As Iraq’s political stalemate persists, many observers expect protests will erupt over the country’s worsening socio-economic situation, the increasing effects of climate change – such as heat waves and dust storms – and a lack of political will to change the status quo. The young people who played a crucial role in previous protests have once again been excluded from critical debates.
While Iraq has not witnessed mass protests following early elections in 2021, the protest movement is not dead. Rather, young activists are seeking to establish their own spaces and challenge the system in different ways. ‘The present political elite look at youth as either tools or rivals, not as partners’, stated a participant at a recent Baghdad workshop organized by the Chatham House Iraq Initiative in partnership with Al-Bayan Centre.
About 60 per cent of Iraq’s population is under the age of 25, yet young Iraqis continue to be excluded from political decision-making. Politically sanctioned corruption, where the political elite control state resources, means that state institutions are unable to prepare young people for their future. The political elite have also consistently failed to anticipate or tackle the long-term socio-economic and environmental challenges likely to be inherited by today’s youth.
Faced with these challenges, young Iraqis have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their voices are heard by the political elite through popular pressure, working to increase political awareness, engaging with civil society, and through entrepreneurship.
While low voter turnout and frequent protests seem to suggest that the political system has lost its ideological leverage, it has proven resistant to change due to the political elite’s hold on state resources.
Many young people have therefore sought alternative ways to effect change, for example through the mass protests that erupted across Iraq in 2011, 2015 and 2018. This popular pressure on the political elite peaked in October 2019, when millions of young and disenfranchised Iraqis took to the streets during protests that lasted for several months. However, their calls for change eventually ended in violent crackdowns by armed groups and security forces that saw over 600 protesters killed.
While some of the demonstrators’ demands were met, such as amendments to the electoral law and convening early elections, only a few grassroots parties entered the political process as a result of the protests. These parties also remain fractured and there is a clear divide between them and Iraq’s youth, many of whom have since deserted them, arguing for a more radical transformation of Iraqi politics.
It is important to note that there have been instances where the political elite have hijacked protests or pushed their followers to participate in demonstrations in favour of particular parties. Such protests should not be confused with the reform-seeking efforts of young people.
Raising political awareness
The rise in political consciousness among Iraqi youth is often cited as one of the main achievements of the 2019 protests. During the demonstrations, protest squares were filled with discussion panels, seminars, cultural events and debates. Protesters even created groups to facilitate collaboration with activists in other cities.
Since the protests, young Iraqis have also been examining alternative political systems, something which was prohibited for the older generation during the many years of authoritarianism and persecution. But today’s young political activists and scholars are attempting to actively engage with this issue despite threats and assassination attempts. ‘After Tishreen, we’ve seen that young people started working together in groups’, an Iraqi academic said at the Chatham House workshop. ‘Whether it’s in civic society, the media, or even cafés. They always have political discussions on the table’.
Engaging with civil society
Young civil society activists have also been working to raise awareness about vital issues that the political class has chosen to overlook, such as gender-based violence and the need to adopt laws to combat it, and solutions for women and girls affected by domestic violence.
The impact of climate change is another key issue for activists, where they have proposed solutions, worked on public education campaigns and advocated for increased focus on environmental issues. Finally, many young people have been working on promoting freedom of speech and human rights. Iraq does not have many laws in this area and the few that are in place are either inadequate or not properly enforced – made particularly evident by the lack of accountability and justice for the recent wave of assassinations.
While getting on the public payroll is often the ultimate goal for many Iraqis, young people have increasingly sought to challenge this norm by setting up their own businesses, helping to provide alternative employment opportunities for the 700,000 young Iraqis who enter the labour market every year.
These entrepreneurs are seldom involved in politics, but they are directly affected by it. They demand less bureaucracy and more opportunities, which requires legislation, policy, and political will. ‘When I heard this event might involve politicians, I was afraid to come’, said a young economic researcher during the Chatham House event in Baghdad. ‘I didn’t want to associate myself with the political elite’.
This kind of dialogue with policymakers is important for young Iraqi entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses but opportunities for such interaction are limited.