A growing tide of street protests has swept 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces since mid-July and are scheduled to resume Oct. 2 after a pause for the Eid al-Adha holiday. Citizens’ anger over abysmal public services and rampant corruption had boiled over in July as temperatures soared above 130 degrees amid notoriously short electricity supplies. The persistence of the largely peaceful demonstrations emboldened Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to introduce far-reaching measures to combat corruption and streamline Iraq’s bloated government. But the protestors want faster action, raising concerns about potential violence. USIP Program Officer Khitam Al-Khaykanee examines the prospects.

Photo courtesy of Burj Babel for Media Development

Where are the demonstrations taking place, and how many people are involved?

The demonstrations began on July 17 in the small town of al-Qurna in the south of Iraq, when citizens, furious that they’d had no electricity for two days, took to the streets and set fire to the municipal building. Local police responded violently, and a young man was killed and three other civilians were injured. Within two weeks, major demonstrations were taking place in cities from Basra to Baghdad, and smaller protests were occurring in the provinces of Najaf, Karbala, Misan, Thiqar, Muthana, Diwaniya, Babylon, Diyala and Wasit as well as briefly in Kirkuk. The number of demonstrators began with a few hundred in each of the first locations. Media and USIP partners on the ground estimate the numbers for the Friday protests have reached as much as 1 million. For the most part, they have remained peaceful.

Who is demonstrating, and what are they calling for?

Most of the demonstrators are ordinary citizens – farmers, civil servants, lawyers, engineers, journalists. Young people—those roughly in the age range of 16-25 --make up a significant proportion of the protestors, and that’s likely to remain the case until school and university terms start in October. When the demonstrations started, there was no single organization or movement directing the protests, but an array of civil society organizations and local “coordination committees” (which have been pushing for better services since 2011) have been working together to coordinate the protests and articulate the demands. After the first four weeks, many political parties began manipulating events and the public discussion to overtake what started as a grass-roots initiative.

The demands have focused on improving the government’s delivery of public services, holding accountable officials considered to have damaged national security (especially those who were in charge in Mosul when it fell to Islamic State forces in 2014), and removing corrupt officials from office—starting with the minister of electricity and a number of provincial governors. Since mid-August, the demands have shifted toward the implementation of Abadi’s reforms; protestors now want to see more dramatic action, including the removal from office of powerful figures seen as deliberately obstructing the anti-corruption drive.

Haven’t there been such demonstrations before?

Previous protests against corruption in Iraq have not been so widespread, so well-attended, or so well-organized at the national and provincial levels. Every Friday, the same national-level demands are reiterated. This consistency of message reflects the growing maturity and increasing sophistication of Iraq’s civic groups.

Among other differences this time, the demonstrators see fixing the Iraqi judicial system as a fundamental step toward concrete and comprehensive national reform. Many judges are closely associated with political parties and widely suspected of having protected corrupt politicians and officials. Protestors in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square chant slogans such as “No reforms without an honest, neutral, non-political judiciary” and “Judiciary without integrity means government with no accountability.”

Does the reform package really offer anything new?

The specific reforms proposed by Abadi aren’t particularly new – what he has proposed essentially conforms to the platform he offered when he took office. What is unprecedented is the serious effort made by the prime minister (urged on by the influential Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani) to pressure Iraq’s parliament, the Council of Representatives, to approve the reforms as “one package.” The parliament did so unanimously. The measures also eliminated the positions of vice president and deputy prime minister immediately and revised the qualifications for ministerial positions to require expertise rather than being based mainly on political affiliation. Also unusual in a country with a history of authoritarian rule is the fact that an Iraqi prime minister responded positively to public demands, as illustrated by Abadi’s instruction to official institutions to respect the protestors and deal with them peacefully.

That positive attitude may not last long, however, now that the demonstrators are questioning Abadi’s readiness to implement his measures. Furthermore, in areas such as Babylon, Thiqar and Diwaniya, some police officers have started using force against demonstrators and detaining protest organizers. Reports also are increasing of protest organizers being abducted by unknown groups.

How is implementation going?

Other than dismissing 123 directors general from 21 ministries, a promising development, Abadi has largely failed to issue practical instructions for implementation, so the results have been uneven and unsystematic. There have been some encouraging moves. For instance, the provincial authority in Basra is trying to embrace the concept of reform by eliminating some government positions at that level, including general directors and provincial deputies, and by asking civic activists and local coordination committees to help develop an action plan for implementation within a reasonable timeframe.

But some reform opponents, especially the political blocs and politicians who don’t support Abadi, have sought to subvert the efforts. For instance, the Supreme Judicial Council has dismissed many judges who are untainted by corruption or political ties on largely spurious grounds. Foot-dragging by officials other than Abadi at various tiers of government is seen as giving those involved in corruption the time to negotiate deals that will enable them to escape conviction or leave the country. A lot of politicians are playing games—welcoming the reforms in the parliament but then challenging their implementation in government ministries and at the local and provincial levels.

Are the protests beginning to lose steam?

To the contrary, the protestors are losing patience, and the danger of frustration leading to violence is serious. Sistani, in fact, recently called for stronger demonstrations to increase the pressure on the government. Local communities and civic activists have clearly expressed their intention to keep the demonstrations going until the government meets all the demands. But frustration at poor implementation is growing, and it is changing the dynamics.

In the Al-Faw area in the south of Basra, local people physically picked up and threw the chairman of the local council at a trash bin—“the most suitable place for corrupt officials,” they said. In Najaf, also south of Baghdad, about 100 activists and other citizens protested in front of the provincial council offices on Sept. 1. At one point, some demonstrators entered the building, forced all employees out and locked it, giving the keys to local police. The demonstrators warned the provincial council not to ignore their demands in the future. On Sept. 17, a group of youth activists in Dhi Qar in southern Iraq launched an initiative called “So we don’t emigrate,” aimed at pressuring authorities to improve living conditions to persuade the country’s youth to stay in Iraq rather than flee, as some have done. As part of the campaign, they walked 180 miles to Baghdad and the entrance of the protected “International Zone,” or “Green Zone,” and demanded successfully that Abadi meet with them and hear their demands.

What are the political ramifications for the government?

If Abadi does not act soon to ensure wide practical implementation of the reform package, starting with high-level changes, he may well squander his political capital and lose both popular support and that of Sistani. Abadi’s government faces immense challenges from many sides: the threat from the Islamic State extremist group, which controls large areas in the north and east and is trying to inflame tensions in the center and the south; the escalating humanitarian crisis as internally displaced people flee the extremists and strain the capacities of their host communities; the lack of technical-institutional capacity within the Iraqi government to lead the reform process; and an increasing militarization of Iraq, which is in danger of becoming, like Libya, a state of militias.

What is USIP doing in relation to the protests?

Through its Justice and Security Dialogues in Iraq, USIP is working carefully with local partners to mitigate tensions related to the reform process among local citizens, local authorities and displaced people. The team provides technical guidance on how civic organizations can facilitate dialogue with a series of meetings involving the organizers of the demonstrations, local police and other local officials to ensure peaceful interactions and help resolve conflicts before they turn violent.

USIP offers this guidance with several objectives in mind: to help clarify the issues at stake; to keep everyone informed (e.g., to let the local police know about upcoming demonstrations and to tell the demonstrators about any new security instructions for conducting the protests peacefully); and to make sure everyone is aware of the demonstration law so that they won’t unwittingly break it. More broadly, USIP and its partners aim to keep popular anger from boiling over into violence.

What do USIP’s partners say is needed from the United States?

They would like the United States to support the demands that the Iraqi public is voicing via the demonstrations and legitimate non-governmental organizations as well as through government authorities that are supportive of the grassroots protests. They also want the United States to beware of political leaders who claim to support them but are staging demonstrations for their own ends. USIP partners appeal to the U.S. government to keep pressure on Abadi to ensure the protestors are respected, not attacked, by the security forces.

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