Iraqi youths' economic frustrations boil over in ‘cri de coeur’ protests

Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP | A protester throws a tear gas canister back towards Iraqi riot police next to a concrete barricade amid clashes between Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the high-security Green Zone district on October 1, 2019.

Anti-government demonstrations began October 1 in Iraq, quickly escalating into deadly clashes in several cities. The biggest challenge yet to PM Adel Abdul Mahdi, they are largely a mark of economic frustration in a country ravaged by wars.


Iraqi authorities were largely taken by surprise by the spontaneous protests, which began Tuesday October 1. Security forces have fired live rounds at demonstrators, with gunmen occasionally returning fire. More than 70 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded over four days of unrest.

In an overnight televised address, Abdul Mahdi, who took office a year ago, empathised with public frustrations and proposed reform, but said there was no “magic solution” to the problems his country faces.

Who are the protesters?

The mostly leaderless demonstrations have been concentrated in Baghdad and in predominantly Shiite areas of southern Iraq, although some Sunnis have also taken part.

Those demonstrating are primarily men in their early 20s, embittered and frustrated at a ruling elite they blame for having squandered Iraq’s oil wealth for years. The protesters include hundreds of new university graduates, men and women alike, frustrated by the paucity of job prospects – the World Bank says youth unemployment exceeds 20 percent in Iraq – along with teachers, elderly men and women, and civil society activists.

Another key complaint is endemic corruption. Iraq ranks 11th in the 2017 World Corruption Index. Protesters say the country’s finances are being siphoned off by political parties who continue to hold all the power in Baghdad.

Iraqi PM’s speech unlikely to quell protests, FRANCE 24’s Simona Foltyn reports

“This seems to be… about a spontaneous protest, about poverty, about the failure of the government to address the issues that most people are concerned about, about corruption in high places, nepotism, the failure of basic services… to the point where most of those people who are out on the streets are saying that they do not feel that the political establishment represents them in any way,” FRANCE 24 Chief Foreign Editor Robert Parsons explains. “[It is] a sort of cri de coeur from ordinary people in Iraq which is being fuelled by the heavy handed response of the Iraqi authorities, the use of live ammunition for instance… to essentially what has been a peaceful protest.”

Why now?

The pressure is not new, but it has been building since at least the declared end of the battle against the Islamic State group in 2017. When the dust settled after that conflict, only the latest in a long succession, large swathes of Iraq were in ruins. Tens of thousands of people had been displaced, their homes lost. The country's utility services of electricity and water, which were already weak, degenerated further.

“The successive wars that have traversed the country have destroyed the streets, the transportation, the centres for electricity production and water treatment. Public services on the whole are deficient,” Karim Pakzad, a researcher at France’s Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris) told FRANCE 24’s Marie Campistron on Friday. “Remember, since 2003, Iraq has not been able to produce and provide electricity for the entirety of the country. It purchases a portion of its electricity from Iran.”

Two years after the defeat of the IS group in Iraq, the country has finally been at peace and free to conduct trade for the longest extended period since the 1970s. Oil production has reached record levels, providing plentiful income to Baghdad. But expectations that may have engendered are unmet. After four successive decades of war against neighbours, sweeping United Nations sanctions, two US invasions, foreign occupation and sectarian civil war, Iraq’s infrastructure remains a shambles, unfit to serve a population of 40 million.

“The first measure taken by the Americans when they arrived [in 2003] was to dissolve the Iraqi Army,” Pakzad noted. “Then, when oil revenue started coming back, the [Iraqi] government invested most of that money in the rebuilding of the Iraqi Army – and not in the reconstruction of cities and public services.”

'We walk among you'

The current prime minister has promised before to introduce reform and fight corruption, but so far he has been unable to do so meaningfully. A year into his term, Abdul Mahdi has also been powerless to rein in Iran-backed militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, which gained clout fighting the IS group alongside the Iraqi army and integrated the country’s security forces. The militias have accumulated immense power, both political and economic, challenging Baghdad’s authority. Many Iraqis, meanwhile, are frustrated with what they see as a government increasingly subservient to Iran.

In his TV address, Abdul Mahdi acknowledged protesters “legitimate demands” and Iraqis’ discontent, insisting politicians were aware of their suffering. “We do not live in ivory towers – we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad,” he said. The prime minister called for calm and urged support from lawmakers to reshuffle cabinet posts away from the influence of major parties and big groups. He also pledged the government would discuss the prospect of a basic wage for poor families. But with his warning on the lack of “magic solutions” at the ready, Abdul Mahdi has also sought to manage the burst of expectation.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning