Iraq needs serious reform, not another ill-fated revolution
Since early October, Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq have been racked by the most significant protests of the post-Saddam era. A generation of young Iraqis who grew up after Saddam’s regime appears to have lost patience with a corrupt status quo. Lack of jobs, lack of basic services, lack of adequate living conditions, and lack of future prospects give them little to lose. A heavy handed response against the protestors that has killed nearly 300 over the past few weeks seems to only enrage them more.
Their basic demands differ only a little from those of Arab Spring protests of a few years ago. Although Iraqis live under a real electoral democratic system, unlike Egyptians or Tunisians in the time of the Ben Ali regime, their elected officials appear incapable of delivering anything more than corruption and state paralysis. For similar reasons and under a similar system, protestors in nearby Lebanon express a similar end of patience for such a status quo.
The protestors in Iraq appear overwhelmingly to be poor Shiites. They blame Iran and its heavy hand in Iraq for much of their problems, despite their shared Shiite identity. The protestors regularly attack buildings and facilities owned by Iran and its Iraqi Shiite militia proxies. They call for an end to sectarianism in Iraq, which many believe serves as a cover for corrupt sectarian leaders to win elections and then divide the country’s wealth between them.
Exhausted from the war against ISIS and still under heavy suspicion by the government, Sunni Arabs in places like Mosul and Anbar have, in contrast, not taken to the streets. Few doubt their sympathy towards the Baghdadi and southern protestors’ rhetoric and demands, however. The very emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq stemmed in large part from the same kind of grievances.
In Kurdistan, the “other Iraq” remains quiet. With better infrastructure, an electricity grid that works, more jobs and relatively much improved services, the autonomous Regional Government bought itself more breathing room than authorities in Baghdad. Although Kurdistan’s people also complain of corruption, insufficient public services and what amounts to Iraqi Kurdistan’s own version of sectarian divisions (between the KDP and PUK), these problems remain much less serious than in the rest of Iraq.
If the protestors in the rest of Iraq retain a good idea of what they want – jobs, infrastructure, services, and clean government – how to get it seems much less clear. Calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi, new elections, a new constitution and a change of the current political system to turn it into a presidential one have been made. Unfortunately, none of these demands seem likely to improve things. In many cases, they will likely make the situation worse.
In office for little more than a year, Abdul-Mahdi is hardly responsible for Iraq’s current problems. Compared to Iraq’s previous prime ministers, he actually seems more sincere in his desire to fix the country’s ills and reconcile Iraq’s various sectarian communities. Kurdish leaders in Erbil regularly praise the new prime minister’s willingness to work with them to address Iraq’s long-standing problems and build new, durable solutions. He has also offered the protestors tangible things to help, including a basic income supplement, more jobs, cuts to salaries of high-ranking government officials, and reshuffling of his cabinet. A different prime minister will likely prove worse rather than better.
If efforts to change the overall political system lead to a new constitution and the election of a president instead of a prime minister, problems will only worsen further. A new constitution and a presidential system will undoubtedly centralize power, and most Middle Eastern countries – particularly Iraq – have played this record too many times before. Protestors decrying corruption must remain careful not to trade democratic rights for an equally corrupt centralized authoritarianism.
Although such nuances may escape many of the angry young people on the streets, demanding that elected officials actually respect and observe the current constitution would go a lot further towards fixing Iraq’s problems. The current law of the land provides for things like independent courts, a bicameral legislature, independent auditing commissions and similar mechanisms to reign in government malfeasance. Most of these were eviscerated under the long running mismanagement of ex-prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
While calling for an end to Iranian domination of Iraq stands out as a reasonable and necessary demand of the protestors, Iraqis need to effect such a change in the next election by voting for parties and leaders who do not serve Iran’s interests over that of Iraqis. In the meantime, protestors might consider accepting Abdul-Mahdi’s offers and giving him a chance to enact them. Iraq needs serious reform rather than another ill-fated revolution.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.