Iraqis protest against unemployment and lack of public services in Baghdad, 27 July 2018. Picture by Ameer Al Mohammedaw/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Iraq arguably entered a new phase of ‘post-sectarianism’ since 2015. This was evident during the popular protests that began in the summer of 2015 and returned significantly in the summer of 2018 – when Iraqi political activism transformed from identity politics to being issue based. This showed that the protests are driven by frustration and demands for improving the poor public services and the high unemployment figures, rather than the usual politically led religious and ethnic differences. Specifically, the transition was motivated by the failure of the ethnic-sectarian political class in providing efficient public services, education, health care, security and development necessary for society. Is this enough to say that we are in an era of ‘post-sectarianism’?
What is ‘sectarian Iraq’?
Sectarian Iraq refers to post-2003 when the country fell to the US-led invasion and witnessed the installation of a political class which appoints its high-profile governmental posts and cabinet based on an ethnic-sectarian quota: a Shiite Arab Prime Minister, a Kurdish President and a Sunni Arab Speaker of Parliament, to satisfy the power determinations of the leading common political parties of the three largest communities.
The ethnic-sectarian quota-based governance in Iraq had a number of consequences throughout the years. It turned Iraq into a sectarian regional battlefield between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey when it comes to issues related to the Kurds and Turkmens. Furthermore, political parties used ethnic-sectarian differences to mobilize communities against one another, which directly harmed the Iraqi societal relations. This was mainly witnessed during the height of the sectarian conflict between 2006-2008 and during the 2014 fall of Mosul in the hands of the extremist group known as the Islamist State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Daesh.
Apart from the failure of sectarian political parties in serving their own communities, they also failed to maintain unified fronts within their own communal political circles – and that in itself exposed how these sectarian political parties were motivated by political and not sectarian interests. A common and strong reflection of that are the internal divisions within the ethnic-sectarian political fronts. A good example would be the decades old Iraqi Kurdish rivalry between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party or even, the enmity between the former prime ministers Haider al-Abadi (2014-18) and Nouri al-Maliki (2008-14) following the Islamic Da’wa party’s breakup in 2014 when al-Maliki failed to gain an unconstitutional third term.
Iraq’s post-sectarian phase could be noticed when the main attention of Iraqi politics moved from being about sectarian identity to becoming about demands and specific issues related to services and rights. There are several important incidents that must be noted when talking about the fragile post-sectarian Iraq. One such incident is the announcement by the Iraqi Army that all Iraqi cities were liberated from ISIL in 2017, and the second was the failure of the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017 and the Iraqi army’s retaking control of Kirkuk after years of Kurdish Peshmerga rule. Those two events among others provoked a sense of social hope and reconnected people to a unified and sovereign homeland. However, it should be noted that the Kurdish reaction differed towards the outcome of the referendum - as it consisted of more losses than gains. Apart from Kirkuk being the most strategic and disputed area between Erbil and Baghdad on the Kurdish issue – the Iraqi government also demanded re-control of the airports and the borders.
But it was the protests of 2018 that mark an era of a post-sectarian Iraq. The protests that began in the Southern province of Basra to then include the entire southern region until they reached the capital Baghdad in July 2018, reflected two new indicators of post-sectarianism. The first was that the protests took place in the Shiite-majority region despite the political class in Baghdad and most southern municipalities being dominated by Shiite political parties. It is crucial to note that this was different from the former protests that commonly erupted in Sunni majority provinces. The other indicator was that the protests were being driven by frustration at the government’s failure in improving the economy and in providing efficient public services such as education, health care, clean water and electricity, away from any sectarian-driven discourse.
Signs of social harmony during the protests arose when Sunni Arab tribes and Kurdish protesters also expressed cross-communal support and sympathy from across Iraq for the protests in the southern provinces as they “all suffer from the same pain of lack of basic services and entrenched corruption.”
Furthermore there was the formation of the trans-sectarian coalition Sairoon, between the nationalist Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and non-religious parties including the Iraqi Communist Party. The coalition gained the most votes during the elections and for the first time since 2003, the Shiite Islamist Da’wa Party did not dominate the election results. Sairoon was considered the most popular and influential non-sectarian parliamentary coalition during the May 2018 elections – however, their inability to form a government or an opposition independently from any interferences from the classic ethnic-sectarian coalitions such as the Iranian-backed al-Fatah, showed how the ethnic-sectarian quota prevails and asserts its dominance.
What remains to be seen is whether this so called ‘new Iraq’ is as post-sectarian as some academics and journalists claim. The discourse has undeniably changed as we have witnessed a growing interest and attention towards issues that transcend identity politics. Nonetheless, the direct implications of a sectarian state are still significantly present in reality – ethnic-sectarian quotas remain in place, and the regional influences still drive most politicians. Most importantly, we are continuously witnessing a lack of governmental effort to improve the country’s economy and public services. While it might perhaps be too soon to speak of a new post-sectarian era, one thing is certain, that there is a new discourse that has appeared and destabilized the old sectarian reality of Iraq.