Iraq has been rocked by a wave of angry mass protests. In the last month thousands have protested and stormed government buildings demanding better electricity and water services, jobs, an end to corruption and to the influence of Iran over their politicians.
Significantly the protests were in southern and central Iraq and consisted of the predominately Shiite poor venting their rage against the Shiite political elite who have dominated the sectarian political system established by the 2003 occupation. The main Shiite parties are all linked to the Iranian government.
It was the sudden cut in electricity supply in Basra on 8 July that brought people onto the streets.
Basra is one of the hottest cities in the world. Temperatures in July regularly exceed 50 degrees. Although the province is rich in resources, supplying about 70 per cent of Iraq’s oil, it suffers from high unemployment and poor services. Basra city doesn’t have an effective water treatment system and its once vibrant waterways have been reduced to cesspools.
Protesters targeted the oil industry by setting up road blocks of burning tyres on roads leading to the facilities. They also attempted to blockade the nearby commodities port at Umm Qasr and border crossings with Kuwait and Iran.
Unemployed graduate Mohammed Jabbar told Reuters, “If they don’t create jobs and improve services such as water and electricity, we will close down Basra and oil production”. When people heard that Prime Minister Al-Abadi was in Basra for talks with tribal leaders, they stormed the hotel where the meeting was meant to take place.
The protests spread rapidly into nine predominately Shiite provinces and into Baghdad. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf the airport was stormed and air traffic halted, while in the other holy city of Karbala the provincial government building was stormed. In Samawa protesters tried to storm a courthouse and in Amara they tried to burn a local municipality building.
Protests against poor services have erupted repeatedly in Iraq since the Arab spring in 2011.
In March 2016 populist Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr led demonstrations that occupied the fortified government Green zone in central Baghdad. Back then the government used a call for unity during the war with Islamic State to help diffuse the protests, but that excuse has now gone.
The latest protests differ significantly in that no major political party is leading them. Networks of activists and the small Communist Party have taken the initiative.
Another feature is the sheer anger directed at the Shiite political elite. All the major Shiite parties from the Islamic Dawa Party and the Badr Organization to the National Wisdom Movement have had their offices targeted, stormed or burnt.
These attacks represent a “profound rupturing of the relationship between the political elites and their core constituency” said Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, an Edinburgh University researcher focused on Iraq.
The Shiite elite have failed to deliver. The official unemployment rate in Iraq is 10.8 per cent and more than double that for youth. Even though Iraq’s oil production has more than doubled in the last decade, a quarter of the population live in poverty. Politicians from all backgrounds have pilfered and wasted resources. According to Transparency International, Iraq is the 10th most corrupt country in the world.
Only 44.5 per cent of those eligible voted in May’s election, another indication of the deep alienation with the system. The biggest vote went to the Sairoon Alliance led by Muqtada Al Sadr, who railed against the political establishment. This alliance also includes civil activists and the Communist Party.
Since the election Iraq has been run by a weak caretaker government as politicians negotiate over ministries and the networks of patronage that go with them.
Caretaker Prime Minister Al-Abadi attempted to quell the protests by promising Basra an extra $3 billion for development and sacking his electricity minister, but people have heard similar promises before.
He also restricted the internet, imposed curfews and sent in extra troops including the US-trained elite Counter Terrorism Service. More than a dozen protesters were killed. This will not endear him with protesters as he negotiates to hang onto his position.
While Muqtada Al Sadr built his electoral fortunes by criticising the political establishment he is now deeply involved in negotiations with that same establishment, and played no role in organising these protests. The Communist Party too, are remaining within his alliance.
Regardless of these political machinations the protests show the potential for building an opposition outside of parliament that breaks with the sectarianism that dominates so much of the politics of the region. They are an indication that the grievances that drove the Arab Spring remain—and can ignite new waves of protest.
By Mark Gillespie