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As Iraq’s demonstrations continue, what comes next?

Iraq's demonstrations are important and outside actors should pay heed and do what they can to help prevent a catastrophic outcome.
Iraqi demonstrators take part in an ongoing anti-government protests, in Baghdad, Iraq November 5, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily - RC1145C0BE40

Iraq’s demonstrations appear to have settled into at least a temporary “new normal.” In Baghdad, the protesters have a more or less constant occupation of Tahrir Square and the adjacent “Turkish restaurant” building, which provides an overlook from its 14 stories. While reliable numbers are hard to get, there are clearly hundreds of thousands, and some claim over a million, demonstrators who are maintaining  consistent, day-after-day presence. This includes at least a significant minority holding the “terrain” at night so that it is not reclaimed by security forces, despite the use of lethal violence that has claimed over (perhaps well over) 200 lives.

That the Iraqi demonstrations are not a daily story in the Western media is both understandable and puzzling. At one level, the “Iraq fatigue” of the Western (and especially American) news consumer is commonplace. But at another level, what is happening in Baghdad — and in other cities throughout southern Iraq as wel l— is something new and novel, just not for Iraq, but perhaps something new in absolute terms.

The demonstrations are both distinctly Shiite and at the same time not Shiite at all. The demonstrations are Shiite in that they are being carried out almost entirely by Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority — originally Shiite men, but since the “reboot” of the protests Oct. 24-25, they have a substantial female component as well. Many to most of the iconic photographs now coming forward feature women. Further, the organizational structure of the protesters, the way in which services are being provided — food, medical care, and the now iconic “tut-tut” transportation service — cannot be understood outside of the traditions of hospitality that have sprung up around Shiite religious holidays —Ashura and Arbaeen.

Yet the protesters — who are not describing themselves as Shiite, who are not calling for any particular Shiite equities and who have only the loosest of ties to the Shiite religious establishment — are deeply critical of established Shiite political parties and are not using any distinctly Shiite symbols. And, of course, they are demonstrating against a Shiite-dominated government (and Iranian influence on the same). So while there is a sectarian cultural aspect to this phenomenon, to date, that has not translated into any particularly sectarian demands. 

And it is the cultural aspect of this phenomenon that is most inspiring. In the demonstrations we have Iraq’s young people, sons and daughters now, stating by their presence that the status quo is unacceptable. While the atmosphere at the demonstrations has taken on a light and carnival-like feel, the stakes are all too serious and real.

It is hard to find any analogues for this phenomenon. One is tempted to compare it to the “people power” movement that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s, or to Poland’s Solidarity or more recently to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Yet in all these cases, the distinctions seem to be more relevant than the commonalities. Most importantly, all analogous movements were seeking solutions through the ballot box (immediately or longer term). But Iraqi’s young people are protesting a government produced by the ballot box, and therefore seeking a more fundamental reform — arguably one of political economy. The protesters are stating — to impose a Western term on them — that they are alienated from the outputs of a political economy that benefits only a privileged few. They are protesting the lack of jobs, services and infrastructure, but more fundamentally the political system that has failed to be a responsible steward of Iraq’s considerable resources.

The Western solution to this dilemma would be clear — a round of massive privatization to bring market discipline to the economy while providing cash for the government to “bridge” the turmoil between the inefficient present and a hopefully more productive and effective future market economy. Ultimately, this might include a Saudi Aramco-style initial public offering of the national oil company or companies. However, it is unlikely that this is what the protesters have in mind.

The protesters — or at least a group of them that may or may not be representative — have released demands for the resignation of the government and new elections (under UN auspices), with a mandate to investigate both violence and corruption. Such elections (with single-member districts and first-to-the-post rules) would disrupt established interests. The two most obvious interests with much to lose are the Iranian-backed parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which enjoy outsized influence (and rents) in the current system. Of course, all parties that have disproportionately benefited have much to lose.

There is little the West can do about events in Baghdad. First, it can watch, and watch intently. The world should be in solidarity with the legitimate demands of Iraq’s young people against a system that has failed them. Second, strong warnings should be sent to those using violence against the protests. There is no place for lethal force against unarmed protesters. That the United States and other Western governments have been relatively muted or late to speak on this point is shameful. Finally, while no one should interfere in Iraq’s internal processes, the possible outcomes include tragic ones — including anarchy, a return to authoritarian rule or consolidation of deeper Iranian influence. Western institutions should stand by to push back against such outcomes. Western diplomats should be circulating widely to push back against either a return to authoritarianism or a surge of Iranian influence.

The US response to date has been tepid. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned the violence and stated that the government must “listen” to the protesters, but otherwise the Americans are nowhere to be seen. It is not clear this is a good long-term strategy.

There is very little structure surrounding the interaction between the demonstrators and the government, opening a wide range of possibilities. Even for those watching the demonstrations, the changes day to day are large and unpredictable. Anything that trusted, neutral actors — such as the United Nations, European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Arab League — could do to suggest structure for some type of process might “insure” against the risk of a catastrophic outcome.

But this moment ultimately belongs to Iraq and Iraqis on the ground. The world should pay more attention — and do everything it can to prevent violence against the unarmed. But ultimately this process must work itself out. Whether the outcome is disappointing, exhilarating or tragic, it belongs to Iraq itself.

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