The rebuilding of Iraq is not just a massive construction project. In the face of violent repression, the protesters that took to the streets in October demand a new political class than can dig the country out of the nightmare of the last ten years.
The resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, formally accepted by the Iraqi Parliament on 1 December 2019, represents an important but bittersweet victory for the protest movement that has been shaking Iraq since October of this year: clashes with official and unofficial security forces have led to over 400 dead and 19,000 injured, in addition to several cases of activists being abducted.
The protest movement that began on 1 October did not flinch before the harsh repression adopted by the Iraqi government; on the contrary, its strength increased over time. Protesters continued to fill the streets of Baghdad and other cities in southern Iraq, especially Karbala and Najaf, two major religious centres. The resignation of Adil Abdul-Mahdi came only a few hours before a message by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in which the senior cleric asked the Parliament to stop procrastinating with regards to the country’s future. Nevertheless, the marjahiyya has made it clear that it does not want to be involved in the formation of the government, and that it will not allow its role to be taken advantage of by the parties. The prime minister’s resignation was celebrated as a victory by the protest movement, but its demands are much more wide-ranging.
In the coming months, the country will have to face several major challenges.
First of all, the Iraqi political class must come to an agreement regarding Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s successor. After the Parliament accepted the prime minister’s resignation, Iraq’s President Barham Saleh was left with 15 days to nominate a new prime minister who represents the majority coalition in Parliament. The prime minister would then have 30 days to form a government. Recent Iraqi history does not bode well: after every election, the formation of a government has always been a very protracted affair. For example, Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s government took office over five months after the last elections (May 2018), and this without an agreement on every ministry.
The choice will be dictated by the usual struggle between the various political parties, none of which are particularly keen to accept true changes in the fragile Iraqi balance of power. The two most important coalitions in Parliament are those headed respectively by Moqtada al-Sadr and Hadi-al Amiri. The first comprises the Saʿirun coalition (a political alliance between Sadrist and civil movements), together with the movements led by Hayder al-Abadi and Hammar al-Hakim. The second instead draws together parts of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the militias created to stop the advance of the Islamic State, and the movement headed by Nuri al-Maliki, and enjoys support from Iran. The leaders of these two coalitions are not on good terms, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr’s turn towards nationalism led him to denounce Iranian interference in Iraq’s affairs.
It is also well-known that in recent years, Iraqi prime ministers have had to seek out approval from both the United States and Iran. Recent events, however, make it more difficult to identify a leader that could find favour with both countries. On the one hand, the Iraqi street has said loud and clear it does not appreciate Iranian meddling, which complicates Iran’s role in the future Iraqi government. On the other, relations between Iran and the United States are very tense, and Iraq risks becoming one of the theatres where this confrontation plays out. Neither country wants to see Iraq descend into chaos, but apart from stability they have very few goals in common.
In a short-term outlook, the Iraqi political class – together with the protest movement – must prevent the situation from degenerating into open violence. There have already been a number of violent episodes, such as the clashes that led to the death of 45 civilians at the hand of security forces in Nasiriyah as a reprisal against the attack on the Iranian consulate in Najaf, or the violent counter-protest in Baghdad that saw the participation of numerous supporters of the Hashd al-Shaabi. The country has only recently left behind the brutality of the Islamic State, but its socio-economic fabric remains extremely fragile, and an additional wave of violence would be fatal.
In a mid- to long-term outlook, the challenges are no less daunting. To address the protesters’ demands, the country should embark on a process of deep reforms, for which there is very little sincere interest away from the demonstrations. Requests to improve socio-economic conditions in Iraq are now accompanied by purely political demands (such as drafting a new electoral law that would go beyond assigning political posts on a sectarian basis) which aim to promote a radical change in the Iraqi political system and the pillars on which it rests: corruption, sectarianism and coercion.
The Iraqi political class is thus called upon to disentangle an extremely complex situation. Having brought the country’s people to the brink, it must give immediate answers to the protesters’ demands while keeping in mind that there are no shortcuts to solving the problems that plague Iraq. Unless, of course, the political class decides once again to go the way of repression, which risks exacerbating tensions even more. The Iraqi street will remain vigilant and will not settle for token measures, but it will also have to grapple with the need for setting credible expectations about what can realistically be achieved by the end of the current parliamentary term.