Why are Iraqis protesting?

The ongoing protests in Iraq are neither a conspiracy, nor a revolution.

Basra protests Reuters
Iraqi protesters burn tires and block the road at the entrance to the city of Basra, Iraq July 12, 2018 [Essam al-Sudani/Reuters]

For the past two weeks, waves of mass protests have engulfed several of Iraq’s southern governorates, spreading from Basra all the way to the capital, Baghdad.

Summer protests are a fairly regular feature of the Iraqi political calendar, as the unbearable heat brings the public’s long-simmering grievances to boiling point. However, this year’s protests will likely cause Iraq’s political classes more concern than usual.

The root causes and triggers of the ongoing protests are not that different from previous years: lack of basic services (especially electricity shortages), corruption, and unemployment. In addition to the infernal heat, this summer has been marked by unprecedented water shortages. The ensuing public anger was exacerbated by 15 years of remarkable levels of waste and theft. 

However, the context of 2018 makes this round of “summer protests” somewhat different previous ones. In December 2017, the Iraqi government declared victory in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS), but seven months later ordinary Iraqis still have not seen a peace dividend.

There has been incessant talk of political reform since at least 2014, but it continues to be business-as-usual for Iraq’s political class. The supposedly game-changing “post-ISIL” election has come and gone, but brought no change. The ever more distant, unresponsive, self-interested and thoroughly rotten political elites are still enriching themselves, while ordinary Iraqis struggle to make ends meet.

In other words, even if the grievances of the Iraqi public are the same, their hopes, expectations and tolerance for the status quo are not.

The reduction of violence, the retreat of identity politics and the relative stabilisation of the state have brought Iraq’s systemic failures into sharper focus. In the absence of existential struggles and civil war, Iraqis finally got some breathing space that has allowed them to demand more from their corrupt political elites.

The (caretaker) Iraqi government’s response to the protests has been ham-fisted and heavy-handed. Since the protests erupted some two weeks ago, 11 people have died and some 500 people have been injured (including at least 300 members of the security forces).

Water cannon and live ammunition have been used against protesters and Baghdad even sent units from the elite Counter Terrorism Service to southern governorates to help with crowd control. The internet was temporarily shut down in most of Iraq, while some social media platforms remain blocked.

Protesters have burned down party offices across southern Iraq. Few political parties were spared: from PM Haider al-Abadi‘s Dawa Party to the Badr organisation (affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMUs), and even more hardline and more Iran-leaning groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (Khazali Network) and Kata’ib Hezballah (Hezbollah Brigades) got their fair share of public anger.

Conspiracy theories

There has been some speculation that the protests were deliberately incited. Some have argued that followers of Iraqi-cleric-turned-politician Muqtada al-Sadr (whose political alliance won a narrow plurality in the May elections) are behind the protests, and especially the burning of party offices, which are meant to increase their leverage in government-formation negotiations.

It is difficult to tell the extent to which political actors are using the protests as cover for their own ends, but reducing what is happening to a mere function of elite political rivalries would be a mischaracterisation. The current burst of rage has been aimed at the political class in general and might be too anti-system even for al-Sadr, the self-styled champion of reform.


The Sadrists angle is one of a number of narratives that have emerged seeking a conspiratorial motive behind what are, in fact, spontaneous, organic, and recurrent protests by Iraqis who have more than enough reasons to be disillusioned and angry.

As with previous Iraqi crises, we are seeing old and predictable partisan scripts being recirculated. Defenders of the political system are quick to discredit the protesters with that oldest of post-2003 accusations: “Baathists”. One PMU-affiliated politician said that Saudi Arabian and Baathist agents had infiltrated the protests.

Another, a spokesman for Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, pointed the finger at Zionist-American and Turko-Gulf plots. Conspiracy theorising about Iraq is never complete without an Iranian angle and, sure enough, there have been plenty of people pointing a finger at Iran as either the target or the instigator of the protests.

This, of course, follows an all too familiar pattern of displacing Iraqi agency and Iraqi issues with Iranian interests and priorities thereby scripting Iraq out of its own commentary.

While there has indeed been plenty of anti-Iranian sentiment in these protests with images of Ayatollah Khomeini being set alight and anti-Iranian slogans being voiced, ultimately these protests are not about Iran.

Rather, anti-Iranian sentiment, in this case, is a by-product (not a driver) of rage against the entire Iraqi political order. Iran is seen as a guarantor and as a beneficiary of the system with Iranian interests converging in a web of complicity with those of Iraq’s political classes.

In that sense, the anti-Iranian sentiment is not only reflective of long-standing Iraqi popular resentment towards the country, but is also an act of protest and defiance against a political elite that is seen as responsible, alongside its Iranian allies/patrons, for Iraq’s failures.

As for the notion that Iran is the instigator of these protests: the dire conditions of the southern governorates, and indeed in the rest of Iraq, are such that conspiracies and foreign actors are not a prerequisite for outbursts of popular rage.

Ultimately, whether it is Iran, Baathists, ISIL, Saudis or any other force, insisting on a hidden guiding hand behind these protests denies Iraqis agency, dismisses their grievances and ultimately serves to delegitimise – indeed criminalise – protest. In that sense, to reduce these protests to “infiltrators” and foreign agents is cynical and foolish.

Not a revolution

On the other end of the spectrum, we have opponents of the political order who frame the protests as a revolution or as Iraq’s “Arab Spring moment”. This is wishful thinking and the reality is that the current political system is likely to persist with minor if not cosmetic changes.

Here, it is worth asking what a revolution can look like in Iraq circa 2018. The diffusion of military and political power, the brittleness of the state and its compromised sovereignty – in other words, some of its worst features – might paradoxically be the political order’s most powerful preservative in that it precludes the possibility of state capture, absent its complete destruction by way of a major civil war or a foreign 2003-esque intervention.

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There is no guiding ideology to be overturned, no Leviathan to tear down and no singular authoritarian figure whose demise might signal a structural shift in the governing order. Rather than revolutionary climaxes, Iraq is far more likely to witness gradual change through a recurring cycle of political and economic pressures leading to protests and riots that, in turn, meet a combination of force and piecemeal reforms. Indeed, elements of just such a dynamic have been in evidence since 2011 and more so since 2014.

For now, it looks like the protests are going to continue. Iraq’s acting Prime Minister al-Abadi has shifted away from trying to discredit the protesters with talk of “infiltrators” and conspiracies and has adopted a more conciliatory approach. 

After an unnecessary delay, he announced a series of measures including the immediate allocation of $3.5bn for development projects in Basra and the dismissal of three ministers.

These measures are unlikely to be enough to fully absorb the protest momentum that has been generated thus far. Indeed, it is unclear what the prime minister can realistically offer to calm tensions down in the short term. The failures of Iraqi governance are so deep, cumulative and structural as to defy quick fixes.

What political actor or arm of the Iraqi state can quickly and adequately face the challenges of desertification, water shortages, water salinity, unemployment, governance, reconstruction, corruption, etc?

What short or even medium-term fix is there for the fact that Iraq’s oil sector supplies 90 percent of its revenue, but employs just four percent of the population? These are long-term problems that require far more vision than Iraq’s self-interested political classes are likely to be able to offer.

Genuine attempts at structural change – say a shift to a majority government rather than dysfunctional “consensus governments” and the despised system of ethno-sectarian apportionment – would appease public sentiment and secure much goodwill and public buy-in.

But structural change is a tall order. A more likely scenario is for a combination of force, enticements and fatigue to eventually reduce the scale of discontent to more manageable levels until the next round of protests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.