17 October 2019

Middle East: a disruption in Iraq… and it is not an earthquake!

Claudiu Nebunu

Starting with last week, Iraq is facing the twitches of a series of huge protests against corruption, large-scale unemployment and government’s inability to provide basic services. The security forces have reacted, including by using lethal methods. The authorities have blocked the access to Internet, in order to stop remonstrant’ mobilization, a method often used by the repressive regimes in the region, following the recent model used during the Algeria and Egypt twitches. These protests seem to have been provoked by general complaints, especially of the young people, against a dysfunctional government and an ineffective economy, which cannot create enough jobs. Solving remonstrant’s complaints is a long-term challenge that does not have immediate or obvious solution now.

Image source: Mediafax

The Iraqis are fighting against the government…

Starting last week, Iraq is the scene of huge protests against corruption, large unemployment and government’s incapacity to provide basic services. At the beginning of October, thousands of remonstrant went out on the streets of Bagdad and other cities in the country.

The tensions have been increased after the Iraqi government forcefully interfered to reestablish the order. Many of the protests have led to violence. In Amarah, Najaf and Nasiriyah, the remonstrant have set fire to governmental buildings. The security forces violently interfered with tear gas sprays and rubber bullets and, in some case, even with war ammunition. Also, the government has blocked the Internet access, something usual for region’s regimes when trying to control the population.

The confrontations ended up with at least 110 deaths and more than 6.000 injured people.

The picture of a challenged country

Iraq continues to face serious issues. Bagdad could not consolidate the military earnings after the harsh fights with the Islamic State from Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and it is, now, challenged to rebuild important cities like Mosul.

ISIL remains a serious threat, being manifested as a low-level insurgency, even if it does not concretely have a territory. In areas from the Anbar province and cities like Kirkuk and Hayija, ISIL is reestablishing its networks concurrently with executing intimidation actions (even assassination) against local opponents. The inhabitants of the cities destroyed by years and years of fights are now facing the lack of basic services, however, hoping that the situation will get getter. The lack of justice’s actions to punish the many crimes against humanity remains an opened wound inside many local communities.

Meanwhile the young population must face unemployment, the economy cannot develop, being affected by different personal, group, foreign or domestic interests. Corruption is developed on all governing levels and is seriously questioning the legitimacy of the Iraqi political leadership.

Country’s infrastructure is pathetic, because the government is not properly funded and does not have the necessary political will to implement the necessary project to rebuild the cities and villages destroyed by war. Also, the water deficit remains a serious challenge for the whole country.

According to the World Bank, the unemplyment rate was 7,9% the past year (double among the young people), and almost 17% of the active population is under-hired. More than one million people are still being internally displaced, meanwhile 6,7 million need humanitarian assistance. The life conditions are precarious in many areas affected by this conflict, having few basic services available. The estimations for the short and medium term reconstruction’s funding are worth 88 million dollars.

In only one year since taking power, the Abdul Mahdi prime-minister’s government is facing a huge foreign pressure. Due to escalations between Washington and Teheran, Bagdad is trying to keep a balanced position between the two opponents. Iran is trying to keep its influence in Iraq and the militias supported by Teheran continue to get stronger. Albeit they were extremely helpful in the fights against ISIL, now they are a huge problem and the government should limit their power.

Furthermore, Iraq must keep its good relations with Washington, which is offering significant military support to Bagdad in terms of training, equipment and other critical sources related to the cooperation in security field and the consolidation efforts of the military capacities.

Expectations and complaints after stabilizing the security situation

For the past years, the Iraqis got used to the periodical emergence of protests against the Bagdad authorities. The security situation stabilization and the implementation of a constitutional electoral system instead of the authoritarian regimes could not cool down public’s complaints.

Although the improved security situations and the normality from some areas in Iraq were extremely welcomed, it would be absurd for the population to always compare their expectations on wealth and the political activity of the democratically chosen representatives to the extreme coordinates of civil war or the Ba’thist authoritarianism (already history).

In fact, the recent stabilization of the security situation has already brought Iraq’s systemic failures to the foreground. If the Iraqis were, before, feeling trapped between the existential threats (terrorism, criminality, ISIL, etc.) and the civil war, currently they are trapped in a political and economic system which is  taking care of party’s oligarchy /the governmental coalition and refuses the representation, economic opportunity and the basic services.

This is the context which, at the beginning of this month, led to the escalation of protests in Bagdad and other cities in Iraq. The authorities have excessively reacted and started an extremely harsh campaign to reestablish order, which, indeed, increased violence’s probability and even their deterioration towards opened conflicts.

Differences comparing to previous protests. It is not about system’s reform, but its reconstruction!

The protests that have started last week seem to be more spontaneous, more decentralized and, especially, more complex when refusing the political order than in the previous years. The participants are members of a young generation, which are not associated to some political or civic forces that have previously organized protests. Moreover, one of the most used topic of their slogans is the refusal of these actors.

These protests are not focused on demanding specific things, but they are more like a relief of their general complaint against country’s precarious situations, the life’s low quality and the ignorance and opt-out of their leaders. They want more like a reconstruction of the whole system, than reform measures whose viability does not inspire confidence.

The answer of the Iraqi authorities was shocking, which did not but worsen the situation. In fact, this is the main reason why the protests have escalated and transformed into insurrections. This is the reason why there is no justification for using war ammunition against unarmed remonstrant.

The huge and violent protests took place all around the world this year, albeit Iraq’s ones are different due to the number of victims. The violent intervention of the security forces and authorities’ refusal to try to start a dialogue with the remonstrant can provoke a general insurrection among the population.

Furthermore, this approach has decreased the probability for the remonstrant to come up with coherent and possible demands to start negotiations with, in order to end the crisis.

The iconic slogan of the 2011 Arab Spring, “The people want to bring down the regime”, that the Iraqi have claimed on the streets of Bagdad, Basra and other cities, is perfect for the protests against one individual or a family, but not against an oligarchic regime with opaque interests and control lines.

Today, the Iraqi political scene is more like a diffuse system with different interests (formal and informal, Iraqi and foreign), than a regime. Paradoxically, this could be one of the strongest elements to provide its survival. Only a major civil war or a foreign intervention could bring down such a system.

Due to the decentralized and opaque political system and lack of clear and focused demands, it is more likely a no-winning game, than one to come up with solutions.

It is also possible for the scenario of an effective strategy to emerge and solve the situation through structural or reform changes, but the premises for such an action are not that encouraging. The Iraqi political class does not enjoy the necessary trust to convince the people to support the reform initiatives. Furthermore, there is another obstacle: the lack of a formal important parliamentary opposition. Since 2003, the Iraqi political system was defined by the consensus among the political groups. This formula was one of the best in Iraq during the transition period and has relied on the existence of a large ethnical coalition (in fact, this consensus was assumed by the big Shiite and Kurdish political parties, meanwhile the Sunni were partially co-opted or left out in the cold). But his temporary common law has vanished responsibility’s assumption.

The creation of a real and representative opposition force is only getting started. This means that anyone who would try to take the responsibility to make a reform now, would definitely be an accomplice or one accredited by the system that needs to be reformed.

What’s next?...and a question

Just like the other countries in the region, which are facing similar events, there are voices who want this scenario to end up with an insurrection. However, it is still not clear how would an insurrection look like in Iraq, as the political and military power centers are so diffuse. The most dangerous scenario would be for the violent acts to escalate and continue until the establishment of clear fission, which would make Iraq enter in an internationalized civil war.

Also, a coup d’état to lead to installing a new national rescue government, avoiding thee governing oligarchy, would have the same end. But these are only some of the possible scenarios.

The most likely to happen scenario is keeping the current status-quo. A combination between repressive measures and promises would lead to remonstrant’ “tiredness”. Even if the government would be forced to quit, the system will be re-created following a similar cabinet.

The political class would have to consider the complaints’ magnitude, but it will not adopt a coherent and concrete reform plan, except for punctual concessions. This method would cool down the situation temporarily, until the next crisis and so on.

Most likely, the emergence of a formal and significant parliamentary opposition would push the status quo towards change: it will not take down the current system, but it would, at least, establish a balance between satisfying the interests and introducing the structural reform.

It is noteworthy that the remonstrant do not claim a sectary rhetoric, albeit such tensions continue. Although the protests are mainly taking place in Bagdad and South of the country, dominated by Shiite people, these were provoked by the bad life conditions. The complaint is directed towards the political class, not the religious community.

However, given that the protest scene is mostly dominated by the Shiites, we cannot but wonder: did Iran had any “contribution” to this?

Translated by Andreea Soare