Protests in Iraq: Indications of State Breakdown and Revolution

By: - December 11, 2020

This article looks at the chronology of the protests in Iraq from 2011 to the present and evaluates their impact using theoretical framework from Barry Buzan, Robert Merton, and Charles Tilly. This article posits that the protests weaken Iraq’s national identity and indicate a tendency toward revolution, but do not necessarily inhibit the Iraqi government’s regional objectives.


The grievance in the current protest can be tied back to 2011, within the timeframe of the Arab Spring (what is also referred to as the Arab Uprisings and/or Arab Revolutions). U.S. dominated Coalition Forces had exhaustively tried to prop Iraq back on its feet for close to a decade. The de-Ba’thification campaign led by U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer removed Sunni Muslims from the political sphere and championed Shia Muslims, shifting the power balance on sectarian lines. However, the issue was not as simple as identity.

In 2011, Iraqi citizens from all religions including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and others, from a vast array of cities including Amara, Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniya, Karbala, Kut, Mosul, Najaf, Ramadi, Samawah, and elsewhere gathered in the streets to protest corruption and demand improvement to social services. Anti-U.S. sentiment percolated to the surface. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens grew tired of sending their sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers to fight what many now were seeing as someone else’s war. U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the bulk of U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq, leaving it to its own devices. Over the next eight years, very little improved.

In 2018, Hajar Youssif told the Associated Press that Iranian national militias were intimidating Iraqi citizens to cooperate with Iranian objectives. Living conditions were deplorable. U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) reported that, “hundreds of anti-government protesters descended on [Basra] … demanding much-needed government services.” The citizens of Iraq were again pushing back.

By October 2019 the demonstrations resurfaced. Seemingly the entire country responded. Citizens everywhere again took to the streets in unity. Violence escalated. The citizens threw rocks and burned tires. Iraqi Security Forces countered with bullets and teargas. Over the course of months, hundreds were killed and thousands were injured.

Iranian Qud forces – an official militant arm of the Iranian Republican Guard – poured across the border, infiltrated the protests, and intimidated the populace. Qud soldiers entered the protests dressed as normal citizens, made their way to the middle of the crowd, pulled out knives, and violently killed regular citizens, scaring the other protesters away. Undeterred, the citizens continued to fight. By the end of 2019 they managed to oust Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who was replaced by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi in early 2020.

On 25 October 2020, Aljazeera reported that the demonstrations resurfaced. People rallied in Baghdad’s Tahir Square demanding resolution  to the very same grievances from 2011. They shouted, “Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for you, Iraq,” as they waved flags of their nation. Basra, Babylon, Nasariya, Wasit, and other Shia-dominant southern cities joined in chorus. The people were calling for political reform, yet the government responded with violence. By 31 October 2020, almost as soon as the protests started, they ended. Bulldozers came through Tahir Square and removed all the tents. Civilians told Aljazeera that gangs had infiltrated the demonstrations and sabotaged the movement. The Iraqi government viewed this as a victory. Yet protests reignited in November.

Meanwhile, the government has been busy developing economic opportunities. In the Kurdish-dominated north of the country, on 20 September 2020, Kurdish media network Rudaw reported that a new train station was being built to connect Mosul to Turkey. On 27 September 2020, Aljazeera reported that the Iraqi foreign minister visited Iran to talk about further economic opportunity between the two nations and U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. On 9 November, the government closed camps that housed 100,000 displaced homeless people who have nowhere to go. And, on 18 November 2020, Iraq opened its Arar border with Saudi Arabia. But, why would the government build new train stations, open up borders, close down camps, and exacerbate the humanitarian crises?

Interpreting the Developments

Barry Buzan describes the state as a construct of three elements: people and territory (the combination of which he calls the physical base), an idea, and institutions of expression. When these elements do not work together, different factions form and exhibit divergent ideas, resulting in an identity crisis. If worsened, the state can grow weak, leading factions to vie for reform or control.

In the case of modern Iraq, state institutions have not adequately addressed the physical base, and the physical base does not support the current idea of the state. Factions have formed, and competition for reform and/or control is underway. Iraq therefore fits Buzan’s identity crisis. But just how bad is the state cleavage?

To measure the level of social cleavage Charles Tilly provides two mechanisms: exploitation and opportunity hoarding. Exploitation, he says, exists when resources are controlled by connected people, and opportunity hoarding exists when access to valued resources is restricted to specific factions, to which he says, “governments always do a certain amount of exploitation and opportunity hoarding, with government officials and ruling classes being the typical beneficiaries of the two mechanisms.” In the case of Iraq’s reoccurring protests, this indicates that the level of exploitation and opportunity hoarding from the government has created a large social cleavage that has amassed a public response.

In 1938, Robert Merton identified three specific responses that can result from strain. Merton says, “Where frustration derives from the inaccessibility of effective institutional means for attaining economic or any other type of highly valued success, that Adaptations II [innovation], III [ritualism], and V [rebellion] are also possible.” Thus, rebellion is only one third of the potential outcome. For rebellion to increase in probability opportunity for innovation and ritualism must be diminished. From Merton, the Iraqi protests therefore point to a lack of Iraq’s institutional structure to provide legitimate channels for innovation or ritualism, tying back into a breakdown of the state structure, as Buzan pointed out.

Tilly points to political action as “a way of creating, defending, or challenging non-governmental systems of exploitation and opportunity hoarding.” Although political action is not present in Merton’s verbiage, political action is a form of rebellion. Tilly goes further and provides six different forms of collective action: violent rituals, broken negotiations, coordinated destruction, scattered attacks, opportunism, and brawls. The protests in Iraq lack a coordinated unit of attack and are classified as “broken negotiations.”

To further evaluate the protests, Tilly provides three aspects. First, ideology. Ideology is formed by belief systems, concepts, rules, goals, and values of individuals that are shaped by their environment. The ideological system individuals possess determines the attitudes and actions the society exhibits. Second, Tilly points to relation. By this, Tilly references how individuals are shaped by the connections that they have with certain people and groups. Lastly, behavior. By behavior, Tilly refers to human motivation from biological processes and physical opportunities. Different people have different physical limitations that channel individual and collective actions to accomplish various goals. Also, the environment itself plays a very large role on behavior. Conditions like drought, extreme heat, and ability of the opposition can inhibit a faction’s ability to formulate a social movement. The faction observes the physical and political environment, then decides how to navigate the situation or to abstain from action.

The one extra condition relevant to Iraq is the level of accepted sacrifice within the culture. First theorized by Emile Durkheim, applied to the Middle East by Abu Nasarfarrah, people experiencing helpless and hopeless conditions may find it necessary to die for a cause. Durkheim calls this “altruistic suicide.”

Ideology of the Protests – State, Citizens, and War

The de-Ba’thification campaign led by Paul Bremer fabricated a breakdown in the ideological framework in Iraq. Immediately following the 2003 invasion of Iraq,  Bremer led a campaign to excise Saddam Hussein’s rot. The campaign rooted out Sunni Muslims connected to the Ba’th Party and blocked them from further political participation. As Benjamin Isakhan notes, Bremer’s campaign was therefore largely viewed as a de-Sunnification.

Since then, the political pendulum in Iraq has stuck to one side. In 2005 the Sunni Muslims largely abstained from elections. According to Ronen Zeidel, people with Ba’thist ties were forbidden from subsequent political participation as well. Since 2005, the Shia population has thus been at the helm of the Iraqi political system.

Although the ideological problem appears to be Shia-Sunni, a closer look finds other causes. Bremer’s campaign ousted the Sunni politicians. Although at first the Sunnis chose to abstain from the 2005 election process, the lack of subsequent Sunni participation resulted from the shift in power created by Bremer’s campaign. As noted above, the whole of Iraq (to include Shia and Sunni) has unified across sectarian lines to protest the Shia government. The issue cannot therefore be as simple as Shia-Sunni.

As Buzan’s theory of the state and the voices of the Iraqi people indicate, the grievance appears to be a lack of social institutions and the prevalence of corruption. The state’s institutions of expression do not seem to incorporate the population, and the people respond with resentment toward the idea of the state. The ideological problem is thus between the state and citizens, the makings of which are closer to a revolution not a sectarian war.

The other main aspect of ideology derives from the historical context of war. For at least the past seventeen-years, war has shaped every man, woman, and child’s life in Iraq. For them, encountering a situation where one may be in fear of losing one’s life is not alien. Their fortitude and persistence to face a superior force under lethal conditions for their fellow citizens is altruistic. However, ideology alone cannot account for the social movements taking place.

Relationship of the Protests – Tribal Relations

The relationships that are predominantly recognized exist on sectarian lines. As noted above, sectarian lines should not be the single unit of analysis. The familiar ties that bridge the population are referred to as the tribal system.

The tribal system is a kinship system that has roots in the historical formation of Iraq. Over 75% of the population belongs to a tribe. Tribal relations transcend religious boundaries: a single tribe can have multiple religions. Tribes also have justice systems and hierarchies. Although research that defines tribal relations, boundaries, and alliances is limited, the tribal system illustrates a point of relational unity that fits Buzan’s concept of the state.

Behavioral Motivation of the Protests – Water and Jobs

The largest point of contention regarding the protests falls within the behavioral facet Tilly presented. With 80% of available water resources being shared by 2 or more countries, the Middle East and Northern Africa is considered  the most water-scarce region of the world. Martina Klimes says, “The Euphrates and Tigris region faces rapidly increasing population, migration flows, as a result of both armed conflict and droughts, and other long-term climate change risks.” Eighty percent of the water from the Tigris and Euphrates, especially in Iraq’s lower basin, is used for agriculture. Thus, leaving very little potable water for individual consumption.

In 2019, Human Rights Watch found that, “Iraqi authorities have failed to properly manage and regulate Iraq’s water resources, depriving people in southern Iraq’s Basra governorate – four million people – of their right to safe drinking water.” With a population growth rate of 1.98%, increasing salinity levels in the water, and the overall harsh climate, grave living conditions have resulted, proving the breakdown of state institutions.

Things might be different if there were accessible jobs for the people. In 2016, the unemployment rate for youths was 25.5%. A farmer by the name of Jaafar Sabah told Human Rights Watch:

Each year I was getting 50% of the yield of the year before, and then in 2018, almost nothing survived. In 2018, the salinity level in the water was so high that I could grab the salt from the water in my own hands. I am dying of thirst and so are my children. There were four cases of poisoning in my family. I have no money and I cannot take them to the hospital. Where do I get the money from?

Furthermore, exporting and importing companies, the other dominant industry in Basra, has been halted. South Korean company Daewoo was bringing jobs to the area in the form of port construction, but it was interrupted. Mr. Park Il-ho, head of Daewoo’s E&C office in Iraq, died in early October (2020) under questionable circumstances. Daewoo requested a full investigation to be launched. Social Media reports claim that Park was taken from his car and killed by Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a political party headquartered in Sadr city with ties to the militia known as the jaysh al-mahdi. Regardless of the motivation for the attacks, one thing is certain: jobs have not come to Basra. Again, state institutions are failing to provide for the physical base.

As theorized above, increasing famine and decreasing opportunities limits the response of the society. Food, water, and shelter are basic necessities that humans require to survive. Humans, in most cases, will be motivated to change their circumstance in order to obtain these basic necessities. The port city of Basra is backed against the Persian Gulf, the desert, and Iran, the people cannot simply leave and restart in the neighboring area. There is little prospect for jobs or other sources of income. Therefore rebellion, as Merton puts it, or social movements as Tilly puts it, become the most probable option.


In the center of Baghdad along the banks of the Tigris lays one of the most fortified places in Iraq. It is famously known as the Green Zone. Although it was first built by Coalition forces, it is now used to house and secure government officials. On the other side of the Tigris rests Tahrir Square. Translated, Tahrir means liberation. Inside the square stands a monument for freedom. It is no coincidence that the citizens of Iraq chose this place to make their stand. Together they all shouted, fought, and died demanding changes that have yet to come.

Buzan points to three elements that are needed for a state: the physical base, the idea of the state, and institutions of expression. In Iraq, the institutions of expression are not mending the legitimate grievance that the physical base is suffering. Therefore, the physical base has resented the idea of what the state has become. The degree of breakdown between the state and the citizenry creates a level of strain that, as Merton explains, can cause three different results: innovation, ritualism, or rebellion. With limited channels for dissent and distrust in the political system, rebellion in the form of protests has become the most likely course of action.

Tilly points to ideology, relationships, and behavioral factors to understand the veracity of the protests. Ideologically, Iraqis are united fearlessly against the state. They are generally linked by familiar ties. But the core driving principle for the protests is how deplorable their living conditions are. Iraqis are starving, thirsty, and do not have any strong prospects for jobs to build a new life.

The state seems more focused on increasing trade through the region and has done little to rectify the condition of the people. Demonstrations for redress of legitimate grievances have been met with violence. There has been an alarming level of death and injury that questionably warrants intervention, yet Coalition forces are drawing down.

Locally, the protests hold great significance. In 2018, protests were able to remove the prime minister. The public holds the power to do this again, but it comes at great cost. Iraqi security forces have more firepower than the civilians. The civilians may not be afraid to face them, but if they incur enough casualties, they will reach a point where they can no longer fight. If the situation calls the attention of international powers to once again intervene, then the protests could have serious regional implications. Because of the anti-western sentiment that has resulted from the 2003 invasion, it is, however, unlikely that Coalition forces will do so. Regardless, the protests indicate a clear breakdown of the Iraqi state that, if unchecked, could reach the level of revolution.