By Eleanor Beevor
The current wave of anger now rocking Basra and other southern Iraqi cities did not come out of nowhere. Seasonal protests are something of a fixture in southern Iraq. But this wave of demonstrations is much larger than its predecessors. The protests are so far less organized – not made up of groups with specific agendas, but rather thousands of Iraqis who can no longer tolerate their hopeless living conditions. The protests have already led to the deaths of at least 14 people, and injuries to over 700. And they are coming at a critical turning point in Iraqi politics, when the country is beset by a leadership crisis, and the government has no easy options for quelling the anger.
Summer has been protest season in Basra for a number of years now. This is when discontent with poor government services peaks because of the punishing heat. It’s a season in which tap water comes out hot, and birds drop out of the sky from heat exhaustion. When there are crippling shortages of water and electricity, as there have been for the past few years, residents are incapable of washing, or of cooling down with air conditioning. And they have run out of patience for the government that is meant to be providing them.
Benedict Robin D’Cruz, a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh who has monitored Iraqi protest movements told Al Bawaba:
“The current protesters are not expressing any one political vision or world view that offers a clear alternative to that system. The protests are about corruption and poor services, fundamentally. They aren’t calling for a shift from one political ideology, or form of state, to another.”
But the scale of the service provision problem is frightening. Electricity is just one example. Iraq’s power grid was incapable of keeping up with demand for electricity long before ISIS inflicted $7 billion worth of damage on it while it occupied significant parts of the country from 2014 until late 2017. This power shortage is set to get worse, as demand for electricity is estimated be growing at 7% every year. This problem has become more acute earlier this July, when Iran cut off the electricity it provided to the southern cities of the country. Tehran claimed that Iraq had not paid its electricity bills, which had soared to $1.5 billion while Iran was experiencing shortages of its own. This is because Iran is now facing a period of uncertainty, not least of all because the Americans have recently pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and are threatening to reimpose economic sanctions.
The lack of basic energy needs feels like an especially cruel irony to the residents of Basra, who are living on top of Iraq’s vast deposits of “black gold” – its crude oil. Iraq exports the majority of its oil, and has even doubled its exports over the past decade. Yet due to corruption and inefficiency, southern Iraqis have seen no returns from the vast wealth beneath their feet. But without the adequate infrastructure, Baghdad cannot turn this natural wealth into relief for its citizens in a hurry even if it wants to. Protestors have made their frustration with this paradox clear – several have attacked oil installations.
This leaves the Iraqi government with extremely limited options for calming the protests. Citizens have completely lost faith in their established authorities and the parliament in Baghdad. During these demonstrations, protestors ransacked government buildings, ministries and branches of the different political parties to vent their frustrations. But what will be especially challenging for the government is that, unlike southern Iraq’s previous protests, there is no figurehead with which to negotiate, and no single agenda that can be addressed quickly.
Mustafa Habib, a political analyst and correspondent for the Iraqi media site Niqash, told Al Bawaba:
“Unlike the civil and secular movements who created culture of protest against government since 2010, these protests are without leadership. This is dangerous because it will be easy for anarchists or other parties to penetrate them. It is also difficult to form a delegation capable of negotiating with government about their demands. Also, for the first time the demonstrators are criticizing everyone linked to political or religious authority, even clerics who were considered sacred previously, such as Ali al-Sistani, [the Ayatollah who is widely considered the spiritual leader of the Shi’a Muslims in Iraq].”
As all the lynchpins of the old order are being rejected, there is no obvious authority figure with the will or the credibility to restore calm. Right now, Iraq is technically between governments. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is acting in a caretaker capacity, whilst blocs of electoral winners try to form coalitions that can scrape a majority of seats. Although Abadi won some credibility for the military victories against ISIS, it did not translate into electoral popularity among a disenfranchised population. His Dawa party, which has been in power for much of the past decade, dropped into third place in the electoral vote share – a clear expression that Iraqis were demanding more than just security.
Instead, the big winner from the 2018 election was a man who had once led protests in southern Iraq himself. An infamous Shi’ite cleric and former militia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr played the populist and nationalist cards during his campaign, and he played them well. He had certainly had some practice. Whilst civil society groups and secularist campaigners began building something of a culture of protest in southern Iraq in 2010, Sadr started expanding the tradition in 2015. He put his well-known face to protests, with a clear political message – that Iraqi politics must begin to focus on effective governance, and not sectarian identity.
Robin D’Cruz continued:
“In the protest movement that emerged in 2015, in which the Sadrists became a key actor, there was a clear political agenda which claimed to oppose the system of identity politics – the muhassassa system of ethnic-sectarian quotas in ministerial appointments.”
Muhassassa was the system instituted after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was meant to ensure a more proportional system of sectarian representation, by enhancing the powers of the Shi’a demographic majority and reducing the likelihood of another dictatorship. Unfortunately, the result was mostly one of politicians leveraging identity for votes, and then enjoying the perks of political office rather than working for the people.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to fight corruption but despite years of mass protests it remains endemic (AFP)
And Sadr’s 2018 campaign was a case in point that the political discourse of Iraqis had changed. At every turn, Sadr emphasized Iraqi nationalism rather than appealing to a Shi’a collective identity. His campaign was relatively well rewarded.His Sairoon political alliance emerged with the largest vote share in the election. He did not run for the role of Prime Minister himself, but as the head of the largest bloc, he will have a decisive role in determining who is. However, his bloc does not have a majority, and no other voting blocs have been able to form a majority coalition yet either.
If, as seems likely, the Sairoon bloc do take government in coalition, they will struggle to balance their populist promises with political compromise. And so perhaps unsurprisingly, Sadr has insisted that negotiations for a new government must be stopped until the protestors demands are met. There are even reports that his political supporters will be ordered to join the protestors on the streets.
Thus as the election’s biggest winner threatens to join the demonstrations, and Abadi struggles for credibility, it is likely that Iraqis will be dealt temporary appeasements instead of durable solutions. One method that has been tried and tested by politicians is patronage – and the protestors know this too. Robin d’Cruz added:
“The current protests are mostly ad hoc mobilisations to extract specific concessions or benefits. This is part and parcel of Iraq’s post-2003 political-economy of patronage and clientelism. The people at the bottom of the pile, ordinary Iraqi citizens who do not benefit from patronage networks, have to resort of protest and disruption of economic activity as a means of “buying into” the system of resource distribution.”
Meanwhile, the administration in Baghdad looks set to be propped up by help from abroad. Kuwait has stepped in and donated generators for Basra, as well as 30,000 cubic metres of fuel with which to power electricity generation, and it has recently signed a new deal with Baghdad to supply power. Whether this new deal will come with political strings attached remains to be seen but what is certain is the political establishments is likely to be very weary of these protests that started in early July but see no end in sight.
Iraq has had no shortage of challenges, and the state cannot be expected to function perfectly. But its citizens have made inescapably clear that it has to do better. Whether Baghdad can deliver is uncertain. But a more worrying question is what will happen if it can’t.