In the past two weeks, violent rallies and an unprecedented crackdown by the Iraqi government have resulted in the deaths of more than 14 demonstrators and the injury of hundreds of members of Iraq’s security forces. What began as a regular rally for jobs near a Basran oil field escalated after a young protestor was killed by police warning shots. Soon, more protests popped up across the province demanding electricity, water, and employment.
Set in the aftermath of May’s controversial parliamentary elections, in which turnout was the lowest in Iraq’s democratic history, these events have brought to the surface the growing distrust between the people and the ruling class.
Dissent in Iraq’s economic capital has been brewing for the last 15 years. Long before the advent of the skyscrapers and airports that mark the modern capitals of the Persian Gulf, Basra was referred to as the Middle East’s own Venice and the “bride of the gulf.” Decades later, however, Basra’s fortunes reversed: the metropolis became the main theater of Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran, a launching pad for the invasion of Kuwait, and the entry point for the 2003 U.S. occupation. Under dictator Saddam Hussein it and its people suffered systematic marginalization, demographic change, and environmental devastation, on top of the countrywide U.N. sanctions.
Basra contributes 75 percent of the 4.175 million barrels of oil Iraq produces daily, yet much of this wealth has not reached the province. Although Basran power plants contribute 32 percent of the national electricity grid, households downtown receive 15 hours of power a day at best. Basra’s water infrastructure has been inadequate for decades. Fresh water in the Shatt al-Arab river is becoming saltier as Turkey and Iran continue damming the Tigris and Karun. Potable water supply and critical industries have been directly affected. Marsh Arabs are yet again facing the threat of displacement as water buffalo and fish die.
With limited federal support, agricultural activity has also dwindled. Many ex-farmers prefer stable low-level jobs like that of security guards or oil workers for international companies. The rest are either unemployed or are taxi drivers. Basrawis accuse both the local and federal government of corruption, nepotism, and political rivalry as they compete for the province’s oil and port revenues.
Basra’s acute situation is not foreign to the rest of the south, but more significant in magnitude. Common traits of tribal kinship, religion, culture, as well as its melting pot character, grant Basra a position to provoke a domino effect in Iraq’s south. It was thus not surprising that protests expanded to nearby Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthana provinces. Najaf’s airport was stormed; in Karbala, roads were cut and tires burnt. In Baghdad’s impoverished Shoula neighborhood, demonstrators emerged by the hundreds. Basrawis’ grief resonated with that of the rest of the country.
While protests in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq might have been conspiratorially guided against the Shi‘i-led government as some may claim, the spontaneity, varied demands, and lack of a unified leadership of these latest Shi‘i protests show that they are organic. Although Iraq’s Shi‘i politicians base their legitimacy on representing the country’s majority, that connection may not be enough. Indeed, these protests may be the first crack in the relationship that safeguarded the state in 2014. On the other hand, the protests also signal a shift in Iraqi regional politics—the government may now encounter dissent from the south, rather than from the west or north.
The protests have also further weakened Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s chances of clinging to the premiership. Despite Abadi’s effective leadership in ousting ISIS and keeping the economy afloat by reshuffling finances, restraining public spending, and promising reform, his performance in May's elections was unexpectedly poor. Nationally, he came third after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairun alliance and the PMU-backed Fatah coalition headed by Hadi al-Amiri. Nevertheless, it was in Sunni Mosul where he led the results, a tribute to his successful campaign against ISIS.
Abadi’s position weakened in the run-up to elections when he brought together a coalition with many old political faces. The public did not take it well. It also contradicted Sistani’s four-year-old fatwa saying that “Those tested, shall not be re-tested,” a message to the political class and voters alike to pump fresh blood into Iraqi politics. Being forced to comply with World Bank and IMF loan obligations did not help either.
Contending with former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki over Dawa’a leadership also split their dedicated voter base, which is often seen as smaller than those of established Shi‘i clerical families like Ammar al-Hakim or Sadr. Dawa’a relies on nonpoliticized voters, many of whom boycotted the vote. Moreover, general feeling in the south credited the PMUs with the victory against ISIS in Mosul, giving the upper hand to Fatah.
The timing of the protests is not on Abadi’s side either. He could have spun them as a sign of public support for his long-due reforms had they taken place before the elections, but with government formation talks ongoing, he was presented with a dilemma: ride the protest wave and create political foes or present a strongman image that may inch him closer to a second term. By supporting the people’s “rightful demands,” while promising “violent intruders” would be dealt with, he struck a balance. Nonetheless, his bid is under risk from rivals who may portray the protests as a public outcry against his government.
Effectively, these protests have withered away. Without a powerful opposition to represent the people’s grievances, Iraqi politics may not experience a notable change in the short term. Promises of ending state spending on leadership positions, isolating independent institutions from political interference, and investigating corruption have been dismissed by many as superficial measures to contain public anger.
A swift promise of 10,000 jobs and an immediate release of $3 billion in frozen petrodollars to Basra have reduced the protests’ intensity. However, with 500,000 jobless forecasted to apply for the limited positions, the local government’s infamous track record of corruption, and no clear oversight from Baghdad, many locals see these measures as unrealistic and unlikely to be fruitful by the next summer.
Thus far, the politics of government formation have created a standoff, with no party fully throwing their lot in with the protests, even the populist Sadr. Such a gamble would put the parties and alliances at risk of losing lucrative ministerial posts in the next government.
Another threat is the susceptibility of protests to exploitation by regional powers, especially Saudi Arabia, who may pursue a role in southern Iraq as ingress into Iran’s backyard. With Tehran ending electricity exports to Iraq and Baghdad approaching Riyadh as an alternative, a window might have opened for future influence.
The defeat of ISIS has rekindled a long-forgotten national identity. Sunnis in Mosul welcomed the primarily Shi‘i liberating force as brethren, a fact that outside observers have had difficulty acknowledging. Populist sectarian platforms that once flourished on the promotion of “Shi‘i preservation” or “Sunni marginalization” will soon completely lose out to those based on citizen welfare. Increasingly, Iraqis feel that change can only be brought on from the outside or by completely revamping their infant democracy into a presidential system that circumvents failing parliamentary politics. The Shi‘i political house needs to prioritize institutional reform and the economy; their focus should turn toward saving the future legacy of Iraq’s “Shi‘i rule.”
Photo: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images