On October 1, 2019, Baghdad witnessed the rise of young protesters and unemployed graduates calling against the governmental shortcomings in the sectors of education, healthcare, social services and employability.
The protests targeted a government that has been controlled by the same political elite since the early stages of the US-led invasion between 2003-05. Different cabinets, political parliamentary coalitions and parties may have occurred, yet the interests groups and their agendas never distorted.
Iraq, one of the most corrupt countries in the world, carries with it the following figures: youth unemployment at 25%, around 2 million orphans, around 1.5 million internally displaced people, 96.4% of the population are without health insurance, and illiteracy rate is at 39% within the rural population.
Post-2003 Iraq always lacked a unified opposition against the ruling elite. This was due to the fact that the political ruling class is not a one-party system type of control, such as the former Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. In today’s Iraq, there are plenty of Saddams and plenty of Ba’athist-like parties that enjoy an agreed balance of power, under the shadow of the so-called “democratic project”, and the ethnic-sectarian quota, which supposedly ensures the participation of all communities. This comes over the cost of having a technocrat cabinet that appoints experts to handle the ministries and departments based on their experience and profession.
Such unfortunate absence of collectivity amongst Iraqi civil society and activists in their struggle against an authoritarian democracy paved the way for stronger political parties to overshadow the protests of ordinary people and advance their own agendas. This is a common act by the leader and cleric of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr, is a veteran of the post-2003 Iraqi ethnic-sectarian quota regime through different political alliances and coalitions. He controlled ministries and many seats in the parliament for many years, yet believes he has the right to speak against the corruption, that he is part of. His followers are in the millions, and that translates their involvement in any protest to outnumber the rest of the participants. This created a dilemma and increased the hesitation for many Iraqis who were watching the protests from a distance, and eventually strengthened their already existing pessimism towards any change.
The bad and the good news
Never have protests in the post-2003 Iraq been met with such violent crackdown and heavy security measures. There are snipers on top of buildings, live shooting protesters. There are almost 100 dead and over 4,000 injuries in Baghdad and some other southern cities. The government even imposed a curfew and blocked the Internet to prevent protesters from spreading awareness about their cause to the rest of the world.
Fortunately, these protests, unlike the ones in previous years, are alarmed about the past lessons. One is that protesters publicly announced their rejection of any Sadrist presence whatsoever. Consequently, the numbers were less in the first days, but the activist integrity was welcomed by all sectors of society, in a very unusual moment.
There is a growing anti-Iran sentiment. People are finally realizing that the regime is just part of a bigger regional power structure of interests – which is why the streets are witnessing Iranian flags being burned, anti-Iranian regime chants and pro-Iran political and militant parties’ offices being attacked. These events are the reason why there is a significant pro-Iran militant presence on the streets, defending the most important prey of the Iranian regional dominance, Iraq.
Finally, these protests have no room for empty reform promises. The young protesters are calling for an ultimate regime change and re-elections. They are rejecting the former and current members of the political elite. They are not just facing the government, but also directly challenging the interest groups, whether they are the militias or the regional power players.
If these protests discontinued, nonetheless, they displayed the awareness, resilience and resistance of the courageous youth, who are the majority of the population. And it is through their sacrifice that Iraq will rise and prosper again.