As the problems facing Iraq continue to mount, the window of opportunity for undertaking deep and lasting reforms is closing fast. 

Since October, protesters on the streets of Iraq have used one slogan more than any other: “we want a homeland”. Despite hundreds of reported deaths and thousands of injuries, the Iraqi authorities have made no attempt to hold the sponsors of the violence accountable. And, as the number and intensity of the protests have dwindled, so has the likelihood that the government will engage in any substantial political reforms. Even after the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the post-2003 political order remains unchanged. The prime minister-designate, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, now faces the unprecedented challenge of keeping the system intact while restoring trust in it among a thoroughly fed-up public.

Even as the situation calms momentarily, the fundamental causes of the protests remain. The demographic and economic challenges facing Iraq are so severe that, unless the political elite begin to engage in fundamental reform, the country will almost certainly experience another explosion of public anger and state repression.

So far, Allawi’s approach has been to force political parties to accept his independent government or risk creating a political vacuum. While it may be effective in making him prime minister, this strategy is far from acceptable to parties used to dominating the government. Nonetheless, if he is confirmed as prime minister, Allawi will have the advantage of low expectations: if his temporary administration can make progress on his declared mandate of holding early elections and restoring security, his term will be widely viewed as a success.

As public discourse has shifted in recent years away from identity politics and towards policy issues and grievances over poor governance, Iraqis from across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum have coalesced around a rejection of the status quo and a call for fundamental reforms to the political system. Crucially, the protests have taken place in areas of Iraq dominated by the country’s Shia majority, presenting the ruling elite with a challenge that had previously come only from Sunni and Kurdish communities. The authorities have been banned demonstrations in Sunni-majority areas, citing security concerns. The Kurdish Regional Government has relatively tight control of security and has performed better than the central government in creating a stable environment for its citizens, thereby preventing mass protests for now.

These internal pressures are compounded by the challenge of finding a suitable middle ground between Iran and the United States. Iraqi leaders are determined to avoid being drawn into a conflict between the two countries, and to exert control over internal security despite Iranian and US interference in Iraq’s affairs.

While they criticise foreign sponsorship of the corrupt political elite, the protesters see Iraqi politicians as primarily responsible for the lack of effective governance in Iraq

The protesters are similarly committed to ending Iranian and US influence on Iraqi politics. Due to the fact that Iran and the US have supported successive Iraqi governments and the broader political establishment throughout years of insurrections, referendums, and demonstrations, the protesters are highly critical of Middle East powers and the international community – especially these two countries, the most influential foreign actors in Iraq.

While they criticise foreign sponsorship of the corrupt political elite, the protesters see Iraqi politicians as primarily responsible for the lack of effective governance in Iraq. For the first time since 2003, ordinary Iraqis blame their own politicians more than foreign powers for this failure.

At the same time, while most of Iraq’s 40 million people may sympathise with the protesters, only a small portion of Iraqis have taken to the streets so far. The authorities’ brutal repression of the protests in the past few months is one reason why the number of demonstrators has decreased.

In addition, there is a lack of a clear, realistic plan for reform of the system – and a leader to implement it – that the elite will accept. The protesters have not devised a way to maintain pressure for change on a decentralised central power that retains the weapons, influence, and privileges of a state bureaucracy. Because around 85 percent of the Iraqi population depend on some form of payment from the Iraqi government, concern about the stability of this rentier state economy prevents the protests from reaching the critical mass needed to sustain a successful reform movement.

Another factor that has dampened the protests is a sustained effort to contain and demoralise demonstrators, which has included moves by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that led to attacks on them in Baghdad and Najaf. While Sadr initially backed the protests, he has since reversed his position, purportedly because protesters attempted to enforce strikes and engaged in violence, which has tarnished their cause. Sadr has paid a political price for this about-turn: some of his followers are frustrated with the move, and there is a widespread sense that he is playing both sides while attempting to avoid blame for the situation.

The Sadrists’ and other groups’ withdrawal of their logistical support for the protest movement has caused the number of demonstrators to dwindle during the winter months. So has the infiltration of the movement by various groups with suspected links to the state security services and the Popular Mobilisation Units, which seek to undermine its popular appeal.

Meanwhile, members of the political establishment have reacted by closing ranks and avoiding any substantial reforms that could weaken their grip on the Iraqi state. They outsourced the security response to armed actors that operate with impunity. This has contributed to a wider erosion of the rule of law that would impede serious reform efforts. Intent on clinging to their power and privilege, Iraq’s political parties are willing to use violence to keep their place in the ruling order.

Importantly, however, these moves have not addressed the grievances or sense of disenfranchisement of many young Iraqis. This is why the protests are likely to return despite the violent security response. Until the demonstrators feel satisfied that the elite are undertaking meaningful reforms to public services, governance, and the judicial system, the unrest will continue to simmer.

The only popular figure who has retained respect across Iraq is Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has consistently supported the protests. Yet his repeated calls for the reform of the political establishment have largely fallen on deaf ears. So far, the only significant effect of his statements has been to extract Mahdi’s resignation as prime minister. There is a telling absence of a senior statesman able to form a consensus on reform and achieve a compromise between the protesters and the elite, while the fragmented nature of Iraqi politics means that any settlement on the way forward is unlikely to come from a leading politician.

For the moment, the political establishment aims to outlast public pressure to introduce deep reforms. It hopes to slowly make superficial changes that preserve its power. The prime minister-designate may position himself as an independent, but he will have to play by the rules of this game. He does so because he has too weak a political base to forge his own path and push the country towards genuine reform. As a consequence, he uses the threat from the protests to persuade the political elite to accept some cosmetic reforms and back him.

Countries that worry about the implications of such half-hearted reform – especially for Iraq’s stability and capacity to manage terrorist threats – need to carefully assess the benefits and risks of further involvement in Iraq. The European Union has primarily invested in security and humanitarian aid to the country since 2014, but this will not do much to address the systemic problems that are at the root of the protests. Support for improved local governance will always be welcome, as will efforts to stimulate job creation and the training and development of young people who are desperate for a chance to provide for themselves.

Iraq’s security forces will also likely require foreign assistance for several more years, to sustain the effort to prevent the re-emergence of organisations such as the Islamic State group (ISIS). Currently, the EU contributes military and security assistance through the international coalition to counter ISIS and the NATO training programme. Both initiatives have been invaluable for increasing the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces but face the question of whether foreign troops can remain in Iraq. Beyond this, the EU and European governments must undertake an in-depth reassessment of their role in Iraq and confront the Iraqi political establishment with hard truths, conditioning their support on substantive reforms and improvements to international efforts that see billions of dollars spent in Iraq with little to show for it.

As the crises facing Iraq continue to mount, the window of opportunity for undertaking deep and lasting reforms is closing fast. Major challenges for the Iraqi state are accumulating at the economic, political, security, and societal levels. Many of these challenges will have consequences outside Iraq. Ultimately, the nation’s political elite will need to realise that, unless they engage in urgently needed reforms, they will continue to be part of the problem.

Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa, Syria / Iraq / Lebanon

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.