Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.
Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.
There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.
That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their frustrated lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.
There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.
The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.
Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.
Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.
Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.
Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.
So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.
Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather on maintaining schools or electricity generation or even the water supply.
And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.
Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And there’s nobody to negotiate with anyway, because the protests really have no leaders.
It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.
Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.
Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.
But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’