In recent years Iraqis have become accustomed to periodic outbreaks of mass protest against their sclerotic political system. There is little to endear Iraqis to the ruling oligarchy of parties given their unmatched pilfering of the state and continued failure.
The stabilisation of the security situation and the supposed merits of a constitutional electoral system that breaks with decades of authoritarian rule have failed to allay public anger.
While the improved security and the normalcy that has marked daily life in parts of Iraq have certainly been welcomed, it is a cruel absurdity to expect Iraqis to forever measure their quality of life and their political discontent against the harrowing extremes of civil war or Ba’thist authoritarianism. Trumpeting normalcy means having to live up to its promise.
In fact, the recent stabilisation of the security situation has brought Iraq’s systemic failures to the fore. Where once Iraqis felt caught between existential threats (such as terrorism, crime, ISIS, etc) and civil war, today they feel trapped in a political and economic system that serves the interests of the ruling party oligarchy and denies them representation, economic opportunity and functioning services.
Within this context, earlier this month protests erupted in Baghdad and a number of other cities in Iraq. The authorities have overreacted and unleashed a deadly security campaign which makes an escalation of violence and even conflicts more likely.
Although the impetus for the protests is largely the same as in previous years, this wave differs in a number of ways. But as in previous years, the only way out of this crisis is genuine political reform led by a new opposition force.
A new level of anger and violence
These protests are more spontaneous, more decentralised and, above all, more comprehensive in their rejection of the political order than in previous years.
The protesters are members of a younger generation unaffiliated with the civic and political forces, such as the Sadrists, the Communists and the Civic Trend movement, that have organised demonstrations in the past. Indeed, a recurring theme in the protesters’ slogans is the rejection of such actors along with all other political forces.
This year’s protests are, ultimately, a product of the unresponsiveness of the ruling oligarchy, their lack of long-term thinking and political vision and their complacency in the face of repeated crises.
What we see today is an explosion of raw anger rather than a focussed protest with specific demands. Overhaul rather than reform is what those on the streets are pushing for.
The response of the Iraqi authorities has been shockingly heavy-handed, which has only made matters worse. In fact, it is the primary reason why protests have turned into riots.
There is no justification for the use of live fire against unarmed protesters. This has resulted in dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries in the span of five days. Mass and violent protests have taken places across the world this year, yet Iraq stands out as the most deadly example.
The tone-deaf reaction of the authorities and its fatal consequences risk turning discontent and anger into enmity against the state and the security forces. This makes it less likely that protesters will put forward coherent and actionable demands and start negotiations to end the crisis. As a result, the protests may fall into a cul-de-sac.
‘Regime change’ or reform
The iconic slogan of the Arab uprising of 2011, “al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham” (the people demand the downfall of the regime), which Iraqis have been chanting on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere, is more suited to protests against one-man or one-family rule than an oligarchy with opaque lines of control.
Today, the political sphere in Iraq is more of a diffuse web of vested interests (formal and informal, Iraqi and foreign) than “a regime”. Going against it is less like butting against an immovable rock and more like punching through jelly.
Paradoxically, this might be one of its most powerful attributes and one which could ensure its survival. It precludes the possibility of state capture without its complete destruction by way of a major civil war or a foreign 2003-esque intervention.
Because of this opaque, decentralised political system and in the absence of clear and focussed demands, the protesters’ total rejection is more likely to yield zero-sum contestation than solutions. It may also mean that the current upheaval might go no further than an outburst of raw anger that eventually runs out of steam or is brought under control – looking more like France in 2005 than Tunisia in 2010.
This means a meaningful solution can only be achieved through structural change or “reform”. Here the challenges remain daunting. The political classes lack the credibility that could help convince the Iraqi public to support reform initiatives.
Moreover, there is another structural impediment that those seeking reform face, one that has characterised Iraqi politics since 2003: the lack of a formal parliamentary opposition.
This means that whoever takes up the mantle of “reform” is inevitably complicit in and empowered by the very system that needs reforming. Iraqis have no formal political force to resort to beyond the ruling oligarchy.
This is not to say that reform is impossible. Iraqi intellectuals have proposed various frameworks with which to implement gradual, long-term, structural reform. For example, Iraqi journalist and analyst Mushreq Abbas and others have called for a new electoral law and an independent electoral commission that would allow the electoral process to become more representative and pave the way for the formation of a genuine parliamentary opposition beyond the ruling oligarchy.
What happens next?
Like last year, there are some who are hopeful that these protests will turn into a revolution. Yet it remains unclear what a revolution looks like in a place like Iraq where political and military powers are so diffuse.
The most dangerous scenario would be for the violence to escalate and persist to the point of creating splits in the political and military establishments. This could set Iraq on a trajectory towards an internationalised civil war.
Likewise attempts at shock therapy – say a coup in the form of a government of national salvation that bypasses the ruling oligarchy – could also set Iraq on a similar path.
In both cases, the risk of conflict stems from the ferocious resistance that those with a vested interest in the status quo – including Iran and its Iraqi allies – would surely put up. However, these remain unlikely scenarios.
The most probable (although by no means preordained) outcome is a distinctly unspectacular one. A combination of carrot, stick and fatigue may eventually contain the protests. Alternatively, they may force the government to resign only for the system to reproduce itself in a new cabinet.
Either way, the political classes will acknowledge the scale of discontent but fail to follow through with a coherent and actionable reform plan beyond piecemeal concessions. This would temporarily calm things down until the next crisis and so the cycle would repeat.
Trying to preserve the status quo, however, would be a mistake on the part of Iraq’s governing classes for several reasons.
First, assuming the protests can be contained over the coming days, the next outburst may come far sooner than usual. Later this month is the Arbaeen, one of the most important events in the Shia religious calendar, which will see millions of Shias head to Karbala to commemorate Imam Hussein. This could easily turn into a gigantic platform for protest and even insurrection.
Second, even with an uneventful Arbaeen, the escalation of Iraqi protest between 2011 and today raises questions about how sustainable the cycle of pressure leading to riots followed by cosmetic reforms really is.
Third, the current political order seems increasingly unstable. The governing oligarchy must yield some room for new political forces to enter the scene, for the sake of their own survival as much as for the betterment of Iraq.
The farce of the ruling parties taking up the mantle of reform must give way to a system that allows for truly independent and reform-minded figures from beyond the oligarchy to enter the political system. In this way, a formal parliamentary opposition can emerge to push the status quo towards change. This may not overturn the current system but it could at least establish a balance between satisfying vested interests and introducing structural reform.
The alternative is nothing less than a ticking time bomb.