The trajectory of popular protests in Iraq

The resignation of prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi after two months of popular protests in Iraq has provided an opportunity to overthrow the political system created under US occupation. However, significant roadblocks remain

December 07, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Iraq protests
A protester looking at fellow protesters in Baghdad, Iraq.

Political uncertainty in Iraq has intensified with the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. After resisting popular protests which have caused the death of nearly 450 people for almost two months, Mahdi finally decided to step down on November 29. His resignation was accepted on December 1. 

While the development is being celebrated on the streets of the country, finding a replacement for him would be difficult for president Bahram Salih. As per constitutional provisions, Salih may nominate a new leader based on the recommendations of the largest block in the parliament. However, the Muktada al-Sadr-led Sairoon (Forward) block, the largest in the Iraqi parliament, submitted a letter to the president on December 2, relinquishing its right to nominate the new prime minister. 

With 54 seats out of the 329 in the Iraqi parliament, Sairoon was able to secure parliamentary approval for Mahdi as the prime minister with the support of Fatah (the second largest group) and others. However, its numbers have dwindled ever since the popular protests began, with some of its members, including legislators from the Communist Party of Iraq, resigning. It is not clear if Fatah can propose a name for the prime minister, given that it was also part of the last proposal. Fatah also does not have enough numbers to see through the necessary parliamentary approval for the new prime minister.

According to Al-Jazeera, in its letter, Sairoon mentions its resolve to end the controversial Muhasasa system in Iraq, which has been one of the crucial demands of the protesters. The Muhasasa system was introduced in the 2005 Constitution during US occupation, and provides for sectarian and ethnic representation in the Iraqi parliament and the executive. This quota-based system of proportional representation has been the basis of all the governments in Iraq since then.

Though the system was instituted to settle sectarian divisions, it is widely believed to be the source of the prevalent corruption and sectarianism in the country. It has become the target of public anger due to the fact that it has facilitated the same set of politicians remaining in power irrespective of electoral results. The provision has been used by the political elite to maintain their hold on power for narrow sectarian and individual gains, leading to broader mismanagement and widespread inefficiency. Protesters thus view the Muhasasa system as a major stumbling block in the creation of an Iraqi national sentiment.  

Public grievances against Muhasasa have legitimate basis and regional parallels. Protesters in Lebanon have a similar view of their consociational system which was created by the Taif Agreement of 1989 and was meant to settle the sectarian aspirations in the country which had caused 15 years of civil war. 

Protesters in Iraq and Lebanon have displayed confidence in a common national identity. Nevertheless, neither Lebanon nor Iraq is a homogeneous society. In Iraq, the fact that there is widespread apprehension among minority sects and religious groups about fair treatment under a system based solely on numbers of votes is ignored as sectarianism. It is very likely that minorities in Iraq, mostly Sunnis and Kurds, may face marginalization in the absence of such provisions. The Kurds have already expressed their concern regarding this. The fact that most of the protests are located in the south, which is dominated by the Shia majority, hints at some of the complications involved and poses the question of whether the minorities concerns’ are being addressed.  

An overhaul of the political system is perhaps a more substantive demand and the need of the hour, as the constitution created under foreign occupation has failed to reflect the true aspirations of the people. However, most of the specific demands, such as a party-less democracy, an electoral law which gives more powers to independent candidates and UN supervision of elections, seem arbitrary. Most of these demands are vague and some of them are implausible under any political system.

Though the Communist Party of Iraq and its former ally Muktada al-Sadr have supported the popular protests, it would be impossible for them to agree on all the demands raised by the protesters. The lack of leadership in the protests also denies the possibility of a negotiated and nuanced settlement. Now that the government has resigned, it remains to be seen whether these demands are toned down, allowing for a smoother transition.  

The protests in Iraq are rooted in the inefficiency of successive governments and their inability to tackle the issues of corruption, unemployment, poverty and poor government services in the country. However, the fact that an oil-rich state has a poverty rate as high as 23%, along with falling standards of life for the majority of its people, reflects more than merely the inefficiency of the system. It is symptomatic of the general pattern of capitalist accumulation and exploitation found all across the world today.

Bid to target Iran

Meanwhile, there have been a number of attempts to redirect public anger towards Iran. The fire set to the Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim’s shrine, along with the Iranian consulate in Najaf by a section of the protesters, ultimately decided the fate of Abdul Mahdi. He was asked to resign after the incident by one of the most influential clerics in the country, Ali al-Sistani. Such attacks demonstrate some level of anti-Iran feeling among a section of the protesters.

A general perception among many Iraqis is that most of their politicians are under the influence of Iran, which may explain this anti-Iran sentiment. However, attempts to exaggerate the Iranian influence by rival players in the region, especially the US, are obvious, reflecting the larger game being played out in the region. Imperialist forces have been trying to use genuine public grievances against the system to target Iran. However, targeting Iran will not strengthen Iraq. Instead, it will make the country further vulnerable and open to exploitation by the same imperialist forces.