Protesters trample a portrait of Iran’s supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during the storming and burning of the Iranian consulate in Basra, southeast of Baghdad, last week. (Nabil al-Jurani/AP)

Protests in the Iraqi port city of Basra recently took a turn for the violent. Reports claim that government offices were attacked and as many as 15 people died in clashes with the security forces. The public frustration and political paralysis should be understood as manifestation of something deeper than everyday politics: a patchwork state-building process that left Iraq with a strong society and weak state. The protests in Basra have no clear political authority to hold accountable.

Economic rather than political grievances

Basra’s protests are more about economic grievances than political ones. Although many of these grievances are shared by other Iraqis, they are felt most keenly by Basrawis. This is because of the discrepancy between Basra’s contribution to Iraq’s wealth and the lack of commensurate investment in its public infrastructure. Oil constitutes 99 percent of Iraq’s exports and 90 percent of its government revenue. Although most of that oil is produced in Basra, it is still one of the most underserved provinces in Iraq.

The causes of the protests have been simmering for some time. Post-Islamic State threat, Iraqis felt that their sacrifices were unacknowledged (and, at times, abused) by the political elite. Bereaved relatives of Iraqi soldiers, many of whom were from Basra, were faced with corrupt institutions that made it difficult for them to collect the government support to which they are entitled.

The demands of protesters and the degree of anger have evolved since the start of the protests in July. However, the call for improved public services has been a constant. Basra has suffered from poor infrastructure, a garbage crisis, electricity shortages and high salinity in the water supply, which has led to public health problems. Some protesters have called for petrodollars — additional funds to the province for every barrel produced.

Another common demand has been the creation of jobs for youths. Basra’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. The unemployment rate for youths was at 25.5 percent in 2016, which is also higher than the national average of 20.4 percent. This is particularly worrisome because youths’ economic grievances have been known to lead to political unrest. The government and constitution vacillate between endorsing a market economy while also emphasizing the “right to work” for all citizens. The government has tried to cut public sector employment, but the absence of a viable alternative has allowed the remnants of an paternalistic socialist system to persist. It is precisely the ambiguity of the Iraqi state that has led Iraqis to seek and feel entitled to public sector employment even as the state seems hopelessly ineffective or absent from their lives.

In this context, it makes little sense to understand Basra’s protests through the sectarian lens popular with external observers. These are protests over governance, environmental disaster and economic failures. Popular sectarian allegiances are receding in Iraq.

Who can address demands?

There is no clear target from which protesters can demand redress. Iraqis have become accustomed to solving their problems outside the state. As a direct result of the electoral system and the lack of a census in recent times, members of parliament do not represent a single constituency and have little direct accountability to their voters. The average Iraqi does not know who his or her representative member of parliament is or whether they should appeal to the federal or local government. By contrast, tribal and clerical networks are visible and responsive.

Another symptom of the incoherence and the poor construction of the state has been the spotty implementation of devolution of powers to the provinces and federal regions. Despite the Constitution of 2005 — which embraced devolution of power and restricted central authority — and the provinces law, passed in 2008 to create local governments and empower them to assume their constitutional powers, it remains unclear in the minds of citizens and government officials alike, 10 years on, where the delineation is and who can be held accountable.

Solutions offered by the state and by non-state actors

In response to the first wave of protests in July 2018, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised nearly $3 billion for public service projects in Basra. The government has repeatedly stated that some emergency budgetary allocations will be made. It has also promised desalination plants, power plants and 10,000 jobs.

While some of these plans are beginning to shape up, the majority are stalled by political obstacles. First, the ongoing government formation process has distracted political elites from their responsibilities. Rather than address these issues, they have instead used the Basra crisis as a way to discredit political competitors. The blame game has also expanded to include anti-American conspiracy theories and allegations of tribal sabotage.

This has led the religious establishment to once more intervene in the political process. But the religious establishment has also felt the wrath of the protesters. Last week, Grand Ayatollah Sistani sent a delegation headed by Ahmed al-Safi, one of his representatives, to address the water crisis. Al-Safi and his team of experts promised that the religious establishment would fund the rehabilitation of pumping stations and that the city would be seeing developments in the upcoming days. Civil society activists from other areas in Iraq have also responded to the Basra crisis by sending bottled water to the residents. However, these efforts are short-term solutions that are needed to appease the protesters, but that do not eliminate the root causes of these grievances.

Our analysis suggests that the underlying problems afflicting Iraqi politics cannot be resolved until the state develops a strategy for building capacity that simultaneously legitimizes the state and weakens extra-state actors within the preexisting framework of the state. For instance, electoral reform could create a more direct system of accountability between the electorate and their elected representatives. In practice, this would entail following constitutional prerequisites in implementing a census and the creation of electoral districts so that electors can directly elect their parliamentarians. The relationship between the central government and the provinces could be defined more precisely in ways that enhance accountability.

Marsin Alshamary is a PhD candidate at the MIT Department of Political Science.

Safwan Al-Amin is an international attorney and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School.