Zack Blumberg: In Iraq, the system hangs in the balance

Sunday, October 27, 2019 - 6:11pm

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Over the past weeks, the Middle East has undergone drastic geopolitical changes that could alter the region’s dynamics for decades to come. While most news coverage has been focused on President Trump’s rash and foolhardy decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, this is not the only major development in the region. In Iraq, massive protests have erupted over the past month, clamoring for systematic reforms to the countries’ weak, ineffective and corrupt government. Though these protests lack defined leadership, the sheer pent-up frustration of millions of Iraqis may be enough to force concessions from the government and ensure at least a few meaningful changes. Furthermore, these protests point to the structural problems that are present in the Iraqi Constitution which likely make the government untenable long-term.

First, it is important to acknowledge that protests are generally quite common in Iraq and have essentially become a yearly tradition. Conventionally, protests have broken out during the summer months, when the government is often unable to provide citizens with enough water and electricity to bear the scalding heat. However, this year there were no summer protests. Instead, unprecedented numbers of people took to the streets in October to protest against the government and political establishment as a whole. Beyond general frustration with the ruling class, demonstrators have demanded crackdowns on corruption, solutions to Iraq’s chronically high unemployment rate and improvements to the nation's decrepit infrastructure. Crucially, the demonstrations are remarkably egalitarian, with an anti-establishment focus which is not associated with any particular religion, sect or political party. The protests were first sparked by the removal of the army’s counterterrorism second in command, General Abdul-Wahab Al-Saadi, who was widely viewed as the mastermind behind Iraq’s defeat of ISIS and considered to be a man of the people, unlike most Iraqi politicians. 

However, Iraqi citizens’ current frustrations can be traced beyond Al-Saadi’s dismissal and back to 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded the country, overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and laid the framework for Iraq’s contemporary political system. This government setup, which was officially codified in the nation’s 2005 constitution, is the fundamental problem that underpins Iraqis’ omnipresent disdain for their own government. The constitution is ambiguous and poorly written, creating a weak government that has been further encumbered by political infighting over some of the document’s more confusing clauses. Both the processes for nominating a prime minister and distributing oil revenue are somewhat unclear, limiting Iraq’s political and economic development. 

Today, the legacy of the 2005 constitution hangs over Iraq, and many of its shortcomings are visible in the protesters’ complaints. The constitution’s vague position on oil revenue distribution has enabled widespread corruption and is the main contributor to Iraq’s economic struggles. Though Iraq’s oil exports are at an all-time high, the vast majority of profits go to a small cohort of elites and not towards addressing any of Iraq’s substantive societal issues. Additionally, the oil boom has not provided many new jobs in Iraq the nation’s unemployment rate has hovered near 8 percent since 2003, while its youth unemployment rate has remained near 17 percent throughout the same period. In conjunction with this economic stagnation, living conditions are worsening for many citizens, and a large proportion of Iraq’s infrastructure is in desperate need of repair after the nation’s lengthy battle with ISIS. 

In tandem with this economic angst, there is a justifiable sentiment among Iraqis that the government is corrupt, complicit in Iraq’s current predicament and has failed to serve its citizens. The government’s response to the protests has been inconsistent and included both repressive policing tactics and signs of genuine concern from the central government. On the streets, the protests have been met with aggression from the police force. As of today more than 100 protesters have been killed and thousands injured — something which has further galvanized the movement. However, the federal government does appear to be listening: Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi and several members of parliament have reached out to protesters, and conversations have apparently taken place. 

In the immediate future, these protests must adopt a more centralized structure in order to maximize their effectiveness. So far, the movement has relied on sheer numbers and managed to extract a few concessions from Mahdi, namely convincing him to pass a law mandating that all new oil projects in Iraq include at least 50 percent local workers. However, a disorganized mass can only do so much. By organizing, the protest movement can make concrete demands of elected officials and gain leverage over the government. 

In the longer term, this protest movement is a sign that Iraq’s current governmental system is fundamentally flawed, and structural reforms are necessary in order to ensure continual stability. Iraq’s 2005 constitution has permitted the exploitation of its most valuable resource, entrenched a class of political elites and created a government that fails to respond to the needs of its citizens. As the most recent protests make clear, the Iraqi people are fed up with this unjust system and are united in their desire for meaningful governmental reform. This should serve as a warning to the Iraqi elites that meaningful reform is necessary, and that the constitution must be updated in order to reflect the desires of the people and mitigate some of Iraq’s current issues. Though constitutional reform would obviously not fix all of Iraq’s problems on its own, it would better position the government to combat the problems that currently plague the nation and provide a good starting point for meaningful reform in Iraq. 

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.