by Mina YousefiFebruary 28, 2020
People in Iraq have been protesting for five months, and the movement continues to spread to different cities to air grievances centering on corruption and poor governance.
Since 2003, when the United States military invaded the country and expelled Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been dealing with serious economic problems and sectarian divisions. In the past few months, protests in Iraq seem to have intensified and their impacts are more salient.
Iraqis began showing their outrage in October 2019 as unemployment and poverty set root in many areas of the country, months after the government announced a controversial economic reform.
Thousands have been participating in protests in Baghdad, Basra, and other areas in the southern governorates. They are outraged over almost two decades of corruption and poor public services. Police forces have responded brutally to the peaceful sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations, and yet—or perhaps, therefore—more people from other cities are joining the movement, angered by the senseless state violence. Since the beginning of the movement, more than 600 protesters have been killed and more than 1,500 have been injured.
Ali Amer al-Mikdam, a young Iraqi activist with whom I connected via Twitter, says he has been organizing many of the protests. In my phone interview with him earlier this month, he told me that the movement’s main goals are to push for reforming the political system, abolish the hegemony of pro-Iranian parties, and end corruption and militias. Ali is confident that they will continue with great determination to achieve their goals. “This series of protests has had multiple achievements and therefore it will continue to make major changes in the government,” he tells me.
The current protests bear some resemblance to the Arab Spring mobilizations that took place in various provinces within Iraq to demand an end to corruption, nepotism, and unemployment. Then as now, the people were also asking for increased wages and improved public services and infrastructure, such as electricity, transportation, health care, education, and municipal services.
Yet today’s uprisings differ in many ways. They are no longer clergy-led; the leadership is comprised of mainly young men and women.
Today’s activists are also using innovative tactics in the streets, such as singing and dancing, preparing meals, and playing cards for hours (much like nonviolent protesters in Armenia in 2018 and in Puerto Rico last year). This, along with strong participation by female organizers and protesters, is a testament to the rupture with past uprisings.
Finally, the new wave of protests in Iraq has been drawing significant media attention and, perhaps most remarkably, has carried on long enough to begin making some noticeable changes in the country.
"The awareness that the activists have raised about government corruption seems to be breaking through people’s fear of militias and parties, and even fear of Muqtada al-Sadr," Ali says in reference to an influential religious figure who claims to be an opposition leader in Iraq. Activists even have a couple of achievements to build on. With the support of the United Nations, they have drawn a road map for the reform they want to see in the coming years, and in the midst of heavy protests last December, a fair election law was passed.
Ali says the uprising has brought about high awareness and self-confidence for young people in particular, and has also instilled a spirit of patriotism.
This newfound empowerment, Ali says, has now turned the tables so that authorities now fear the people they oppressed for years.
Ali believes that the youth—most of whom were too young to remember the fall of Saddam Hussein and thus have grown up in a different Iraq than the generations before them—are the uprising’s greatest asset. “Young people taught their families and young brothers about patriotism and love for Iraq. The uprising and the revolution, the hope and dream of a new Iraq will happen soon,” he tells me.
He says that what people want is political reforms in a way that prevents any religious or political party from dominating the country. “Politicians are the main source of corruption. A reform within the political system is needed to fight corruption or mitigate it. The main reason for the protests is to finally change up the political system and parties in the country.”
The movement is mostly organized by different groups of youth via social media, distinguishing it from past protests in the country.
In a phone interview, Lawk Ghafuri, a journalist in the Kurdish region of Iraq, tells me, “This time the protests in Iraq are different from the previous ones, simply because the movement is leaderless, while in the past it was Muqtada al-Sadr who organized the protests.”
Sadr, who now leads the Sadrist movement, is a major religious figure in Iraq’s majority Muslim society. He gained popularity after the toppling of the Saddam government, and his aim is to establish an Islamic democracy in the country. His opposition speeches pointing out the dire economic situation of the country have brought throngs of followers to him—many of whom have carried out violent raids of protester camps in the past weeks.
“The reason Iraqis can’t leave the streets is that political parties have been in power in Iraq since 2003. Also, corruption and unemployment have made youth storm the streets and insist on staying until they achieve real change,” Lawk tells me. “After four months of protests, the Iraqis are not ready to go home, because they have already given lots of sacrifices; more than 600 people died. The protesters claim that this blood cannot be forgotten.”
What’s more, the fallout of the killing of Iranian general Soleimani on January 3 by US drones has added to the challenges that Iraqi anti-corruption activists face. Pro-Iranian factions—who do not share activists' vision of a democratic and pluralistic independent Iraq—remain strong and able to mobilize in the street.
What does seem clear, however, is that the political culture in Iraq is changing in a big, permanent way, and the new generation will no longer tolerate “business as usual” in politics.
Mina Yousefi is an Iranian journalist and academic. She has been working in investigative journalism for more than 12 years focusing on civil society and governance. During the last three years, at Brandeis University (USA), she has been conducting Masters-level research on corruption in Iran and the way this phenomenon has been changing civil dynamics.Read More