention is rejected and unacceptable.”[17]

Government Response to the protests

The federal government response in 2018 was more reactive than proactive. Then-Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi did not pay much attention to the first phases of protests, and only when protests escalated did he make them a priority. He conducted visits to Basra on 13 July[18] and 10 September[19] 2018, during which he stressed the right to peaceful protests, and issued multiple executive orders meant to enhance services and offer government jobs to Basrawis. Although Basra’s problems were too endemic and longstanding to be resolved over one summer, this did not stop political rivals from taking advantage of public discontent and blaming Abadi for failing to deliver on his promises, as obvious in the parliamentary questioning on 8 September 2018.[20]

Realizing the urgent need to address the Basra crisis, Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi took a proactive approach and met with the Basra local government within the first month of taking office in October 2018. He sought political support by appointing the leader of Fateh bloc, Hadi Al-Ameri, as special envoy to Basra,[21] and maintaining good relations with neighbouring countries to ensure a steady flow of electricity from Iran and to try to connect the Iraqi grid to Arab and Gulf neighbours. These measures helped Abdul Mahdi’s government to survive the 2019 summer without major protests but fell short of addressing the underlying causes of previous waves of protests.

The response of Abdul Mahdi’s government to the October 2019 protest was marked by the use of excessive force by the security forces, which was acknowledged by his ministerial investigative committee and denounced by international actors, prominent political leaders, and the religious establishment in Najaf. Despite frequent statements to protect the right to peaceful protest, as well as public and private properties, the government failed in both, as casualties rose to unprecedented numbers, with 320 dead and thousands wounded as of 16 November 2019.[22]

Protest’s Impact

The 2018 protests acted as the final nail in the coffin of Abadi securing a second term. Abadi’s failure to manage them mobilized political factions towards a new political equation centered on having an independent Prime Minister as a mediator among powerful political blocs. This new equation not only appeased political actors who were engaged in the protest in a way or another, but also gave protesters the hope that the new “technocratic government” will address their grievances. Therefore, the number of protests decreased after the formation of a new government in October 2018 (as shown in Table 1) but the underlying causes of the protests were not really addressed.

The October 2019 protests have pressured the government to offer more than 200,000 jobs to unemployed graduates and expand social welfare programmes. Such measures, which are already being implemented, are not sustainable as they add more jobs to an already over-bloated bureaucracy and deplete resources much needed for investment and reconstruction. However, these measures have not appeased protesters who appear to have lost trust in the current political parties and are asking for tangible political reforms. Political actors have begun discussing constitutional amendments and proposals for early elections based on a new electoral law and commission.

Political actors' discussions included proposals for abolishing provincial councils and having directly elected governors, reducing the number of parliamentary seats, having districts rather than provinces as electoral districts, adopting a plurality system as a seat allocation mechanism, and lowering the age of candidacy for parliamentarians from 30 to 25. Despite the fact that the implementation of some of these measures need constitutional amendments and further clarification, they remain the only desirable outcome for protesters. Taking a harsher security response by the government will either mobilize more people to protest or put the protest on hold for it to erupt again later, while the protesters' resorting to violence will only discredit them and make them lose the wide support they so far enjoy.

However, political elites do not seem genuine in their support for these proposals, as noted by the institution of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, who expressed doubts about "the ability and seriousness of governing political powers in addressing protesters' demands."[23]   Still, popular pressure, especially if sustained peacefully, coupled with the support of religious authority and certain political actors will eventually push the governing political actors to offer concessions, such as reforming the electoral system and restructuring the electoral commission.

Protests are likely to continue amid hopes that they will present the long-needed shock that could address the ills of the post-2003 political system by enhancing accountability and ensuring truly democratic representation.

[1] Tim Arango, “Protests in Iraq Bring Fast Promises, but Slower Changes,” New York Times, 31 August 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/01/world/middleeast/protests-in-iraq-bring-fast-promises-but-slower-changes.html.

[2] Associated Press, “Baghdad protesters, Iraq PM decry US Jerusalem move,” The Times of Israel, 7 December 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/baghdad-protesters-iraq-pm-decry-us-jerusalem-move/.

[3] Ben Robin-D'Cruz, “South Iraq Security Report: May 2018,” Iraq After Occupation, https://www.iraqafteroccupation.com/2018/06/01/south-iraq-security-report-may-2018/.

[4] John Catherine, “Iran cuts off electricity to sweltering Iraq due to unpaid fees: Ministry,” Kurdistan 24, 7 July 2018, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/5109cf38-809b-4098-aca7-3c5bbc2c1253.

[5] Ben Robin-D'Cruz, “South Iraq Security Report: July 2018,” Iraq After Occupation, https://www.iraqafteroccupation.com/2018/08/02/south-iraq-security-report-july-2018/.

[6] Human Rights Watch, "Iraq: Water Crisis in Basra Decades of Mismanagement, Pollution, Corruption," 22 July 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/07/22/iraq-water-crisis-basra.

[7] Alhurra TV, "Video ... Assassinating Iraqi Activist in Basra," 25 September 2018, https://arbne.ws/2CQGu2V

[8] National Democratic Institute, “NDI Poll: Iraqis call on new government for equitable reconstruction, services and jobs,” November 20, 2018, https://www.ndi.org/publications/ndi-poll-iraqis-call-new-government-equitable-reconstruction-services-and-jobs.

[9] United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, “Demonstration in Iraq: Update,”, https://bit.ly/35qcYNM

[10] Based on monthly reports of Ben Robin-D'Cruz, South Iraq Security Reports: April 2018 - August 2019, iraqafteroccupation.com.

[11] United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, “Demonstration in Iraq: Update,” https://bit.ly/35qcYNM.

[12] https://arbne.ws/2XzKjmH

[13] https://www.rudaw.net/arabic/middleeast/iraq/141120192;

[14] Qassim Abdul Zahra, "Iraqi forces kill 6 protestors, retake key Baghdad bridges," Associated Press, 9 November 2019,

[15] White House, "Statement from the Press Secretary," 10 November 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-press-secretary-95/

[16] Khamenei's twitter account,  accessed 22 November 2019, https://twitter.com/ar_khamenei/status/1190613709162516480?s=12.

[17] al-Khazali’s tweet could be found on the following link: https://twitter.com/qais_alkhazali/status/1193863921377185792?s=12;  Sadr’s tweet on the following link: https://twitter.com/Mu_AlSadr/status/1193945636384788480 (accessed 17 November); “Reform in Iraq is Iraqi Decision by Excellence,” President of the Republic Website, 11 November 2019.

[18] Agence France-Presse, “Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visits southern region gripped by protests over unemployment, in a bid to restore calm,” 13 July 2018, https://www.firstpost.com/world/iraqi-prime-minister-haider-al-abadi-visits-southern-region-gripped-by-protests-over-unemployment-in-a-bid-to-restore-calm-4734981.html.

[19] Alex MacDonald, “Iraq's Abadi visits Basra as calls grow for him to resign over crisis,” Middle East Eye, 10 September 2018, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraqs-abadi-visits-basra-calls-grow-him-resign-over-crisis.

[20] Rudaw, “Iraq PM Abadi must ‘resign immediately’ over Basra protests: Sairun, Fateh,” 8 September 2018, https://www.rudaw.net/mobile/english/middleeast/iraq/080920183.

[21] Ali al-Aqily, Jassim al-Jabiri, Samya Kullab and Staff, “Hadi al-Amiri appointed “czar” of Basra,” Iraq Oil Report, 11 April 2019, https://www.iraqoilreport.com/news/hadi-al-amiri-appointed-czar-of-basra-39293/.

[22] Samaya Kullab and Qassim Abdul Zahra, "5 protesters dead in violence over key Baghdad squares," Associated Press, 16 November 2019, https://apnews.com/a5f7fa71fafa4d22a2f91ce67f6fc532.

[23] Friday's Sermon, Office of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, 15 November 2019,  http://www.sistani.org/arabic/archive/26359/