As the mercury surges in Mesopotamia, so does the risk for a new showdown between angry protesters demanding better conditions and a government struggling to provide for them but is shackled by a legacy of corruption and incompetent, fiefdom-like institutions.
Many parts of southern Iraq, especially Basra, witnessed widespread protests last summer. Those highlighted multiple popular demands, on top of which were jobs, basic services—especially adequate electricity and clean water—and putting an end to endemic corruption across government institutions. The episode wasn’t without violence. Several offices of prominent parties and militias were torched, and so was Iran’s consulate in Basra, At least a dozen protesters were killed, and many more arrested or beaten by the security forces or party militias. For a while in late-summer 2018, the situation in Basra and other southern cities seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control.
Unfortunately for Iraq, the turbulence appears set to repeat itself this summer with potentially similar, if not more serious violence and destabilizing effects. Could Iraq endure another round?
Eight months into its term, the cabinet of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, for all its good intentions, is yet to show sufficient improvements in the quality of life for average Iraqis or to address the causes and aftermath of last year’s protests. The festering problems of corruption (on national and local government levels), electricity, water and the excesses of militias could push public anger to the surface once again.
The lackluster performance is not surprising if we consider the magnitude and complexity of the problems themselves and the staggering obstacles standing in the way of solutions, from limited resources and time, to resistance from entrenched interests. But these considerations are unlikely to convince distraught Iraqis to stay at home.Violence against protesters last year went unaddressed and the perpetrators did not face consequences for their actions. Targeted assassinations and abductions against prominent activists, organizers, writers and lawyers defending them also didn’t see the culprits brought to justice.
Results when it comes to corruption do not inspire much optimism, either. Earlier this year the prime minister unveiled an initiative to establish a new anti-corruption body, but there are still no indication of its efficacy. To believe that government anti-corruption measures are real and credible, Iraqis would need to see proof that a governor’s or a minister’s political ties do not provide immunity from the law if he or she were knee-deep in squandering public funds or criminally negligent, as many have been.
The progress on electricity and other basic services remains insufficient. To give credit where it’s due, the ministry of electricity is making gains in a tough uphill battle. But the progress is too little and too slow to address the chronic shortages this year. Precious time and resources have been wasted, the bulk of which under previous administrations.
Most notably, two major proposed multibillion-dollar deals with General Electric and Siemens intended to boost generation capacity by 25,000 megawatts have faced significant delays, making them unlikely to deliver any impact this summer. The minister of electricity, Luay al-Khateeb expressed deep frustration with Iraq’s restrictive bureaucracy, which he said had prevented him from speedily evaluating and approving the proposals, and forced him to recruit volunteers to do the evaluations. Khateeb’s best-case scenario is 8 percent improvement in supply from last year.
Even during the rainy winter and spring seasons, when lower electricity usage shrinks the gap between supply and demand, Iraqis could still feel the effects of dilapidated infrastructure, poor management, and inadequate disaster response. In Mosul, greed and negligence triggered a human tragedy that took 120 innocent lives on what should have been a day of celebration. Across the countryside, damaging floods destroyed crops, cut bridges, and deepened the suffering of vulnerable populations in IDP camps and neglected communities.
Adding the gravity of the situation is the fact that the behavior of some local governments in several provinces has ranged from apathetic to criminal. Corruption and incompetence reign against a backdrop of infighting over power and influence. In Maysan province, as late as April, the provincial council had no plan for services projects nor had it received funds from the central government to implement them. Competition between parliamentary coalitions have plagued other provinces, with the most surreal case being that of Wassit province, which at one point had three governors at the same time. Here Basra stands out. The province contributes more to Iraq’s economy than the other 17 provinces combined, by far, yet that wealth is not felt by the people of Basra, who have endured decades of neglect and corruption. Basrawis are sick of it, literally. The water crisis there made many thousands ill last year, and is likely to resurface again when water levels in Iraq’s rivers begin to dwindle.
Protests, to a large extent, reflect a crisis of credibility of the national government and of the legitimacy of local administrations.
The window for Abdul Mahdi’s government to act is closing. Temperatures exceeding 120 F have already started to exacerbate public dissatisfaction, sending people to the streets to protest weak government performance. While the government cannot stop protests over electricity or water from happening it has in its power to handle the situation differently than last time.
What Baghdad Can Do
Baghdad should overcome its reluctance and be prepared to take bold political action to hold corrupt senior officials responsible for their actions. Protests, to a large extent, reflect a crisis of credibility of the national government and of the legitimacy of local administrations. This crisis was foreshadowed by the record low turnout in the 2018 election, especially in Basra.
In addition, Abdul Mahdi should identify measures to prevent the slide of Moqtada al-Sadr, Ammar al-Hakeem and Haider al-Abadi, who have been pressing the prime minister for reforms, further into active opposition and avoid having them capitalize on the protests’ momentum to unseat his cabinet–a course of events that would send Iraq back to square one with little reason to expect better outcomes. This is a very difficult task because the often zero-sum calculations of Iraqi politics mean that the prime minister cannot meet the reformist expectations of one set of partners without upsetting the other–who happen to the parties aligned with the powerful PMU militias.
At this late hour, the government can do two things. First is damage control. When protests escalate, the government should resist the urge to use force to restore order. Last summer, the government of former Prime Minister Abadi employed force to quell the protests. That served to feed, rather than contain public anger, and protesters turned their wrath to symbols of government corruption and indifference–the offices of militias, their political wings and their main foreign supporter, Iran.
An attempt to suppress the protests by force could, at best, succeed in temporarily pushing the protests underground. At worst it could backfire. In any case, so long as the underlying causes of dissent remain unaddressed, tough security measures would only serve to plant the seeds for the next round of unrest.
Second, the government should make a sincere effort to show a real commitment to change and to break the chain of corruption and indifference. This summer will be rough, but Iraq’s incredible resilience means that tomorrow is not lost, so long as a glimmer of hope remains.