Making sense of Iraq’s Protest Movement

The occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011 radically altered Iraqi society and the ways in which its classes and social groups are positioned in relation to the Iraqi state. It created winners, losers and those in between with different levels of fortune. Changing power shifts in Iraq and the imposition of ‘Muhasasa’, or political quotas, as the main political arrangement for the allocation of power and oil money, has entailed a concomitant transformation in the ways in which resources are distributed to competing groups and classes in society. The impact of these processes has been monumental but little noticed outside Iraq. It has affected all facets and dimensions of everyday life.

Without rooted and credible linkages and connections to the population, Iraq’s new political elite – a handful of self-styled politicians – were given the opportunity to rule the country between them by a US administration that designed the contours of the political system. During this period after 2003 there were only a handful of new institutions established. The far majority of new structures – in both state and outside its institutions – were erected by competing political forces to ensure continued and sustained access to resources of the state. The institutions of the Iraqi state became sites of political party contestation between the few elites charged with directing the new Iraqi state. They engaged in plunder and rent-extraction but not much state-building. They became the gate-keepers to the riches of the state and well-being and life-changing opportunities it offered. They became kings in a state system but won little credibility and respect in society.

Acknowledging this gap and particularly because of the development of elections as a new political system from 2003 political elites expanded massive networks of patronage, namely via state employment. Patronage was mostly geared to the constituencies they saw most closely resembled the character of their politics.

With little recourse to strong social constituencies in the country, the political parties involved in this effort to usurp the resources of state institutions relied on accentuating sectarian and ethno-nationalist identities.

Deep in this political sectarianism however has always been a class and group conflict over the nature of the Iraqi state, and specifically to whom its resources should benefit. In this environment, the economic prospects of groups in society became intimately tied to state access as a source of material benefit that conferred the privilege of social elevation and even social and cultural survival. The state became in this context a centre of gravity as a way to keep up social appearances of its classes and aspirant groups.

The current system of appeasement and incorporation into the state system via patronage of political elites has been unaffordable and detrimentally Iraq’s inequalities. When it should have been a right to employment, political parties abused a system to cost the state billions in salaries. During this period however no major social and investment projects were implemented, exacerbating Iraq’s ghastly social conditions where government hospitals and schools were neither providers of health care nor proper education but rather painful reminders of the destruction and hollowing-out of state institutions by political party elites.

What we have seen are two inter-connected processes in state and society from 2003 – namely, those with access to distribute state funding – namely political parties, religious institutions such as the Shi’i Clergy and ethno-state sectarians, and on the other side, the people, including its different social groupings –as both beneficiaries of state patronage as well as foot soldiers for the outcomes of this failed politics.

The massive costs of the war against the Islamic State, however, with tens of thousands killed and injured – affected impoverished, lower-class Shi’i youth from Southern and Middle Iraq, and similarly jobless and impoverished Sunni youth in Anbar and Mosul – both groups suffered as a result of ongoing inter-political party competition between Iraq’s elites. Those elites instigated conflict and lived off it’s spoils.

Most religious and polticial elites families reside outside the country and whose wealth and income is similarly spent abroad. These are not only crimes conducted by unaccountable political elites, but crimes of national order that affected disproportionally specific classes and groups in society.

The protests in Basra and elsewhere in the country have also underlined that there is no such as thing as a monolithic ‘Shi’i community’ in Iraq.

Rather, there are competing classes and groups who compete and at times work with each other, depending on the circumstances jointly facing them. When it came to the Islamic State’s attack on the very foundation of the Iraqi state, many groups and classes banded together to fight a common threat. This is not true against the Iranian challenge in Iraq today however, with markedly different interests, allegiances and perspectives in relation to Iran’s deep encroachment in Iraqi state and society.

Further, the elitist Shi’i clergy – an institution made of a small number of notable Shi’i clerical families – which has come under incredible attack on social media and from the wider Iraqi public for its non-transparent business and investments is, of course, wholly different from the class of impoverished Shi’i youth protestors – they should never be compartmentalised under one ethnic or religious group. The Shia clergy or more specifically the state sanctioned Ministry, the Shia Endowment, is run and operated as a religious institution whose reach and presence is markedly weak in society, something that requires further research given that it is the wealthiest institution in the country. In recent protests the clerical class fought against this backlash by sending delegation and after delegation to win the trust of protestors. All to no avail.

Dawa party officials too – most of whom live in European capitals and whose support in the country is mainly from Baazri – type petty traders and religiously inclined Middle-class Shi’i families are markedly different in terms of political outlook, religiosity and economic status from Baghdad’s Sadr City Shi’i groups, whose origins are from Southern Iraq’s marshes.

These social dynamics, distinctions and social hierarchies are also pertinent for Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis as well as other cultural and social groups in the country.

Iraq’s multiple post-2003 conflicts and internal wars, helped assuage, at least temporarily, the effects of the deeply – flawed political system and its outcomes. Calls to terrorism and Baathist allegiances and external nefarious forces has been one way to denigrate whole-group constituencies in Iraq and in Basra. Whilst the protests in Anbar were crushed after being demonised as sympathetic to ‘sunni terrorists’ this is harder to do in Basra. What happened in Anbar over the past few years and in Mosul too was the undermining of whole-group constituencies in a ruthless winner-takes it all political system. It was about the attempt to undermine those rivals competing for the resources of the state which, when suppressed by Maliki’s security forces in 2012, were driven aggressively into the hands of the Islamic State – an armed group made up mostly of young Iraqi men.

The protests in Basra are not only about electricity and services. It is about the rights of large sections of Iraqi society to a semblance of economic security that Iraqi elites have no real interest in pursuing.

Protestors however have been attacked – namely by undermining, kidnapping and assassinating both the organisers and known young critics who gave a voice to largely lower-class and impoverished Shi’i youths.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed, injured, beaten and imprisoned. Among many others, recently Tara al Fares, a social media influencer in Baghdad who was critical of Iraq’s religious politics, and Suad al-Ali, a women’s rights activist in Basra were both gunned down by militia groups who, in a fractured state with weak centralised state institutions, were sent to keep the order and ensure the status quo of religiously inclined Shi’i elites in Baghdad and major cities. Those attacks were not only designed to weaken secular and activist voices that are protesting the corruption and lack of transparency of religious and political elites but were importantly about depriving poor Shia youth from accessing a national voice.

The fact of the matter was that post-2003 Iraq was never really about sectarianism in society, and nor is there such a thing as a post-sectarianism moment in Iraq today. Rather, sectarianism has been the way in which unaccountable elites have used ethno-nationalist and religious identities to their own benefit. That discourse of Iraq as a deeply sectarian country – beholden to its primordial proclivities – was promoted by unaccountable, weakly rooted political elites who claimed to represent ethnic and religious constituencies rather than an Iraqi populace.

A convergence of interests – from the occupation itself, ethno-national elites vying for separatism and politico-religious elites, as well as their families and cronies and sectarian-inclined cheer-leaders in places like London and elsewhere helped to deeply skew our views of what was happening in Iraq.

The idea that Iraq’s rifts are between its Sunni, Shia and Kurdish ‘communities’ was used by political elites to maintain their presence in the state system. The Protest Movement is a form of social action against those who have captured the state under the occupation of Iraq and abused the national resources of the Iraqi people.

Protests in Baghdad in 2011, in Anbar in 2012-13, and now in places like Najaf, Basra, DhiQar and Samawah are testimony to the tenacity and resilience of a people who will fight to realise their rights in a country that should be one of the richest, but is today left impoverished and debilitated by 15 years of elite-political party induced internal conflict.

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About Mehiyar

Dr Mehiyar Kathem is a researcher at University College London (UCL). Mehiyar completed a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he researched peacebuilding interventions and the formation of Iraq’s domestic NGO sector after the 2003 War. During this research, he looked at the gradual evolution of Iraq from totalitarian dictatorship through the country’s emerging domestic organisations. His research interests include statebuilding, civil society peacebuilding and the ways in which development, politics and money interact at a local level. In 2012 and 2013, Mehiyar conducted field research in Iraq for his PhD programme, spending a year meeting with and interviewing domestic NGO actors, political parties, government officials and international donors. Previously, Mehiyar worked on a number of grassroots programmes geared to build the capacity of civil society organisations and continues to advise international donors on the effective design and delivery of projects in Iraq. He tweets at @mehiyar

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