Iraq’s Shia-led government of Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi has reacted swiftly and forcefully to quell street demonstrations in the largely Shia-dominated southern provinces of the country that were protesting against state dysfunction and corruption and demanding jobs and public services.
The problem is not simply that the security forces have ruthlessly cracked down on angry protesters, but that the demonstrations have highlighted growing reservations by Iraq’s Shias towards their poor leadership more than 15 years after the majority Shias obtained power following the fall of the former Sunni-dominated regime in the US-led invasion in 2003.
The widening cracks within Shia ranks cast a long shadow over the political empowerment of Iraq’s Shias, or what has long been touted as a Shia revival, and they reinforce speculation about the limitations of the community’s rise in state and nation-building in Iraq.
Moreover, the outcome of the standoff will determine the future of Shia rule in Iraq and will also have a huge impact on the sectarian power balance across the Middle East that has been inflicted by a deepening Shia-Sunni divide.
The protests in Iraq started on 8 July against politicians blamed for failing to deliver basic services and jobs to the oil-rich province of Basra and other largely Shia-populated southern cities that have been crumbling under years of corruption, mismanagement and neglect.
Several protesters were killed and hundreds of others were wounded in nearly three weeks of demonstrations as the government sent in US-trained anti-riot troops to quash the rioting which it blamed on “infiltrators.”
Shia militia leaders also accused the protesters of serving foreign agendas and trying to undermine the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Soon the public protests moved to the capital Baghdad as the demonstrators escalated their demands to include the ousting of the ruling political parties and broadening their resistance to the Shia-led government.
The moves come as Iraq’s embattled political class grapples with one of Iraq’s worst crises since 2003 over the controversial results of the 12 May elections, now being contested by several groups.
The elections saw a low turnout, especially in the Shia-populated provinces which signalled their increasing disillusionment with the Shia political elites that have been monopolising power since 2003.
The revolt in Iraq’s southern cities has also underscored how the political shift in Iraq in favour of its Shia majority has failed to advance the Shias’ historic quest for justice primarily because of internal mismanagement and not necessarily because of resistance by “others.”
Historically speaking, Shia Muslims have been denied access to political power for centuries. In Iraq, the Shias’ narrative says that the community h Saddam Hussein as been treated as being made up of second-class citizens since the modern Iraqi state came into being after the First World War.
Iraq’s Shia wheel of fortune, however, turned with the US-led invasion and the collapse of the Sunni-dominated regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein when the Shias seized the opportunity to take power in the country.
The Shia takeover in post-2003 Iraq also triggered a broader Shia rise in the Middle East that upset the regional sectarian balance and sparked Sunni rejection.
In the wake of the US-led invasion, however, important questions arose: would the newly empowered Shia leadership keep Iraq united and maintain its national identity and would it succeed in rebuilding Iraq as a modern state?
Would the new Shia rulers seize the opportunity to establish an egalitarian society rather than try to redress past injustices to the Shias alone?
The future of Iraq seemed to hinge on the answers to these questions. Yet, as more than a decade of Shia experience in government has showed, the Shia elites that drew on their community’s majority in power were ill-prepared for the job, let alone the gigantic task of state-building in Iraq.
Huge sums of money coming from oil resources and international aid continued to be squandered or siphoned off by corrupt politicians, and the Iraqi people stood to lose everything as a result of corruption and dysfunctions.
However, the ineffective Shia political class continued to grab as much authority as it could, circumventing the constitution and the principles of power-sharing and consensus democracy and marginalising the country’s Sunnis, Kurds, and even many in the Shia community.
The ethnic and sect-based quota system that was initiated after 2003 created a social environment favourable to political sectarianism, and this deepened communal divisions and triggered continued conflicts.
From their ghetto in the formidable government Green Zone in Baghdad, the Shia political elites used state resources and every instrument at their disposal, in particular the country’s huge oil money and massive security forces, to monopolise power and exclude the rest of Iraq’s communities and individuals.
Power-grabbing and exclusion went hand-in-hand with wanton corruption and flagrant inefficiency to produce the worst governments Iraq has had since its foundation in 1921.
Despite billions of dollars pouring into the state coffers annually, Iraqis have been sinking into poverty, deprivation and unemployment. Public healthcare and other services have drastically declined owing to shortages of funding and corruption.
Electricity and drinking water supplies have been painfully scarce even in the capital Baghdad, while they are more severely lacking in the provinces and even in the Shia heartlands.
More importantly, the Iraqi Shia ruling elites have failed in their strategic management of post-Saddam Iraq. Since they came to power, they have showed that they have no strategic plans for state-building and have been improvising as they go along.
The manner in which the ruling Shia oligarchy has been handling the present revolt is raising serious doubts even among Shias as to whether it is perhaps aiming to rock the foundations of the first government the Iraqi Shias have managed to establish in their history.
The way Al-Abadi’s government has dealt with the movements in the southern provinces and the suppression of the protesters shows how the dysfunctional Shia-led regime has been incapable of morphing into a state that can represent the Shias and respect their voices and protect their rights.
After the Shia ruling groups, Iraq’s mostly Islamic-oriented parties have imposed their own religiously and politically conservative agendas and alienated secularists and liberal Shias. They have also ordered their security forces and militias to turn their guns on the Shia protesters.
The results of turning against their own constituencies this time around could be fateful and have historic consequences as far as the Iraqi Shias are concerned.
Today, the question of the performance of the Shia leadership and its failure in state-building is fundamentally a matter of the Iraqi Shias’ future. The key question is whether the present leadership in fact constitutes a danger to the survival of the Iraqi Shias.
As the Iraqi Shia elites lose support from their constituencies and continue to lack legitimacy and fail to build consensus, their governmental mechanisms will be increasingly raked over the coals.
Some 56 per cent of eligible voters in Iraq, mostly in Shia-dominated constituencies, boycotted the May elections in a clear message of rejection of their political class that has dominated the parliament and the government in post-Saddam Iraq.
When the protesters come in throngs to the Shia-populated cities shouting slogans of down with the political parties, burning their offices and attacking local government premises, the stakes are high that frustration with the ruling elites has reached boiling point.
Put in a larger perspective, Iraq’s Shia elites have not only failed in building a normal state but have also turned Iraq into a natural breeding ground for mismanagement, corruption and terrorism.
In a broader historical and geopolitical context, the empowerment of the Iraqi Shias after 14 centuries of Sunni rule, once hailed as a Shia revival, has now been put into reverse.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Is Iraq’s Shia revival over?