Protests in Iraq that flared up last week have led to more than a hundred deaths and point to a long-term conflict between the country’s youth and the government.
Economic forces are at the root of much of the youth discontent in Iraq, which has one of the youngest populations of any country in the world.
“The young people of Iraq are asking for jobs and good quality of life. That is their request from the government,” said Kossay Kamalaldeen Al-Ahmady, president of the University of Mosul. (Mosul, in northern Iraq, is recovering from the war on the Islamic State and has not witnessed protests.)
The country is in an economic vise, with billions going annually to its civil service. Each government worker has been estimated by the World Bank to get about 17 minutes of work done per day. Iraq is currently the seventh largest oil producing country, but oil revenue has been dropping. Little of the money the country earns is being invested in future economic growth or spreading services to a larger share of the population.
Meanwhile about 700,000 young Iraqis come onto the job market each year. A primer on job creation in Iraq written for the World Bank estimated the youth unemployment rate at 36 percent.
Much of the money the country brings in is siphoned off by corruption. On Transparency International’s corruption scale, which goes from zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), Iraq ranks 18. A member of a parliamentary committee supposed to be investigating corruption acknowledged publicly that he too had taken millions in bribes. Half a billion dollars intended to enrich the cultural spaces in the country largely went to waste. (See a related article, “Corruption Sidetracks Projects Intended to Make Baghdad a ‘Capital of Arab Culture.’”)
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
While some young university graduates are starting up co-working spaces in Baghdad and trying to ride the regional enthusiasm for entrepreneurship, many others are clamoring to get in on the easy government jobs.
Economic inequality, including inequality in education, is also angering many demonstrators. Mahmoud Al-Mashhadani, an activist from eastern Baghdad, participated in protests there. “Many of the protesters were under 18,” he said, “and too poor to have money to pay for private tutors to secure getting high grades in the high-school exit exams. They said they cannot find enough money to afford their studies.”
“The young people of Iraq are asking for jobs and good quality of life. That is their request from the government.”Kossay Kamalaldeen Al-Ahmady
President of the University of Mosul
The government is aware of youth dissatisfaction. “Iraq has 20 million young people under the age of 20. … They are not getting the services they need from schools, hospitals, etc. They are impatient,” said Laith Kubba, a senior advisor for youth unemployment to the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, speaking at Chatham House in London last week. “The current stability and progress made in the past year has given them the opportunity to protest.”
Injuries at a Sit-In
One of the tipping points for the current protests was the government response to sit-ins held in June and July outside the Ministry of Higher Education by young people who held master’s degrees and doctorates and who were seeking jobs in the government or at public universities. In July, multiple people were injured when a motorcycle ran over people sitting or sleeping in the street. The ministry has said it did not seek any crackdown on the protesters and that they put themselves at risk by sitting on a public street.
In the current round of protests, security forces fired on protesters with live ammunition, tear gas, and rocket propelled grenades—the latter accusation supported by a video posted on Facebook and Twitter. “The Iraqi government is running out of ideas,” wrote one man, Zaid Amir. “Snipers didn’t work so they’ve switched to rocket launchers.”
Protesters reported finding Iranian ammunition and grenades on the streets, and Iranian passports when they stormed police stations. But protesters emphasized their fight was not sectarian, and chanted “Secular, secular, not Sunni nor Shiaa” when they marched.
Musa Rahmatullah, from the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, in Baghdad, said in an interview that in the current round of demonstrations, military leaders gave orders to kill protesters, particularly those who seemed more enthusiastic or influential. Other sources also spotted snipers clothed in black with their faces covered. As of Saturday, by Rahmatullah’s count, 130 protesters died, 4,000 were injured, and 813 were arrested. Some protesters, he said, were arrested at hospitals. Security forces he said, sometimes asked physicians not to give medical treatment to protesters.
During the past week, the country’s Internet service providers have regularly shut down applications used to organize protests, such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, and have frequently shut down the Internet completely.
Some of the violence against protestors has not been by police, but by the so-called popular mobilization forces, autonomous local militias first organized to help the Iraqi army fight the Islamic State. “The national government is unable to control these armed groups,” said Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, in an interview. “There are so many of them, and some are part of the political process. They have a massive power base. They view the protesters as an existential threat.”
One Iranian-loyal faction of the popular mobilization forces ran rampant through the offices of Arab television channels in Baghdad over the weekend, according to multiple accounts, taking phones, beating journalists to the point of breaking bones, and smashing equipment. Other broadcasters’ offices were torched. The journalists believe the goal was to end reports about the violence faced by the protesters.
“Last week was so bloody,” said Hussein Salman, a doctor from the Al-Zaafaraniya neighborhood in Baghdad. “We received 40 to 50 injured per day—all shot in the head, neck or chest. Five people died at our hospital last week.” Salman said he didn’t leave the hospital for four days.
Protests have eased up this week, but the protester’s memories of what happened to them may live on. Muhannad Kamel, a third-year pharmacy student at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, was killed in his hometown while protesting. On his Facebook page, one of his friends wrote, “Your blood was spilled by the country’s mercenary parties. Goodbye, O you who protested with a lion-brave heart.”
The demonstrations are only loosely organized and could fizzle out, Mansour of Chatham House and other observers have noted.
But the demand for new jobs in Iraq—a primary driver of the protests—will at least double in the next 13 years, according to the World Bank’s “Iraq jobs primer.” That paper said that some hope exists for job expansion, particularly in construction (given Iraq’s need to rebuild its war-battered infrastructure), in agriculture (to feed its growing population), and in small and medium-sized enterprises. But to fill those jobs the country may well need more education.
“About 33 percent of the youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are illiterate or only semi-literate, 33 percent have completed primary school, 28 percent have finished middle or high school, and only seven percent have completed post-secondary education,” the paper found. Vocational skills are also often lacking.
The double peril of a struggling economy and violence in the streets could increase young people’s discontent. An Iraqi living in Jordan, Rami David, reported that his 19-year-old brother attended the protests in in Tahrir Square in Baghdad. The brother returned to the family home saying he was shocked by the violence against innocent people. He asked his father to help him get out of the country.
With reporting from Gilgamesh Nabeel, Edward Fox, Olivia Cuthbert, and Nasser Zawk.