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Oula Kadhum

Iraq's lost generation

An Iraqi boy joins a previous wave of protests against corruption, Baghdad 2015 [AFP]

Date of publication: 14 October, 2019

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Comment: Iraq's protest movement must evolve into a viable opposition, with a leadership that can mobilise technocrats from across Iraq, writes Oula Kadhum.
In the 16 years since the 2003 occupation, Iraq has offered its youth no hope.

They have lived in a country that has been occupied by foreign powers and where corrupt elites pilfer billions while their countrymen and women struggle to feed their children. A country where everyday violence is a fact of life and where prospects for a hopeful future are as bleak as the darkness of the electricity blackouts that structure their day.

Occupation, conflict, terrorism, and power-hungry elites have come to define their relationship with politics. Young Iraqis have not only been neglected in this toxic environment, they have been entirely forgotten. A generation of youth who have forever lost their childhood and a right to innocence.

In recent weeks, their anger and emotion has been manifested most viscerally on the streets. Young Iraqis have come out to protest against their debased rulers, a political system built on ethnic and sectarian appointments, dire public services and unemployment that has left millions with no jobs and no opportunities.

Risking their lives for their country and their right to a dignified future, young Iraqis from all over Iraq have declared enough is enough. 

While Iraq's protest movement has been some years in the making, with various civil society actors joining the movement (and most famously joined by the Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr in previous years), this wave of protests stands out for its tangible fury, and its do or die attitude.

Tragically, for some, this has been the case as crackdowns by security forces have thus far seen over 100 killed and many thousands more injured.

This wave of protests stands out for its tangible fury, and its do or die attitude

In the face of this challenging environment in Iraq, a few points have become increasingly salient. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a compromise independent candidate chosen by Al Sadr's Sairoon bloc and Hadi Al Ameri's Fatah Alliance, has shown the limitations and weakness of his power, curbed as it is by his puppet masters.

With cabinet ministers loyal to their political parties and not their prime minister, Abdul Mahdi's position is increasingly looking meaningless and untenable. His delayed and out of touch response in the form of welfare provisions to the masses is not only too little too late, but it comes as a stinging slap in the face of the protestors, and the memory of those who have died and their families.

[Click to enlarge]

What's more, the promised jobs and social welfare raise the serious question of where this money has suddenly come from, and if it existed, why has it only made its appearance following the protests? Most likely this flimsy plaster on the wound will only serve to further overburden an already inflated public sector that's worryingly reliant on oil.

The protests however also reveal the complete fragility of the Iraqi state, which could not prevent the killing of innocents, or take control of the country's security situation without resorting to authoritarian measures.

Journalists have been targeted and the internet has been shut down in what can only be described as a retrograde step back into Iraq's dark and dictatorial past. A damning indictment of Iraq's supposed democracy.

The state has not been captured by an oligarchy but rather dismembered from within by corrupt elites and criminal gangs

So, can we still call Iraq a state?

Power is dispersed along so many political actors, with varying domestic and foreign allegiances, that Iraqi sovereignty is but a mere illusion. There is no political system in Iraq but rather multiple systems (tribes, militias, political parties) with spheres of influence and power. The state has not been captured by an oligarchy but rather dismembered from within by corrupt elites and criminal gangs masquerading as politicians.

At a recent Chatham House Iraq conference I talked to an Iraqi politician about the quagmire of Iraq's political system and how it could change. Shaking his head in futility, he argued that it's not in the interest of those in power for change to occur. And herein lies the problem.

How can the various political factions who've ruled in Iraq and profited from its political debacles be persuaded to drop their gauntlets, and step aside for a new system and new generation of Iraqi technocratic politicians to emerge? 

This flimsy plaster on the wound will only serve to further overburden an already inflated public sector

The only possible answer to this question is an organised, united and skilled opposition with a unifying national vision for the country. An opposition that can provide a feasible political and economic roadmap for the country. Currently, the protest movement lacks a leadership, and beyond its demands for reform has offered no viable policies towards this endeavour.

In order to seize on this political opportunity, and to vindicate the lives of those lost needlessly since 2003, Iraq's protest movement must form a leadership that can mobilise technocrats from across Iraq and put into place a reform agenda that prioritises public services, youth unemployment and most critically Iraq's endemic culture of corruption.

While this may sound like a fantasy political wish-list for Iraq, without such imaginings and hope for the country it is unlikely that Iraq's corrupt institutions and economy can ever be improved. There is no lack of talent and enterprise in Iraq, and given half the chance the very youth protesting in the streets today could turn the country around and initiate a different kind of revolution to rebuild the country.

Unfortunately, until a united opposition emerges, it will be difficult for Iraqi citizens, as well as the international community, to support Iraq's youth and Iraqis will continue to suffer at the hands of the many greedy fingers clambering for a piece of the proverbial pie.


Dr Oula Kadhum is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Birmingham and a Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research explores Diaspora Politics and Political Transnationalism with a focus on Iraq.

Follow her on Twitter: @OulaKadhum

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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