In October 2019, Iraqi youth took to the streets en masse to protest against government corruption and lack of essential services. The protests later developed to call for a total overhaul of the political system, including a new electoral law, early elections held under UN supervision and constitutional reform, among other issues. The protest movement continues to persist, despite the use of indiscriminate and excessive force by the government and associated militias resulting in the killing of hundreds of protesters in addition to tens of thousands of injuries. The demonstrations have shaken the political class, forcing changes in the political system, including the resignation of the former government, changes to the election law and the electoral process. However, due to the limited political movements independent from the current political elite and the resistance of the current political class, it was impossible to form a short-term government that would satisfy both the protesters’ demands and the current political class.
After a lengthy process and repeated deadlocks, the above led to the formation of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s government, Iraq’s ex-head of intelligence who is known amongst the political class but doesn’t have strong ties with any party. Al-Kadhimi’s government was formed in May 2020 with promises to hold early elections and adhere to some of the main demands of the protesters. Due to the continuous pressure from the protesters and the international community, Al-Kadhimi tried to introduce reforms with the help of his deputy and finance minister Dr Ali Allawi. The reforms include plans to tackle some of the significant economic issues Iraq is facing amidst a global pandemic and ongoing pressure from protesters and a plan for early elections tentatively set in June 2021.
Over the few months since Al-Kadhimi’s appointment, the new government has faced increasing challenges, as internal political struggles continued, especially concerning the increasing power of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic which has severely impacted the local economy, with the price of oil – Iraq's primary source of income – plummeting, leaving the state with a huge budget deficit and unable to pay public sector salaries which make up the majority of jobs in Iraq. All the above added to the difficulties accumulated from the previous governments, making it much harder for this government to perform as needed. However, this did not prevent Al-Kadhimi from making various promises that might be beyond his government’s capacity.
The current government is temporary, it came about as a result of an agreement between political forces, and it is in no way a final answer to the protesters’ demands. The promise of fair and early elections seems more farfetched as time passes. Furthermore, protesters are not currently organised in a way that allows them to compete and participate in any early elections. If this is not altered, there will be a similar scenario to the previous elections with the vast majority of candidates belonging to the same political elites that have dominated politics in Iraq since 2003. In the midst of all of this, there has also been a wave of assassinations of civil society activists over the last few months, aimed at silencing active members of civil society and killing off their chances of further political mobilisation. The government has been unable to protect activists or prosecute the militias responsible for these assassinations which are on the rise. These persistent assassinations present a real challenge, scaring anyone who might call for reforms or challenge the political system into silence and preventing them from running in elections.
In light of the recent wave of assassinations, accountability is needed to control groups and militias that have vast amounts of influence, power, money and weapons, and use those when needed for their interests. So far, Al-Kadhimi has failed to address this issue, and it will continue to be an increasing threat not only to outspoken individuals but to the country as a whole. Due to the tribal nature of some cities in Iraq and the weakness of the state, without central control of tribal forces and militias, these groups will continue to rise to power with fear eventually becoming the only ruling factor.
Since 2003, every government that has come into power has promised a substantial package of reforms. However, as time passes, these promises fade slowly, and new challenges arise. Electricity is one example where considerable resources were spent over the years, arguably more than $60 billion were spent on the sector since 2003. Yet, Iraqis are spending their summer with a few hours of power a day. Pressure to hold politicians to account for corruption and end this practice in Iraq must continue to come from protesters. Additionally, accountability should be taken more seriously in all sectors with checks and balances implemented, so there is no room for manoeuvre. The current Finance minister Dr Allawi has described Iraq’s economic situation as requiring serious reforms. In a , he stated that many hard decisions must be taken, and those decisions will anger the political class who have been benefitting personally and politically from them. It will also provoke Iraqis who benefit from the way the current system of public employment works. Indeed, a wave of mini protests demanding additional employment opportunities in the public sector can be seen already, as for many, this is considered to be the safest career path. The only way Iraq’s economy can begin to move forward is by responding to the protesters’ demands and fighting corruption seriously through concrete reforms.
While many protesters have chosen to pause their physical presence in protest squares due to Covid-19, especially with the continuous increase in cases and deaths from the pandemic, they remain vocal about the fact that most of their demands have still not been met. Al-Kadhimi’s words need to be translated into actions; the political class need to be flexible and accept real changes. Furthermore, protesters need to be protected, and accountability measures need to be introduced to stop the series of assassinations. Without this, the cycle of instability in Iraq will continue unabated. To put it differently, Al-Kadhimi must balance immediate reforms related to holding early elections, the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, with maintaining political stability. This is vital to ensuring that Iraq does not descend into further chaos.