Imagine if, instead of living in a 21st century city of skyscrapers, global commerce and cutting-edge healthcare, you dwelt in a neglected backwater scarred by rife unemployment, slums, militia activity and a rising hard drug problem.
Imagine if the tap water was unusable brine, potholed streets were strewn with garbage and, in maddening 50 degree heat, you only got erratic power for a few hours a day.
Basra, through which Iraq exports about twice as much oil as the UAE, is that city. Despite generating almost all of the Iraqi government’s revenue, the southern provinces have been trapped in greater poverty and unemployment than the rest of the country, while services remain dire. The city has seen nothing like the urban and civic renaissance enjoyed by Baghdad in recent years.
People have had enough. Over the past two weeks, Basra has been at the centre of mass protests, which have spread across Iraq’s nine southern provinces, reaching Baghdad in recent days. Large demonstrations, some violent, have blocked access to oilfields, shuttered an airport and trashed the offices of provincial governments and the major political parties across the Shia-majority south.
Initially spurred by joblessness, power blackouts, 50-degree summer heat and severe water shortages, they have become an outburst against the Iraqi political machine.
Caretaker Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has promised to press oil companies to hire more local staff, create 10,000 government jobs and deploy $3 billion to kick-start stalled infrastructure projects. But he has also claimed the protests have been infiltrated by agents against the state as a justification for a sweeping crackdown.
The government has restricted internet access and drafted in army brigades and counter-terrorism forces, arresting hundreds. At least 16 protesters have died in clashes and hundreds have been injured.
The architects of Iraq’s post-2003 politics created a system that was gridlocked by design, buying a sense of short-term stability at the expense of decent government. After four elections, the majority of voters have given up on this system: in this year’s general election, turnout slumped to 44.5 per cent, with the share in Baghdad and the south lower still.
Worse still, the election was botched. Iraq’s elections authority has been severely wounded by credible allegations of fraud. Ahead of a manual recount, Iraqis literally saw their democracy go up in smoke after a massive fire at a warehouse where the paper ballots were stored.
Large demonstrations aren’t unprecedented. Every year, Iraq’s southern provinces buckle under electricity shortages and summer heat, with many previous protests led by the populist politician and cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.
This time, he is not in control. And these anti-everyone protests are a reality check on Mr Al Sadr’s recent incarnation as a tribune of reform.
Sadrists have had extensive experience of running key service ministries during several parliaments, including health and water resources, and have generally run them into the ground. His current Sairoon coalition has no credible policies to tackle Iraq’s urgent water and electricity crises, nor to generate meaningful jobs for the young men taking to the streets.
Instead, Mr Al Sadr appears to favour yet more subsidies, while further bloating the public payroll – a Chavista model that has brought Venezuela to bankruptcy. As the leader of government-formation negotiations, he has busied himself building yet another national unity cabinet.
It’s unclear if the demonstrations will continue, or fizzle out as many have in the past. Rioting has simmered down to more organised rallies. Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s pre-eminent Shia authority, has endorsed the protests, which may give them legs.
But there’s not yet evidence that these largely organic, spontaneous demonstrations will sufficiently organise to truly threaten politics as usual.
Even if they don’t go further, the rallies – and the government’s feckless response – stand as an indictment of a generational failure of governance in Iraq. Confidence in government is evaporating.
With a reduced jihadist threat, and with Kurdish separatism suppressed, the established parties have no one else to blame for the dire state of the south. The outpouring of rage has bamboozled the mainly Shia core of the political elite, who have justified themselves as the protectors of the very communities that have burned down their offices.
As institutional politics degenerates, other groups and dynamics are filling the gap, presenting new risks to Iraq’s stability.
The war against ISIS forestalled Iraq’s crisis of legitimacy. But it also gave rise to the Hashed Al Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units, a collection of militias backed by the state after a 2014 religious edict by Ayatollah Al Sistani to take up arms to defend the country. These forces have formed a parallel military apparatus in the country. Even as the offices of two of the main Hashid militias – the Badr Organization and Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq – have been attacked, the Hashid overall is entrenching itself politically and socially as a new chapter in the country’s dynamic Shiism, and the overall movement remains genuinely popular.
Following militia mobilisations, there is a danger that the ability to deploy a seething mass of protesters becomes a broader part of routine politics. There are several groups that have the potential to stage protests, or benefit from mob politics, whether it’s Iran seeking to influence politicians in Baghdad, established parties looking for an edge against rivals, or tribal groups seeking to extort from the state.
A dynamic is already at work that threatens to worsen, rather than improve, stability. By promising to dole out cash to quell unrest, Mr Al Abadi is incentivising unrest. In the void left by security deployments to fight ISIS in the north, tribal groups have acquired more weapons and have been settling disputes more violently.
They have patronage networks to run, and are recognising that whoever shouts loudest gets the most. This rotten dynamic is already usurping popular complaints against international oil companies and genuine demands for more local oil sector jobs and contracts.
As in the oil-rich Niger Delta, paying off various groups to prevent protests only promises more trouble in future.
The pay-offs also raise broader questions around whether Iraq can ever reform its clientelist, state-driven economy. The government, working with the International Money Fund, has passed two consecutive budgets that have reined in some spending.
But while investments have collapsed, wasteful spending remains high, and increased oil prices are at risk of being squandered to preserve a tenuous peace.
Basra, and other southern provinces, have previously pushed for more autonomy as a solution to this misrule. But provincial governments are at least as inept and corrupt as Baghdad, and cannot administer large capital budgets without massive fraud and waste. All parties make vacuous promises of reform, but there’s no political will to do it.
While southern Iraq’s 3.9 million barrels-a-day oil production hasn’t yet been affected, the threat of more field blockades while expatriate staff stay away presents a risk to exports. This comes at a testing time for global markets. It is unclear if Saudi Arabia can cover the supply gap created by new US restrictions on Iranian exports. Meanwhile, much of Libya’s production remains offline.
Iraq has survived ISIS and the global collapse in oil prices. But it risks being undone by its inability to deal with overlapping crises in basic services. Water levels are critically low and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are at the mercy of dams in Iran and Turkey, a problem Baghdad has completely failed to address. The government instead told farmers not to plant water-intensive summer crops; now many farmers are among the protesters. Oilfields waste natural gas while an overworked grid relies on unreliable supplies from Iran. Zombie state companies crowd out private investment.
Fifteen years after the US-led invasion, the Iraqi state still isn’t getting the basics right. It is running out of time.
Patrick Osgood is an independent journalist and researcher, focused on Iraq’s energy sector, politics and security