In recent weeks, Iraq has witnessed widespread anti-government protests, representing the deadliest unrest in the country since its liberation from Daesh in 2017.
More than a year after popular frustration with a deteriorating economic situation, endemic state corruption and entrenched Iranian influence in Iraqi domestic affairs prompted demonstrations across cities such as Baghdad, Najaf and Basra, Iraqis once again took to the streets at the beginning of October 2019 to express their anger and call for the current government leadership to step down. As fresh protests begin today (25 October), Baghdad has seen a heightened security presence and demonstrations are anticipated to turn violent following the deadly crack down on protestors at the beginning of the month.
While there is nothing new about these grievances, (since 2017 our regular quantitative and qualitative research of Iraqi citizens has consistently featured corruption, the struggling economy and the interference of foreign states as sources of frustration), it is interesting that, since the country’s liberation from Daesh in 2017, public outpourings of anger are predominantly emanating from cities in the Shi’a-majority South and Centre of the country, while Sunni-majority areas in the North and West have remained, at least outwardly, outside the pull of these waves of unrest.
This begs the question, are Iraq’s Sunni communities simply less aggrieved than their Shi’a compatriots?
Our data, collected over the last two years and from over 17,000 Iraqis from both the Sunni and Shi’a-majority regions of Iraq, indicates this is not the case. Sunnis in Mosul and Anbar are similarly frustrated as Shi’a in Baghdad and Basra with consecutive governments’ failure to resolve high levels of unemployment; chronic failures in the provision of basic services (including water and electricity); and the perceived lack of urgency around reconstruction and return to normalcy. Both survey data and focus group findings from Summer 2017 – Autumn 2019 tell a story of grievances which transcend sectarian or party lines; of common needs and priorities; and of shared frustration with the Government’s unwillingness or inability to respond meaningfully.
If Iraq’s Sunni communities are no less aggrieved than their Shi’a compatriots, why aren’t they taking to the streets?
Historically, since 2003, Sunnis in the country have been no more or less likely to be involved in civic unrest than their Shi’a counterparts, with anti-government protests and insurgencies having emanated from across Iraq’s communal political spectrum. In 2012-2013, for example, deep-seated anger at perceived marginalisation of Sunni-majority areas by Nouri al-Maliki’s government and the Iraqi security forces led to protests in Fallujah which quickly spread across Sunni-majority cities around the country. What followed, however, may explain the apparent reluctance on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis to participate in further unrest. At the time of the 2012-13 unrest, Sunni protestors were labelled Ba’athists and terrorists and accused of drumming up support for the then nascent organisation, Daesh. Not only did this response deepen mutual resentment between Iraq’s communal groups and exacerbate perceptions of sectarian vulnerability on both sides of the divide but further, violent retaliation from Iraqi security forces has left many Iraqi Sunnis too afraid to participate in civic action lest they be disproportionately targeted once again.
Are Iraq’s Sunnis destined to remain a silent, aggrieved minority?
While in 2012-2013, protests signalled a growing divide between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a communities, six years on a growing convergence of grievances directed at common enemies (corruption, external interference, sclerotic government) may signal an opportunity for rapprochement and renewed unity.
The characterisation of the protests as Shi’a-led may remove a significant obstacle to Sunni involvement to date: concern that their participation be construed as part of a sectarian or terrorist agenda. The more that Iraqi Shia signal their dissatisfaction with Iran’s influence in the country (our research shows steadily falling support for Iran among Iraqi Shias over the past two years, and suggests a clear majority are now sceptical towards Iranian influence in Iraq), the more of an opening this represents for the country’s Sunni communities to join the conversation and participate in the shaping of an Iraq post-Daesh.