Iraqi demonstrators gesture near a tire fire during a demonstration against state corruption, failing public services, and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Protesters are on the streets in Iraq, furious at corruption, unemployment and bad public services. Security forces fire live ammunition, killing protesters. The Iraqi prime minister promises an investigation and the United Nations calls for restraint.

That is not a scene from this week in Baghdad but from the summer of 2018 in Basra, when the southern port city was rocked by demonstrations. A year later, Iraq has a new cabinet, a new prime minister – even a new UN special representative – but the story has not changed. This latest round of protests, now into its second week, is one of the biggest so far and, crucially, appears to be both leaderless and unresponsive to political pressure.

Political leaders have struggled to articulate a response. In a televised statement on Saturday, the prime minister struck a conciliatory note, calling the protesters “brothers” and offering subsidized housing and loans for young people. It did nothing to calm the mood. Even Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest grouping in parliament and someone who gained political power on the back of the protests in last year’s election, seemed caught by surprise.

Eventually, he called for the prime minister to resign. But new elections are not the answer. Nor are new politicians. The aftermath of last year’s protests in Basra offered both, but yielded no real change.

In a real sense, the protests have run away from the politicians. Corruption has become so institutionalized, and Iraqi politics so dependent on backroom deals, that only a political party with a strong mandate can drive through the necessary changes. But a strong mandate is precisely what Iraq’s political system has been set up to guard against. And therein lies the problem: The protesters are not asking for concessions that the politicians or the political system can grant. It is Iraq’s political system that has become the problem and the protesters want rid of it.

A system created after the 2003 US-led invasion to distribute power away from the center – in essence to fix the flaws of the authoritarian, centralized Saddam Hussein era – has instead entrenched the sectarian make-up of the country. A quota system that allocates ministries along sectarian lines has created a revolving door of politicians whose first allegiance is to the sect-dominated political factions that put them in power.

In the post-invasion period, critics pointed out that a system based on ethnicity and sect, as in Lebanon, would create either perennially weak governments or political paralysis. In Iraq it has yielded both. But that was seen as a reasonable price to pay for righting the wrongs of the Saddam era, in particular the excessive dominance of Sunnis at the expense of the Shiite majority and the Kurds.

In a dig at Iran-backed militias, an Iraqi government spokesman blamed “malicious hands” for the killing of protesters, and it is tempting and not unreasonable to regard the protests as political. In fact, they are not much different from many others around the world, in which the protesters demand jobs and decent wages. Perhaps 20% of the under 25s in Iraq are unemployed and many more are underemployed, working in jobs below their educational level.

What is different is that Iraq, a country left shattered by the 2003 invasion and the fight against ISIS, is starting from a less stable base. The political system is determined to remain stable against political threats, even at the expense of actually doing politics. The sheer scale of the protests shows how untenable that mindset is. These protests are a continuation of those that began back in 2015 and have continued every year since, mostly over the summer when frustration over the lack of functioning public utilities, such as clean water and electricity for air-conditioning, comes to a head.

This year the spark that lit the touchpaper was political: Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, a general who led the fight against ISIS, was fired, allegedly after pressure from pro-Iran groups. But the protests have little to do with party politics, as evidenced by the fact that offices of every single political party have been attacked.

In fact, if the protests were political, there might be some possibility of change. After the parliamentary elections in May last year, it took seven months of wrangling over ethnic and sectarian balance to produce a cabinet that is still paralyzed and unable to make decisions.

This is the fundamental problem with the Iraqi system and it is one that Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi cannot easily address personally. Last week he said he was ready to meet and listen to the protesters “for hours.” But even if he does meet them, he won’t like what they have to say. Nor can he meet their demands. What they want is root-and-branch reform of the political system, when all he can offer them is a fig-leaf of change.

In France, the gilets jaunes, or yellow jackets, another leaderless mass-protest movement, began with specific aims but has added on so many more demands that the political system cannot respond to it. Like Iraq’s protesters, the gilets jaunes also want the system changed. Iraq’s government is in the same predicament: facing a movement with demands so great, so widespread and so far-reaching in scale that it simply cannot respond because it has neither the tools nor the ability.

The protesters have a choice: go through or go down. Going through would mean they get the sweeping changes they want – an unlikely scenario as too many in Iraq and beyond are invested in the current system. That leaves backing down – a dispiriting alternative but one that means they live to fight another day, or next year.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

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