Iraq protests bubble up over poverty, corruption

As is the case in many countries in the region, the Iraqi government is a key source of employment.
Sunday 19/08/2018
An Iraqi woman holds a sign and chants slogans during a demonstration against unemployment in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. (AFP)
Long-simmering grievances. An Iraqi woman holds a sign and chants slogans during a demonstration against unemployment in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. (AFP)

LONDON - Iraq has been hit by months of protests. As temperatures soared to around 50 degrees Celsius in the south, electricity cuts were introduced after Iran limited energy supplies in July. As a result, people in Basra and beyond took to the streets to call for better public services.

While demands varied according to local circumstances, the protests again revealed a deeper crisis of legitimacy in Iraq. Protesters have called on the government to create job opportunities, ease poverty and end corruption. At least 14 demonstrators have been killed since the protests erupted in early July.

“While media attention has moved on since July, protests have continued at a higher than normal rate in the first few weeks of August,” said Benedict Robin-D’Cruz, a researcher on Iraqi politics who has monitored the situation in southern Iraq. The protests include a sit-in that lasted several days and another targeting oil operations at West Qurna 1 near Basra.

All this comes as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi leads a caretaker government more than three months after parliamentary elections, which marked the first time Iraqis went to the polls since the government declared victory over Islamic State militants. A manual recount was ordered after allegations of voter fraud but the results barely changed. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc remained in the lead with 54 out 329 seats, followed by the Fatah alliance led by Popular Mobilisation Forces leader Hadi al-Amiri and Abadi’s Nasr bloc.

“Iraq has structural problems on every level,” said Muhanad Seloom, an Iraq expert at the University of Exeter. The protests tie into larger trends facing many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Chief among them is the fact that youth unemployment in the MENA region, at around 25%, is the highest in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) called job creation the greatest challenge for the region’s efforts “to build a future based on inclusive growth.”

Iraq’s current crisis has many causes, harking back to the policies of Ba’athist governments and the US-led invasion in 2003 that installed an ethno-sectarian order in place today. Previous summers have witnessed large protests against corruption and a lack of services.

Several factors have made the protests in the south particularly explosive. Iraq’s predominantly Shia south produces most of the country’s oil output but has been plagued by a lack of public services and mass unemployment. A water shortage crisis, Robin-D’Cruz wrote for the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre blog, led to intensified tribal fighting when criminality has been on the rise in southern provinces.

To alleviate the situation, Kuwait announced it would provide 17 mobile power generators with a capacity of 30,000 kilowatts. It also pledged to provide fuel to power stations.

Experts see the ethno-sectarian power-sharing system that has governed Iraq for the past 15 years as part of the problem. Protesters actively demanded change in this regard. “Appoint technocrats to lead ministries of services such as electricity and oil,” Seloom said. “That is a start.”

“Iraq’s problems and the sources of popular anger do not lend themselves to quick fixes,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. He added, however, that a government that does not follow the current system of ethno-sectarian apportionment “would send a strong signal to the people that the political classes are listening.”

Mustafa Habib, an Iraqi journalist in Baghdad, said the government should focus on services while increasing transparency in its fight against corruption. Seloom said the judiciary needed more support from the executive in this regard.

As is the case in many countries in the region, the Iraqi government is a key source of employment. “There is no proper private sector,” said Seloom, urging the government not to add people to its payroll only to placate protesters. He sees potential in strengthening Iraq’s agricultural production, which the World Bank forecasts to experience single-digit growth from 2018-20.

Amid these challenges, there is also hope. The IMF stated earlier this year that “Iraq’s growth outlook is expected to improve thanks to a more favourable security environment and the gradual pick up of investment for reconstruction.” Similarly, the country’s fiscal balance is forecast to turn positive in 2018.

Significant risks remain. “Fighting corruption is a popular slogan but there is little that can be done in the short term beyond offering a few sacrificial political lambs,” acknowledged Haddad. He said he was sceptical whether a new government could go beyond the sectarian system, citing the “questionable record and low calibre” of the political class.

Robin-D’Cruz warned that “authorities can buy off protesters over the short term,” citing a lack of overall political organisation by the protesters. “But this only encourages further mobilisations,” he said.

“Short-term solutions will not work,” said Seloom, adding that it was likely the next government would put technocrats in charge of service ministries. If a new government continued on the same path, however, the situation in Iraq could reach a boiling point.