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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.
Previous Iraqi governments weathered waves of protests in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2016. In the most recent instance, supporters of the populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad, but went home after the government reshuffled its cabinet ministers. This time the usual pledges of cosmetic reform have not caused the demonstrations to fizzle, and leading politicians backing Mahdi have begun to describe the protesters as something darker: mukharabeen, or “disrupters.”
In truth, the current uprising differs from previous episodes of unrest in important ways. Whereas past protest movements were led by members of the intellectual and political elite, tended to seek incremental change, and drew participants from across age groups (almost a third of protesters in Baghdad in 2015 were over 50 years old), the current demonstrations aren’t led by a particular party or intellectual movement. More importantly, they are powered by a much younger segment of society, which up until now has not been hugely involved in politics. Today’s movement isn’t just about better services or jobs; it reflects a more amorphous and powerful desire for radical change. It seeks to restore “dignity” to people who feel that the current political system treats them with indifference and cruelty.
The fury of Iraqi youth has finally reached a boiling point.
The fury of the Iraqi youth has finally reached a boiling point. Young people see the state’s immense oil wealth disappearing into the pockets of political and business elites, while little is left over to invest in education, infrastructure, and job creation. Youth unemployment has reached an estimated 30 percent. The younger generation also has no memory of life under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. All it knows is the political order formed with U.S. guidance in 2005, when a power-sharing pact between Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish political parties empowered elites from all three factions by guaranteeing their position atop a vast web of patronage. Under the current system, many young Iraqis feel that they have limited economic prospects while an implacable ruling elite continues to enrich itself.
The October demonstrations began with familiar calls for jobs and better government services, but they quickly transformed into a sweeping rejection of the system. The typical political and intellectual elites were nowhere near the center of the mobilization. Sadr, for instance, has spent much of the last six weeks in Iran, altogether removed from the action. These demonstrations have no clear, centralized leadership, and as a result Iraqi leaders have struggled to isolate individuals who can speak on behalf of the protesters. In its inscrutability, its lack of clear political affiliation, and its uncompromising demands, the uprising represents a broad denunciation of the post-Saddam political order. The government’s harsh crackdown has only emboldened the protesters, who are now calling for ruling elites to be held accountable for the violence of recent weeks as well as for the years of corruption that preceded it.
Faced with an existential threat, Iraq’s leading political parties are now closing ranks. Over the past few years, many observers of Iraqi politics have celebrated the country’s move away from overt sectarianism. The 2005 election—the first one after Saddam’s ouster—featured a single Shiite bloc, a single Kurdish bloc, and a smaller secular bloc with some Sunni leaders. By contrast, last year’s election included many different competing parties within each religious or ethnic group.
But sectarian divisions aren’t the only ones being bridged. The most significant competition over the past few years has become intra-Shiite, namely between Sadr and a group of Iran-allied leaders that include former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Ameri, a leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces—parastatal armed groups that played an important role in defeating ISIS in northern Iraq. Elections in 2018 saw the emergence of Sadr’s Islah parliamentary bloc and Ameri’s Binaa parliamentary bloc, both fronted by Shiite Islamist leaders and jockeying for Sunni and Kurdish allies. Normally opponents in the day-to-day jostling of Iraqi politics, Sadr and Ameri have put aside their infighting in the face of the popular uprising.
Since the protests erupted, Ameri has backed Mahdi’s government and convened meetings with Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish groups to seek to expand his Binaa bloc in parliament into a clear majority. These meetings include discussions with a senior official from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who told me that he was sent to Baghdad in early November on “mission impossible” to ensure the survival of the current political system. To do so, he joined with former foes who had just a few years ago denied his party an independence referendum.
The protests have largely silenced Sadr, a habitual rabble-rouser and agitator, and driven him closer to his political rivals. Over the past few years, Sadr has often criticized Iran’s outsized influence in Iraq, which leaked Iranian intelligence documents show is even greater that previously thought. At the end of this summer, he had begun to speak out against Mahdi’s government. But when protests flared in October, Sadr only made one appearance at a rally in Najaf. He told his followers that they were free to protest, but not to invoke his name. After his supporters chanted, “Iran, Out, Out! Iraq, Free, Free!” as they have done for years, Sadr urged them not to denounce “external actors,” meaning not to speak against Iran. As the grassroots movement consumed much of Shiite Iraq, a politically weakened Sadr stayed in Iran. He and Ameri may not be close allies, but the protests—along with the possible coercions of Tehran—have dulled their rivalry. The principal contest in Iraqi politics is no longer their factionalism, but rather the clash of rebellious youth and a panicked state.
Unable to defuse the growing revolution through other means, the government and its allies have turned increasingly to violence. Government forces and parastatal armed groups fire live ammunition and tear gas directly at protesters. The Ministry of Communication suspends the Internet to stop videos of state brutality from going viral. The courts have cited counterterrorism laws to justify the killing of protesters.
With the world watching, the government has tried to avoid a Tiananmen Square moment—and Tahrir Square remains very much in the hands of the protesters. Instead, the government has conducted a more incremental campaign, shifting from city to city day by day, and deploying different state, parastate, and militia groups to obscure the chain of command. This strategy allows the authorities to evade direct responsibility; violence seems to come from many sides.
But that violence has only fed the moral outrage of the protesters. Shocked at first that the state was willing to kill and maim them, they have responded with an escalation of their own, demanding not only jobs and reforms but a brand new political system. They have gotten a boost from the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading Shiite cleric, who has urged protesters to stay in the streets and continue voicing their demands. But they may have a tough road ahead. Instead of capitulating to the protesters, Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders have revived the blunt tools of repression to keep their hold on power.