Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What are the protests in Iraq really about?

Most of the protests that have been sweeping the region have been directed against aging autocrats that have monopolized power for decades. How interesting, then, to see an increasingly active protest movement being organized in Iraq. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, reasonably free and fair elections were held in Iraq just last March. So what are these protests about?

On the most basic level, these protests have been driven by corruption and the lack of services the Iraqi government provides for its constituents. Eight years after the US-led invasion, many areas in Iraq still don't have sufficient electricity. Corruption is rampant, with Iraq ranking 175th out of 178 countries worldwide by Transparency International.

But as Mashriq Abbas notes in al-Hayat, these protests are about something even more fundamental: the very structure of the post-2003 political order. During the last eight years, Iraqi politics have been governed by a sectarian logic. The various ministries have at times been run as sectarian fiefdoms. One's relationship to vast networks of patronage often determine one's status, rather than one's merit or level of expertise.

Furthermore, although Iraq is governed by a parliamentary democracy, there really is no "government / opposition" dynamic in parliament. After elections, the various competing parliamentary blocs work out deals so that almost every bloc is somehow represented in the cabinet. This is done in the name of "national unity". Even Ayad Allawi, whose 'Iraqiyya' bloc won the most amount of seats in the elections last year, chose to take a made-up position in the new government rather than play the role of the opposition. The result has been a government with an ideologically incoherent political program. As a consequence, the government has not worked towards solving substantive issues like providing essential services to the people.

So since there is no "opposition" in Iraqi politics, but just a handful of parties struggling to get a piece of the pie in order to reinforce their patronage networks, there is often no voice to keep the government honest. This is the void that the protesters are filling. So the protest movement is not simply about corruption and lack of services. Although those are certainly the core issues, the more fundamental concern is the presence of an opposition party willing to speak up for those who don't have a seat at the table.

No comments: