The short-term spark that set the protests off was the demotion of a prominent commander in the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, or Golden Division, Abdel-Wahab al-Saadi.
He was told to take a desk job in the Ministry of Defense and refused to do so, and there was a perception that he was removed for nepotistic purposes. But this was just the spark.
There are three key underlying factors to the protests in Iraq:
Number 1: The Iraqi political system is extremely corrupt.
Iraqis have a political system called the Muhasasa system. The system was initially about the apportionment of government ministries and jobs between Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Shia.
Over time, it has become more of a party-based, unity government system. After each election, the parties, and all the parties have to be included, get together to decide which parties get to appoint which upper- and mid-level civil servants.
They get to appoint those senior level positions, who then run contracts and jobs in the ministries they control through their party. These jobs and contracts are extremely important, as government employment is the majority of employment in Iraq.
If you look at any international indices on corruption, such as the Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, corruption in Iraq is off the charts. It’s right down there with South Sudan and North Korea.
The protests aren’t against the prime minister; they’re against the political system and the political elites that have gotten rich and dominate the system.
Number 2: Iraq’s population is really, really young.
Forty percent of Iraqis have been born since the US invaded. A majority of Iraqis do not remember life under Saddam Hussein. So, it’s an extremely young population.
The only Arab populations that compare to it are the Palestinian territories and Yemen. All they know is this post-2003 political system that the Americans brought into power and has been dominated by this extremely corrupt political elite.
Number 3: The price of oil.
Iraq’s entire political system was baked at a time of historically high oil prices. Iraqis after Saddam Hussein started governing themselves when the price of oil was around $100 per barrel. The political system that exists after Saddam was formed during a period of historically high oil prices. It was flush with cash.
The payroll rapidly expands and these parties who are controlling the ministries are hiring tons of their own supporters or people who pay them bribes.
Then, in 2015 the price of oil crashes and goes flat, and they are not prepared for it. These guys have no experience with low oil prices. They institute a hiring freeze in 2016. Suddenly, there’s much less to go around. And it’s the youth who bear the brunt of that. The young people are the ones who have borne the brunt of austerity.