24 Apr 2020

Iraqis’ Dream of Democracy Turned into a Nightmare

The Iraq’s ruling elite has managed to survive the recent popular protests in the Shiite majority cities, towns, and neighborhoods, holding on the key state institutions and sustaining their sectarian based political regime with Sunni Arabs and Kurds; however, multiple major crises are looming as Covid-19 associated crises will overwhelm the Iraqi government, especially as oil prices plummeted  and the Iraqi government’s revenues reduced by more than 42% 
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The entire current political and financial crises have caused an uncertain situation and the question is for how long the ruling elite will keep the business as usual situation. It’s clear holding on power will disappoint the protesters who have taken streets for demanding better governance, employment opportunities, and reducing corruption, and the ruling elite may gamble on everything to stay in power.

Mohammed Salah
Mohammed Salah

is an Erbil based freelance-journalist and English translator worked for various media organizations

On April 9th, 2020, Iraqi President Barham Salah designated Mustafa al-Kazimi, Head of Iraqi National Intelligence Service, to form a transitional cabinet, mandated to prepare for earlier elections after passing new election law and changing Iraq’s High Electoral Commission. Kazimi is already in an intensive talk with the same ruling political parties to nominate members of his cabinet from those selected by the parties. This is a clear sign to replicate the same political model based on which all the post 2003 Iraqi governments have been formed, and it is one of the reasons that brought hundreds of thousands Iraqi youth to streets and ask for changing the whole political regime.   

The history of this sectarian political regime dates back to 2003 regime change. The rivalry between Shiite and Sunni Arab political groups and parties cost thousands of Iraqi lives in 2000s and finally gave birth to the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It has weakened institutions and destabilized the country and undermining Iraq’s national identity. Still the ruling elite tries to survive at the expense of the country’s major interests and by ignoring the popular demands of the protesters, from whom more than 600 activists have been killed or assassinated and more than 20 thousand more were injured, according to human rights groups.

Historically looking, the Shiite-Sunni division was caused by disagreements on political, theological, and doctrinal issues, but their current division is more about power struggle and conflicts over resources. The same is true about Arab-Kurd conflicts, which used to be over Kurdish rights and dream of independency, but gradually it evolved into oil and financial disputes. Now, rarely the Kurdish right and their historical struggle over disputed territories and Kurdish aspiration to establish an independent state makes into the high-level meetings while the majority of their talks are about KRG’s share in the national budget and Erbil-Baghdad disputes over Kurdistan’s oil sector.

Long Lost Dream of Democracy Led Iraq to Where It Is

The majority of the ruling political elite are leaders of the opposition parties who were fighting Saddam Hussein Regime till 2003, when the U.S. led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled down the regime. Many of them lived in exile for most of their adult lives, all over Europe and the United States of America, preparing for the transitional period that was supposed to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime to a newly elected democratic government. However, not only they failed and created a failed state, but the current sectarian based regime (locally known as Muhasasa) actually descends from the opposition leaders’ conferences prior to the US invasion of Iraq.

Among the participants of the Iraqi opposition parties’ conference in London, there was Jalal Talabani (first Iraqi president after the regime change and leader of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). He defined the mission of the conference as “restoring unity to Iraq as a people, territory and entity”. Similarly, Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who became president of Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2005 also asserted on “a spirit of reconciliation and preservation of the [national] interest”. Ahmed al-Chalabi, founder of Iraqi National Congress and later interim oil minister, was describing the opposition parties’ conference-task as “a new way of thinking and the consolidation of democratic principles.” Shiite leader Mohammed Baqir al-Nassari said the attendees wanted Iraqis to be free and “to be able to express their opinions toward the government as they want, regardless of whether the leader is Sunni or Shiite or Kurdish”.

At the end of the conference, the opposition figures published a 10-page statement, which emphasized their desire to root out sectarianism, which was defined as Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Shiite community in addition to build a new political regime based on human rights and equality. Over the past 17 years, the same opposition parties consolidated the sectarian divisions, weakened Iraqi institutions further, and tried to crack down on the peaceful protesters that demanded better governance. They are using the same oppressive methods, which they were victims of during the rule of Saddam Hussein Regime, such as assassinating and kidnapping activists.

Contrary to their previous claims, the opposition parties, through their ethno-sectarian lines, further deepened the existing divisions left after Saddam Hussein Regime. Their procedural democracy has changed five prime ministers and prevented emerging of a new brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein, but it has weakened Iraq’s state institutions to the extent that law enforcement institutions can’t function in areas where militias operate. The procedural democracy has only enacted the sectarian power-sharing rule in which a bunch of political parties, who represent Shiite, Sunni Arabs, and Kurdish communities, distribute power and state resources between their patronage networks.

The ruling elite’s ethno sectarian inter-fighting was largely fueling the civil war and conflicts that took hundreds of thousands Iraqi lives between 2005 and 2017. While the very same politicians who had made endless speeches about reconciliation, unity and democracy, used violence to maximize their stakes in the state institutions and feed their patronage networks on the state resources. Their power-sharing system has encouraged rampant corruption. Ministerial portfolios, civil service jobs and government contracts have been distributed along ethno-sectarian party lines. 

It did not take long for ordinary Iraqis to see the dysfunctionalities and start demanding the reform. However, the ruling elite’s deep parasitical control over Iraq’s resources and institutions, while acting like warlords, not only gave them the limitless illegal resources to oppress the protestors, but also showed that the political elite will not shy from any solution to stay in power even if they destroy the country or act in a foreign interest. The nature of dealing with the protests now or in the future will radicalize the protesters and increase their demands and if this situation does not end peacefully, the entire political institutions may destroy in the future. 

The Post Covid-19 Iraq 

Prime Minister designate Mustafa al-Kazimi is proceeding with his efforts to form a transitional cabinet while Iraq is facing huge financial, political and health crisis. The implications of the lockdown polices and curfews are expected to raise national poverty rate, 20% in 2018, and unemployment rate, around 10% in 2019, while the Iraqi government, as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government, still don’t have a proper database to show where the impoverished people live, if they decide to move forward with the program to help them during this pandemic.

Six months of continues protests and calls for reform, the ruling elite still failed to designate anyone outside of the establishment, and the protesters will probably go back to take streets to keep demanding for employment opportunities and better governance as they see the government formation process is going contrary to what they have been demanding.

To address all these challenges, Al-Kazimi’s transitional government must act fast and do whatever it takes as the following:

–       The transitional government has to take some immediate austerity measures, such as slashing salaries of top government officials, MPs, and military generals and leaders in addition to cutting all the non-necessary public expenditures or politically-driven corrupt resource-allocations. The government has to do whatever it takes to provide salaries of civil servants, pensioners, and members of security forces.

–       It has to start pushing for a meaningful restructure of Iraq’s electoral commission and truly amend the election laws. Free and fair elections, should be held under international community’s observation in no later than April 2021. 

–       The transitional government need to disarm all militias and armed groups that previously helped in the fight against ISIS. Without keeping weapons only under control of security forces, it will be impossible to conduct fair elections since most of the militias work for the ruling political parties’ agendas.

–       It is not realistic to believe that this government has time and resources to diversify the Iraq’s economy, the most rigorous and important task any government can take in this petroleum-dependent state. However, it can start some right bases for and make proper polices to help its subsequent government to follow up with. At least it can’t worsen the situation and give public jobs as political bribe, like what outgoing Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi did in the last few months of his cabinet, when he hired about 500 thousand new people in public sector.

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