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Iraq’s New Republic of Fear

How Youthful Protests Provoked an Authoritarian Turn

Iraqi security forces stand in front of demonstrators in Baghdad, Iraq in October 2019 Thaier Al-Sudani / REUTERS

On October 1, protesters flooded the streets of Baghdad, decrying high rates of unemployment and rampant corruption. In the ensuing weeks, the protests ballooned. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis marched in the capital and in other cities in the south of the country. As tensions mounted, government forces and paramilitary groups responded by killing over 300 people and wounding nearly 15,000 more. Baghdad has been in a near-constant state of upheaval for the past month. Government forces recently retook many plazas and bridges that had been occupied by the protesters, but the central Tahrir Square remains a hub for the popular uprising, replete with sound systems, medical tents, and even a free revolutionary newspaper.

Over the last decade, Iraqi leaders have defused multiple bouts of popular protest by promising reforms and reshuffling cabinet portfolios. That approach has not worked this time. Despite pledges by Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government to reform electoral laws and consider holding early elections, protesters remain in the streets, calling for the government to resign, for wider structural changes—including some demands for a new constitution—and for an end to political horse-trading, sectarian patronage, and endemic corruption.

In a little more than six weeks, the popular uprising has swelled into the single greatest challenge to the Iraq’s political system since the U.S. invasion in 2003. In many respects, it poses a greater threat to Iraq’s leadership than does the insurgent violence of the Islamic State (ISIS). The young, leaderless, and revolutionary protest movement has rattled the ruling class, forcing Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish power brokers to form a united front behind the embattled prime minister. The coalescence of Iraq’s typically fragmented political elite, and their unified support for suppression of the protests, suggests a slide back toward authoritarianism—and the reemergence of a “republic of fear” similar to the one that the United States and Iraq’s new leaders swore would never return after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT TUNE

Previous Iraqi governments weathered waves of

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