The answer to this question lies in the expectations Shiites have had since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime 16 years ago. Because Hussein drew many members of his regime from minority Sunnis, Iraqi Shiites expected that their lives would markedly improve in an Iraq run by members of their own group. Instead, Iraqi Shiites have experienced what social science refer to as “relative deprivation” — a gap between what they expected to get and what they believe they are getting. Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments have not provided for the basic needs their constituents expect: respect, jobs, security and a sense that they matter and have a voice.
What Iraqi Shiites have experienced instead is massive corruption, a failing economy producing few jobs, and politicians who seem to care only about their own needs and show little interest in how things are going for ordinary citizens on the streets of Iraq. Iraqi Shiites, particularly young people, feel that their voices and experiences do not matter because the government has done little to improve their daily lives. This is a perfect recipe for seething resentment and anger.
To those of us who study public opinion, the sentiments expressed by the demonstrators came as no surprise. Last year, for the first time since my company started polling in 2003, our surveys revealed that Iraqi Sunnis were feeling a higher degree of life satisfaction than their Shiite counterparts.
To be sure, this finding partly reflected the relief of Sunnis freed from the nightmare of the Islamic State (which was largely defeated in Iraq in October 2017). But it also had much to do with the sense of relative frustration among Shiite Iraqis. Corruption, poverty and unemployment were ravaging the lives of young Iraqis; more than 80 percent stated that they had felt depressed at least one time during the previous six months. Three out of 4 felt their lives had lost all meaning.
Trust in government among Shiites reached its lowest ever point since 2003, with only 15 percent expressing trust in the government. It was the same with trust in parliament and slightly higher with the judicial system. Even religious institutions enjoyed less than 40 percent trust among younger Shiites.
The only exceptions to this trend were the military, federal police and counterterrorism forces. They each enjoyed levels of trust among the public of about 90 percent. Yet the prime minister, for unknown reasons, decided to fire a popular leader of the war against the Islamic State at the end of September. This was one of the proximate causes of the protests.
The government reacted to the latest wave of protests in two ways. Official media disseminated accounts of the protests that completely misstated the reasons for discontent, and the security forces unleashed a wave of violent repression.
The crackdown has intensified popular anger, reinforcing the general sense that the government does not respect the protesters or care about their well-being. Protesting against this government gives young, disrespected and marginalized Iraqis a sense of empowerment that they would not otherwise have. The violence wielded by the security forces has been a major factor in the escalation and spread of the protests through all nine Shiite provinces, as well as Baghdad. Continuing to suppress the demonstrations will make things even worse.
Iran’s image has also suffered. Tehran has helped the government carry out its crackdown by deploying the Shiite militias who depend on the Iranians for support. This has merely added fuel to the fire. Iran’s favorability and trust ratings among Iraqi Shiites have plunged to unprecedented levels; only 1 in 3 in Shiites thinks Iran is a reliable partner to Iraq.
The level of violence unleashed by the government will make it even more difficult to deal with the expectations of Iraqi Shiites. President Barham Salih should begin by dissolving parliament, thus signaling a clean break. After that, he should call for an early election under full international supervision. The authorities should also prosecute those responsible for killing civilians. Only when these measures are taken can Iraq begin to heal.
U.S. efforts to build a democratic Iraq have cost more than $2 trillion and the lives of nearly 5,000 U.S. service members (plus tens of thousands of additional casualties). This would seem to give Washington a powerful practical incentive for pressuring Baghdad to change its ways. But the United States also has a moral obligation to stop the Iraqi government from killing young Iraqis and to prevent Iraq from falling again into a new dictatorship.