Weeks of demonstrations in Baghdad and across Iraq’s largely Shia-populated southern cities have pitted protesters against the police, local governments, and the country’s ruling elites, and there is no question they are shaking the sectarian political system.
Iraq is marred by state failure demonstrated by government dysfunction, rampant corruption and political cronyism. This abysmal state is deeply associated with the sectarian political system that has been in place since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Both factors have combined to stifle the country and provide fuel for public discontent and the trigger for protests that have raged throughout the country in recent weeks.
Dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds were injured, mostly by live shots, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters fired to disperse thousands of anti-government protesters, in clashes with masked and black clad security forces.
The confrontations began 1 October over corruption, unemployment, lack of basic services and government mismanagement, but quickly turned deadly as security forces cracked down, using live ammunition for days.
The anti-government demonstrations resumed Friday after a three-week hiatus to observe a major Shia religious event that draws annually millions of pilgrims.
The core of the unprecedented protests are young Shia, many of them university or secondary school graduates who cannot find jobs and seek to change the wretched sectarian nature of their state forever.
The protests and the clashes with the security forces have paralysed much of Iraq. In Baghdad, demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires and tore down posters of politicians.
The protests then spread to several mainly Shia-populated southern provinces, and authorities imposed a curfew and shut down roads for days in an effort to quell the unrest.
Yet, in a parallel battle over who has a last say, it is the protesters who are outgunned. On Saturday night that mismatch was highlighted by the thousands of elite counter-terrorism forces deployed to disperse the protesters and prevent them from reaching the fortified Green Zone neighbourhood, which hosts government offices.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has ordered elite counter-terrorism troops to deploy in the streets of Baghdad and “use any means” to end protests against his government.
The Counter-Terrorism Service forces, which were trained by the United States to fight terrorism, immediately moved to suppress the protests.
The demonstrations were a moment of truth for Iraqi Shia leaders who have dominated Iraq’s politics for the last 16 years and who were considered untouchable up to this moment.
The biggest risk for the revolt, however, is that it will simply fail.
The grim reality is that while it may have shaken the established order, the movement may not succeed in the short term in its massive undertaking: removing the ruling class and their entrenched parties.
The protest movement is perceived as weak, disorganised and unable to carry out its role of political counterweight to the ruling factions and their paramilitary wings.
Therefore, many believe, the movement has little chance of toppling the regime. A key problem is that the movement has no clear leadership that can steer it away from spontaneity, confusion and disarray.
In one sense, the movement has no reliable political allies either, from independent seasoned politicians or powerful political factions in the system itself.
On the other hand, the movement has no programme, agenda or even a clear political manifesto that explains its objectives beyond ousting the ruling oligarchy.
Noticeably, the protests are largely restricted to Shia-majority neighbourhoods in Baghdad and the southern provinces. While Kurds in the north remain aloof to efforts to reform the central government for reasons associated with their independence agenda, Sunni Arabs remain largely disinterested in what they probably see as mere Shia-Shia infighting.
Also, as the movement has evolved, the government and the ruling oligarchs have showed increased willingness of using ruthless methods to quell the protests and to crush threats to their power.
Counter-terrorism forces beat and arrested hundreds of protesters in several southern cities, including the world Shia spiritual capital, Kerbala. They tried repeatedly to break up the demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square with tear gas and stun grenades but protesters regrouped.
In recent days not only the toll of dead and injured by the security forces has risen but many were killed when members of Iranian-backed militia groups opened fire on protesters who had gathered near their offices.
In addition, the government seems unlikely to offer more political concessions to the protesters than the petty reform proposals Abdul-Mahdi has offered to de-escalate the situation.
But more importantly, the government and the ruling Shia factions remain in possession of the formidable force of the army, the CTS, the Federal Police and the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) which they could deploy to disrupt and dismantle the protests.
All these and other factors now cast doubts on whether the protest movement will be able to achieve their goals of dismissing the political oligarchs and offer an alternative to the dysfunctional political system.
Yet, the larger question at this point is what will happen if the ruling cliques are intent on using all means at their disposal to defeat the protests in order to ensure their political survival?
For now, and even for the foreseeable future, the standoff will continue and Iraq’s worst political crisis in decades which was triggered by the protests will continue.
The upshot is that millions of Iraqis have begun experiencing their political awakening during the demonstrations, which have transcended sectarian lines even though their predominant participants are Shia Muslims.
Now Iraqis are no longer pushing to tackle pervasive corruption, unemployment, lack of services, mismanagement and failed policies that have brought Iraq to its knees.
Instead, they are calling for the abolition of the political sectarian system intended to ensure a share of power for each of the country’s religious communities, arguing that it has given a small oligarchy with their militias and clan-like powers over the country.
Moreover, there have been signs of a crack appearing in Iraq’s ruling class. A parliamentary bloc backed by Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has said it would go into opposition until the demands of anti-government protesters were met.
Al-Sadr, who is backing the ongoing wave of anti-government protests, has demanded the government resign and called for early elections under the supervision of the United Nations.
Al-Sadr also warned the government against using the feared PMF, an umbrella organisation for Iran-backed Shia militias, in cracking down on the protests.
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi, who heads the third largest bloc in parliament, also suggested dissolving parliament and electing a new government.
Meanwhile, some six members of parliament have submitted their resignation while nearly two dozen MPs said they were quitting their political blocs and forming an independent alliance.
Other signs of government decay include defiance by locals to comply with curfew orders and warnings to government’s employees, teachers and students to stop joining the protests.
So far, the crisis appears to have put the country at a dangerous impasse as the government’s harsh tactics seem to fail and the protesters refuse to stop the milestone demonstrations after all the sacrifices and the bravery they have showed.
While victory for the protesters who demand a complete overhaul to the political order seems far-fetched for now, crushing the revolt will raise concern about giving hard line factions in the government and Iran-backed militias the upper hand in the country.
The success of the protest movement lies in exposing the structural nature of the sectarian political order established after 2003 and its dysfunction. Unless this system is broken Iraq will continue sliding into the abyss and this will be the price of the uprising’s failure.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.