Poverty, resentment of corruption among engines of continuing protests in Iraq
DIWANIYAH, Iraq - Chants demanding regime change have echoed across Iraq for weeks but what first brought demonstrators onto the street was the paradoxical poverty of one of the world’s most oil-rich countries.
Coupled with the resentment of dire living conditions is the distrust of politicians whom they accuse of failing to root out rampant corruption that denies them jobs and public services.
In the southern protest hotspot of Diwaniyah, one of the poorest agricultural areas in the country, Umm Salah has joined rallies every day outside the provincial council.
“I’ve suffered in my country, even though it’s a rich country,” she said, carrying an Iraqi tricolour.
The 57-year-old widow has been protesting every day since October with her seven children, none of whom are employed. They walk 4km to reach the protest camp because they cannot afford a taxi from the worn-down informal shelter where they live.
“My husband died four years ago because we are poor and couldn’t afford medical treatment in private clinics or hospitals abroad,” Umm Salah said.
Iraq suffers from an extremely dilapidated health-care system, with hospitals severely under-equipped and doctors often threatened on the basis of political or tribal disputes.
Despite Iraq being OPEC’s second-largest crude producer, one-in-five of its people lives in poverty and the youth unemployment rate stands at one-quarter, the World Bank said.
The government has been the largest employer by far for decades but recently struggled to provide jobs for a growing number of graduates. Already, young people make up 60% of the population of 40 million, which is expected to grow another 10 million more before 2030.
The future looks even bleaker given predictions that heavy crude exports, which fund more than 90% of Iraq’s state budget, will become less profitable as the world shifts to other energy sources.
Protesters blame the staggering joblessness rates on a patronage system that hands out work based on bribes, family connections or party affiliation instead of merit.
Muhannad Fadel, 30, dreamed of a government post when he graduated years ago with a degree in physical education but his diploma opened few doors for him. After a brief stint as a university lecturer, Fadel sought other work but his monthly income didn’t rise above $100.
“I started to drive a taxi but I was afraid some of my students would recognise me,” he said. “Then I opened a little confectionery store on the ground floor of our home and I make around 5,000 dinars ($3) a day.”
Scraping together some savings, Fadel could marry but not buy a house so his new wife moved in with his family.
“Our whole family together earns $150 per month. How is that possible in one of the countries with the most oil in the world?” he asked.
For him and many protesters, the root of the problem is a political class more interested in earning money and paying homage to regional backers than in improving Iraqi infrastructure or people’s lives.
“They’re corrupt and steal the people’s money to give to Iran and other parties,” Fadel said bitterly.
Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. A recent government investigation said more than $450 billion in public funds were lost to embezzlement, fake contracts or salaries for so-called ghost employees since 2003.
“The deterioration of the economic conditions of Iraqis is the main reason for protests, as 8 million Iraqis live under the poverty line,” said Moussa Khalaf, an economic history professor in Diwaniyah.
A series of flare-ups before the major wave of protests erupted in October had hinted at the conflagration to come.
In September, authorities began demolishing unauthorised houses in the shrine city of Karbala, in Basra in the south and in the central city of Kut. The settlements are home to 3 million Iraqis, many of them the poorest of the poor.
That same month, a young man in Kut died after setting himself on fire after authorities seized his mobile kiosk.
“You need an economic policy that makes use of resources based on scientific and economic facts, not on privileges or political gains,” said Khalaf.
Protesters have clung on in the streets and public squares even days after Abdul-Mahdi stepped down.
“Of course, that’s not enough,” one young demonstrator in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square said about bringing down the head of government. “We won’t leave our barricades until the regime falls, until we get jobs, water, electricity.”
Another protester, 45-year-old Hussein Maneh, slammed the government for its years of failure.
“Since 2003, they’ve done nothing but increased poverty, destroyed agriculture and industry, impoverished schools and hospitals, created confessionalism and stole our oil,” he fumed.