Iraqi Youth Movement Pressures Government for Meaningful Change

Iraqi youths gather to demand reform from their government | Photo by Mhrezaa Courtesy of Unsplash

When Prime Minister Adel Abduhl Mahdi demoted Iraq’s popular Counter-terrorism Chief, Lt. Gen. Abdulwahab a-Saadi, in October, 2019, Mahdi was unaware of the protests that this action would create: protests that go on to this day.1 Iraqis viewed Lt. Gen. al-Saadi as one of the few public figures who resisted involvement in party politics or sectarianism and remember him for his central role in the three-year battle against ISIS. He successfully led several major battles against the Islamic State group (ISIS), most notably with the nine-month battle to recapture the city of Mosul which lead to ISIS’s defeat in 2017.2 Iraqis were angered by his removal, resulting in an increase in an already growing resentment against the government. This resentment was strongest amongst Iraqi youths who started protesting two days after.3

Initially, the protests began on social media, with many Iraqi youths on twitter protesting the unpopular decision with the hashtag: “We are all Abdul Wahab Al Saadi.”4 Al-Saadi’s removal sparked the protests, as his dismissal served as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The citizens of Iraq were frustrated not only by the removal of a beloved national leader, but also with the corruption, growing unemployment, lack of accountability, and lack of public services that characterized their government.5 The initial protests against al-Saadi’s dismissal morphed into more general demands for reform, to end corruption and provide jobs and opportunity. Iraqi citizens are well within their right for their demand of wanting more from their country, as elected leaders have failed to deliver on their promises to help address the issues that they face. The country is on the brink of a socio-economic collapse, due to a youth bulge, economic degradation, and dilapidated infrastructure.6 The largest age group in Iraq are youths between 19 to 29 years old. For Iraq, this large population of youth in an already struggling economy has resulted in widespread unemployment, along with high levels of political exclusion and perceptions of injustice.7 A fifth of Iraqi youth are unable to obtain education and employment in the context of an unemployment rate at 13.8%. The poverty rate has reached 31% and the effects of the pandemic added 2.7 million more people to the 6.9 million who were already below the poverty line.8

A lot of this instability stemmed from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Since Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, Iraqi leaders have struggled to create and maintain a democratic government in the wake of decades of dictatorship. U.S. advisors worked to build new parties, recruit and train new military forces, create nascent civil society, and draft new laws since the invasion began.9 Additionally, the political balance of power shifted dramatically when the Shia majority claimed the prime minister’s position for the first time, taking it from the Sunni minority. Sectarian tensions broke out and in turn created instability throughout the country. Iraq became vulnerable to regional and international rivalries due to this new insecurity; the sectarian divide between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority have fueled violence and fears of civil war. On top of the instability, Iraq faced difficulties in attempting to revive its economy. When Saddam Hussein ruled the country, most revenues came from oil, a state controlled industry. After the fall of Saddam, the economy of Iraq underwent several changes, including an influx of foreign aid and an improved security environment, as the troop surge led to an increase in foreign investment, especially in energy, construction, and retail sources. Despite this, most of Iraq’s economic development continued relying on its oil industry, that provides 90% of the government’s revenue and represents 80% of its foreign exchange earnings.10 Unfortunately, these earnings have not been shared equitably across the nation. Several problems have made it difficult for the central government to translate its economic growth into tangible benefits for the people. Iraq has a lack of oil infrastructure, including processing plants, pipelines, and exports facilities; these have been targets of insurgents that seek to disrupt Iraq’s political growth by harming its economic potential. Additionally, corruption within the government has additionally prevented the distribution of economic growth, which has contributed to the economic problems in the country. Facing stark economic issues that have been prevalent and only gotten worse since 2003, Iraqi youths have started expressing openly their discontentment with their government and its lack of accountability.

Hungry Iraqi children wait in line to receive their next meal, 2008 | Photo by Jane B on Pixabay

Dozens of young Iraqis took to the streets when the protests began in October, 2019, demanding improved services and more action to curb corruption. The protests were organized on social media and began peacefully.11 Protestors marched towards Liberation Square, located in the capital Baghdad, which quickly became the epicenter of the protests.12 The protest started out small and was quickly dispersed by Iraqi security forces. Soon after a call went out to the protestors’ individual social media accounts, urging them to regroup in Liberation Square at 3:00 pm the same day. This time, the numbers had drastically increased by the hundreds.13 When some attempted to cross the bridge to reach the fortified Green Zone, where government offices and foreign embassies are located, the protest went from peaceful to violent, as security forces immediately countered with force.14 Security forces responded with tear gas, spraying down demonstrators with hot water, rubber bullets, and live ammunition.15 The protest had spread to parts of southern Iraq the following day, including the cities of Basra and Nasiriyah.16 Three days later, Amnesty International reported that at least 18 protestors and one police officer had been killed during the protests. Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research Director, stated “This worrying evidence signals that the Iraqi security forces have resumed their lethal campaign of repression against protestors who are simply exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly.”17 Members of the security force also interfered with the media coverage of the events and the government shut down the internet in the surrounding areas in order to prevent further organization through the use of social media apps and imposed a curfew. Only 9 days later, Human Rights Watch reported that the death toll had increased to a staggering 105, with at least 4,000 injured.18 The use of brutality and force against the protesters shaped the demonstrations’ form and demands. The uprising was initially fueled by Lt. Gen. al-Saadi’s firing, and then morphed into a protest over unemployment, a lack of public services and corruption. Now, the protesters also denounce the elite’s lack of accountability and their willingness to violently suppress protests rather than work to achieve change.19 The elite in the government responded to the demand for legitimate reform with violence, utilizing the security forces and Iraqi military. As a result, they lost their citizens’ trust in the government system and constitution. The demands of the protesters therefore shifted again. Instead of reform, Iraqis now demand a complete overhaul of their corrupt government.

A protester holds the photo of a loved one during one of the many protests held throughout the country, 2020 | Photo by Mhrezaa on Unsplash

Iraqi youth makes up the majority of the protestors, with the median age being 20 years old.20 Sajjad Muyed, a second year accounting student, spent more than 120 days in Liberation Square, the focal point of the protests.21 Muyed emphasized that it was the students who were the backbone of the protests, noting that high schools and university students had organized several of the protests, with public universities such as Baghdad University and Mustansiriya University having gone on strike for as long as 14 weeks. These protests were also unique, because that the demonstrations were not carried out by certain political or religious blocs, but by the people.22 These demonstrations represent a new wave of grass-root activism, where there is no longer a need for a political party or a leader to back the high levels of mobilization; the citizens are now the driving force.23

Protesters hold signs and flags while marching through Liberation Square, 2020 | Photo by Dalia Mu on Unsplash

These new grass-root demonstrations ushered in some degrees of change within the government. Five days after the demonstrations began, Baghdad’s governor resigned in response to complaints about security forces having used excessive force.24 President Barham Salih and the Prime Minister also enacted a series of measures in response, including the dismissal of corrupt officials, the provision of land, housing, and interest-free loans for low-income citizens. Unfortunately, despite their promises, the government does not have the funds nor the administrative capacity to enact these bold changes.25  Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi announced his plan to resign, after a 24-hour period of a particular violent protest in which security forces killed at least 45 demonstrators.26 While his resignation offered authorities a chance to begin enacting real change and a chance to elect someone that would represent the needs of the people, Mohammad Alawi was selected by the elite, not elected by the people. Mohammed Alawi was quickly rejected by the protest movement, because they saw him as a part of the very group they wanted to remove from power: the ruling elite. Alawi resigned after four weeks of trying to gain support. Intelligence Chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi was chosen to replace him as prime minister-designate.27 Kadhimi is seen as a political independent and has demonstrated that he is serious in addressing the grievances of the people. In response to the continued demonstrations, he moved to hold an early parliamentary election on June 6, 2021 and promised to deliver justice to those killed during the violent police and militia crackdown; yet, once again, Kadhimi has become just another example of a politician who has failed to deliver on their promises.28 Little to no progress has been made to deliver justice to those who lost their lives. The promised early parliamentary elections were postponed until October 10, 2021. Kurdish political analyst, Mohammad Bakhtiar, believes that it is more likely that the vote will take place in May 2022.29

Analysts believe that the odds are against the Iraqi protestors, for several key reasons. First, protestors remain in a perilous situation, due to the impunity with which militia groups and state-sanctioned security forces have used violence against them.30 Militia groups are accountable to no-one and wield large amounts of influence and power. To make matters worst, protesters lost their most important buffer: Muqtada al-Sadr and his Sadrist movement. He used to act as a buffer between the Iraqi government and the protest movement, as he worked to prevent the government from using violence as a measure to stop the protests. The cleric struck a deal with the Iraqi government and Iraq’s proxies that resulted in the withdrawal of his support; they no longer have the protection of at least one of the major political actors in the country.31

Second, the environment in which they are protesting is not conducive to the wide-scale reform that they are fighting for. The unfortunate truth is that there are very few major actors in Iraq who support the movement. Moreover, the international community is much more aligned with the Iraqi ruling class. In the post-war climate in Iraq, there is too much at stake for any external major actors to support an overthrow of Iraq’s political system or further regime changes. Furthermore, the very design of the Iraqi political system prevents change. The government, comprised of formal and informal, state and parastate actors dominate, shape, and manage all the power over the structures of the government. The process to enact reform requires participation from at least some of those actors, all of which have been unwilling to change the status quo.32

Despite overwhelming evidence that the protests will be largely ineffective in bringing large-scale reform, other analysts are confident that the protests will continue and that the waves of street mobilization will persevere, as long as the government continues to ignore the demands of the people.33 Protests, however, have waned due to a number of factors. Protestors have been brutalized at the hands of Iraqi security forces and armed militias, with many having been arrested, beaten, and killed. Amnesty International estimates that since the protests began, over 600 have been killed, with tens of thousands more injured. The persistence of the use of violence and fear of injury and even death has dissuaded many from continuing to protest. Furthermore, Covid-19 has resulted in the numbers of protestors dwindling even further.34 Despite a decrease in the size of the peaceful protests, the Iraqi youths are still working to change their country through a new avenue: elections.

Local media was informed by election officials that 260 political parties had registered to compete in the upcoming elections, with 60 of the political parties newly registered. Some of these new political parties were created by the younger Iraqis who were the driving force behind the anti-government protests. Dr. Alaa al-Rikabi, a prominent figure in the initial protests, announced the creation of a new party that is aimed at challenging Iraq’s political elite class and representing the country’s youth; this new party is called Imitad.35 While these new parties are small, inexperienced, and underfunded when compared to the major Iraqi political parties, thanks to new election rules created as a result of the protests, they might have a chance in the upcoming election. The new electoral law divided each of Iraq’s 18 provinces into 83 electoral districts and allocates one parliamentary seat per 100,000 people. It also ended the practice of political parties running on unified list, which allowed them to easily monopolize all seats in a given province. This new electoral law created greater inclusion for independent political candidates, a key demand for protestors that are working to get rid of the pervasive corrupt parties.36 Now, these new political parties have a chance of winning seats in the upcoming election and enact some of the changes for which they have been fighting.

What initially started as a small protest concerning the removal of a beloved Iraqi Lieutenant General soon morphed into nationwide protests comprised of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis youths demanding whole-scale reforms from their government.37 The protests have grown to become Iraq’s biggest anti-government protest movement since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.38 Despite dwindling protest numbers, it is clear that Iraqi youths have not given up hope. They continue to protest in Nasiriyah, with citizens demanding the resignation of their governor, because of deteriorating public services in the region.39 Protesters are moving from taking to the streets to taking to the ballot boxes, with some even running for office themselves. Whether they will be able to accomplish all of their goals, only the future will tell. However, one thing is clear: Iraqi youths will not give up their sustained fight!

 

  1. Austin Bodetti, “The General at the Heart of Iraq’s Protests,” The American Interest (blog), November 27, 2019, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2019/11/27/the-general-at-the-heart-of-iraqs-protests/.
  2. Ahmed Twaij, “Iraq Fired the General Who Beat ISIS. Now Protests Are Tearing the Country Apart,” Foreign Policy, October 7, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/07/in-iraq-protesters-are-sick-of-corruption-and-foreign-influence-saadi-abdul-mahdi/.
  3. Linah Alsaafin, “Students Are the ‘Backbone’ of Iraq Anti-Government Protests,” Al Jazeera, February 10, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/2/10/students-are-the-backbone-of-iraq-anti-government-protests.
  4. Twitter, @R_5f6_k (blog), October 1, 2019, https://twitter.com/R_5f6_k/status/1179083279963770881.
  5. Rachel Bunyan, “Over 300 Killed As Hundreds of Thousands Take Part in Iraqi Protests. What’s Behind the Violent Demonstrations,” TIME, November 13, 2019, https://time.com/5723831/iraq-protests/.
  6. Ranj Alaaldin, “The Irresistible Resiliency of Iraq’s Protesters,” Brookings (blog), January 31, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/01/31/the-irresistible-resiliency-of-iraqs-protesters/.
  7. Asha Amirali, “The ‘Youth Bulge’ and Political Unrest in Iraq: A Political Economy Approach,” Institute of Development Studies, November 11, 2019, https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/17719/pdf/687_youth_bulge_and_political_unrest_in_iraq.pdf.
  8. Talmiz Ahmad, “Iraq Appears Resilient despite Major Challenges,” Arab News, February 27, 2021, https://arab.news/cnph2.
  9. Sarhang Hamasaeed, and Garrett Nada, “Iraq Timeline: Since the 2003 War,” United States Institute of Peace, May 29, 2020, https://www.usip.org/iraq-timeline-2003-war.
  10. “Constitutional History of Iraq,” Constitution Net, 2016, https://constitutionnet.org/country/constitutional-history-iraq.
  11. The Associated Press, “Two Killed in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” The New York Times, October 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/world/middleeast/two-killed-in-anti-government-protests-in-iraq.html.
  12. Rachel Bunyan, “Over 300 Killed As Hundreds of Thousands Take Part in Iraqi Protests. What’s Behind the Violent Demonstrations,” TIME, November 13, 2019, https://time.com/5723831/iraq-protests/.
  13. Mary Louise Kelly, and Imran Khan, “Protests In Iraq Continue Despite Curfew, Internet Blackout And Deaths,” NPR, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/10/04/767339378/protests-in-iraq-continue-despite-curfew-internet-blackout-and-deaths.
  14. The Associated Press, “Two Killed in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” The New York Times, October 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/world/middleeast/two-killed-in-anti-government-protests-in-iraq.html.
  15. Maryam Alhassani, “The Evolution of Iraq’s Protests: Excessive Force Pushes Protesters to Adapt,” The Washington Institute, February 4, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/evolution-iraqs-protests-excessive-force-pushes-protesters-adapt.
  16. The Associated Press, “Two Killed in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” The New York Times, October 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/world/middleeast/two-killed-in-anti-government-protests-in-iraq.html.
  17. Amnesty, “Iraq: Protest Death Toll Surges as Security Forces Resume Brutal Repression,” January 23, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/01/iraq-protest-death-toll-surges-as-security-forces-resume-brutal-repression/.
  18. Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Lethal Force Used Against Protesters,” October 10, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/10/iraq-lethal-force-used-against-protesters.
  19. Maryam Alhassani, “The Evolution of Iraq’s Protests: Excessive Force Pushes Protesters to Adapt,” The Washington Institute, February 4, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/evolution-iraqs-protests-excessive-force-pushes-protesters-adapt.
  20. Mary Louise Kelly and Imran Khan, “Protests In Iraq Continue Despite Curfew, Internet Blackout And Deaths,” NPR, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/04/767339378/protests-in-iraq-continue-despite-curfew-internet-blackout-and-deaths.
  21. Linah Alsaafin, “Students Are the Backbone’ of Iraq Anti-Government Protests,” Al Jazeera, February 10, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/2/10/students-are-the-backbone-of-iraq-anti-government-protests.
  22. Maryam Alhassani, “The Evolution of Iraq’s Protests: Excessive Force Pushes Protesters to Adapt,” The Washington Institute, February 4, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/evolution-iraqs-protests-excessive-force-pushes-protesters-adapt.
  23. The Associated Press, “Two Killed in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” The New York Times, October 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/world/middleeast/two-killed-in-anti-government-protests-in-iraq.html.
  24. Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Lethal Force Used Against Protesters,” October 10, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/10/iraq-lethal-force-used-against-protesters.
  25. Zaynab Olyabek, “Can Iraq’s Protests Inspire Meaningful Reform,” IISS, November 19, 2019, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2019/11/csdp-iraq-protests.
  26. Erin Cunningham and Mustafa Salim, “With Iraq on Edge, Prime Minister’s Resignation Sets up Political Crisis,” Washington Post, December 1, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iraqs-prime-minister-steps-down-with-country-on-edge/2019/12/01/8c2d1480-137b-11ea-924c-b34d09bbc948_story.html.
  27. Reuters Staff, “Iraq Names Its Third Prime Minister in 10 Weeks,” Reuters, April 9, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-politics-idUSKCN21R18Z.
  28. Bilge Nesibe Kotan, “Iraqi Protesters Have Changed Their Strategy for Survival,” TRTWORLD, October 28, 2020, https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/iraqi-protesters-have-changed-their-strategy-for-survival-40968.
  29. Dana Taib Menmy, “Iraqi Anger Grows after Election Postponement,” Al Jazeera, January 30, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/30/iraqi-anger-grows-after-election-postponement.
  30. Ranj Alaaldin, “The Irresistible Resiliency of Iraq’s Protesters,” Brookings (blog), January 31, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/01/31/the-irresistible-resiliency-of-iraqs-protesters/.
  31. Hammam Latif, “Sadr ‘s Stances Trigger Showdown with Iraq Protest Movement,” AW, October 14, 2020,  https://thearabweekly.com/sadr-s-stances-trigger-showdown-iraq-protest-movement.
  32. Ranj Alaaldin, “The Irresistible Resiliency of Iraq’s Protesters,” Brookings (blog), January 31, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/01/31/the-irresistible-resiliency-of-iraqs-protesters/.
  33. The Associated Press, “Two Killed in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” The New York Times, October 1, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/world/middleeast/two-killed-in-anti-government-protests-in-iraq.html.
  34. Cathrin Schaer, “Iraq’s New Protester Parties Plan to Change the Country,” Deutsche Welle, January 22, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/iraqs-new-protester-parties-plan-to-change-the-country/a-56312305.
  35. Kaamil Ahmed, “Iraqi Protest Leaders Launch Political Bloc Ahead of Elections,” Middle East Eye, January 16, 2021, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/iraq-protest-imtidad-political-bloc-elections.
  36. “Iraq: New Election Law Paves Way for More Independent Candidates,” DW, December 25, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/iraq-new-election-law-paves-way-for-more-independent-candidates/a-51791470.
  37. Austin Bodetti, “The General at the Heart of Iraq’s Protests,” The American Interest (blog), November 27, 2019, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2019/11/27/the-general-at-the-heart-of-iraqs-protests/.
  38. Arwa Ibrahim, “‘Demands Not Met’: Anti-Government Protests Resume in Iraq,” October 25, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/25/demands-not-met-anti-government-protests-resume-in-iraq.
  39. Cathrin Schaer, “Iraqi Protests Turn Deadly after Security Forces Open Fire,” DW, January 27, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/iraqi-protests-turn-deadly-after-security-forces-open-fire/a-56721399.

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9 Responses

  1. I really liked that you connected the instability in Iraq with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. I think it is really important to see how actors such as our country have negatively influenced other countries. It was also important that you included how the instabilities of high unemployment, low education rates, and poverty increasing have worsened with the pandemic.

  2. I enjoyed this article very much as it highlighted the youth and their involvement in politics at a large scale. The author did a good job with describing the movement in Iraq that occurred. I loved reading about the younger generation in Iraq and their courage in standing up for what they believe in despite the risks that come with such protests against the government. Great job Grace!

  3. This was a fascinating article to read! It covered a complicated movement in Iraq that demonstrated the incredible influence of younger generations protesting. It’s incredible to see a large number of young people fighting for full government reform in their country.

  4. Hi Grace! Your article really inspired me and humbled me all at the same time. I am always shocked to read about youth, specifically people around college age, being involved and organizing mass demonstrations like the one mentioned in this article. This movement in Iraq is a powerful one, and even more so since it was run by the youth. I think this speaks to the fact that there is power in numbers, and even more power in education of the youth. Great job!

  5. This article did a good job at highlighting the power younger generations hold. The author did a good job of showing the scale of the movement. I found it interesting how the protests became the biggest anti-government protest since 2003. Furthermore, I also find it interesting how the fight continues and it is clear that they will not give up even though the movement has lost some of its traction. I also really enjoyed the fact that some protesters are running for office.

  6. I find it interesting that it seems like all these protests around the world are cropping up around the same time, but maybe it’s a sign of growing global awareness and civic responsibility. I don’t know how the Iraqi government elections work, but I am curious to see if any of the 60 new political parties, especially the ones formed by the Iraqi youths, are elected, and if not if they will remain after the elections.

  7. This article was a very well written article and topics like this always get my attention to open the article. I applaud these young people in standing up for what they believe in even with the potential danger that they are in. It takes real guts to stand up and fight for a change. I really enjoyed this article as it gives insight into what is happening in their country. It is good that their taking their activism to the ballot boxes and fighting for true change.

  8. This article was well written, and the author did a good job of covering the powerful movement that erupted in Iraq. I really enjoyed this article, because it showed the power of younger generations, but also acknowledges the major risks of protesting the government. The author of this article did a great job of detailing the movement and the many struggles the movement faces as well as the global influence of the movement.

  9. It is always interesting to read about topics like these, involving people around my age in political activity as grand, but as dangerous as this. I suppose in the U.S. we had something akin to this just a year ago with plenty of our own youth getting involved in political protest. Though what interests me most of all is the reasoning as to why Muqtada al-Sadr struck a deal with the Iraqi government. Given the retaliation that the government has used on the protest, whatever one would speculate based upon that information would probably not far off from the truth I imagine.

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