The wave of protests that took the Arab world by storm did not exclude Iraq, the region’s only democracy. For both good and bad, however, Iraqi protests were rather limited – and certainly in no way as groundbreaking as they might have appeared to those of us watching Al-Jazeera Arabic’s sensationalist coverage.
Protests were limited in both their characteristics, and unfortunately for the country’s future, in the little they will be able to achieve.
First, the alleged ‘protests of millions’ were actually fairly small in size: across Iraq, approximately 200,000 people took to the streets on the biggest Friday of protests (out of a population of 30 million) – and these numbers dwindled dramatically in the weeks thereafter to a few hundred protesters. Most of these protests were peaceful, and most security personnel deployed conducted themselves with the kind of professionalism that has all-too-often been lacking in this region of the world.
Second, with democracy already won, Iraqi protests are about better services, greater accountability, and less corruption and sleaze from elected politicians, and not about the desire for freedom from tyranny as is the case elsewhere in the Arab world.
That is not to say that such demands should be trivialised. After decades of tyranny, war, sanctions, then a fresh wave of war and violence, the task of reconstruction and development is truly colossal. Infrastructure is in dire need of overhaul. Millions of new homes need to be built, sewage systems repaired, and thousands of miles of roads paved. An antiquated electricity grid is hardly able to provide Iraqis more than a few hours of electricity a day. Hundreds of thousands of jobs must urgently be created. An economy that is over-reliant on oil has to be diversified – its agricultural sector, in particular, revived. Then there is a broken health system, education, tourism, and much more.
Since 2003, progress has been achieved on meeting some objectives, particularly in areas that have escaped the worst of the post-war violence. In the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in southern Iraq, local economies are buoyed by the daily influx of thousands of pilgrims from across the world. For the country as a whole, foreign investment is steadily growing, inflation has been significantly reduced, wages have sizeably increased (in some cases, by several hundred percent), and the worst cases of poverty are being tackled. Particularly for those with a government job, what once were luxuries are now near-universal: refrigerators, TVs, air-conditioners, cars and mobile phones.
Yet, despite such successes, one cannot escape the sense that for many, the overall story of post-Saddam Iraq is more one of disappointment than fulfilment.
The immense challenge of restoring security to Iraqi streets in the face of Al-Qaeda’s bloody wave of terrorist attacks, a Baathist-led insurgency, and vicious internecine civil strife is certainly part of the answer why. Indeed, it would have seemed remarkable to anyone witnessing Iraq’s escalating cycle of violence from 2006-8 that the country could remain intact, let alone undergo the rapid improvement in security it has experienced in the last two and a half years.
But violence and terrorism are not the whole story. Other obstacles, less visible in the dark days of the past appear far more salient today. Four barriers to progress stand out: a political system that produces unwieldy, ineffective coalition governments; a largely incompetent and politicised bureaucracy; a pervading culture of corruption; and an over-reliance on the state.
Iraq’s open-list proportional representation electoral system combines with a multi-party political system to produce bulky coalition governments, making accountability extremely difficult to achieve. Ministries become fiefdoms for political parties, and ministers answer less to the prime minister, the cabinet or the electorate, and more to the party bosses that granted them their positions in the first place.
Not surprising then that when protesters demanded answers a few weeks ago, MPs from Al-Iraqiya and the Sadrists quickly blamed Prime Minister Maliki – conveniently forgetting to acknowledge that the service ministries in his cabinet are largely staffed from their party lists. Such practice has become a trademark in Iraq: parties furiously seek more parliamentary seats and a greater say in decision-making, but even as they get it, shirk being held to account by continuing the narrative of opposition in public.
Iraq’s embattled premier has not fared much better than his rivals. After demonstrating decisive leadership in the fight against Al-Qaeda and militias in his first term, this time round, Maliki has wavered when confronted by the multifarious challenges of post-war reconstruction and state-building, making many unrealistic promises of all-encompassing reforms. He would do better setting clear priorities for his government, and to articulate in frank and plain terms to the Iraqi people what his government will strive to achieve, and what it simply will not be able to.
The Iraqi state fails to deliver not only because of inchoate and contradictory policies from politicians, but because the bureaucracy has proven itself largely incompetent and politicised. Bureaucrats are often indistinguishable from party yes-men – a reflection of the fact that many of them owe their jobs to partisan jostling at the top.
Here, a recent initiative at the Ministry of Higher Education is trying to break the mould. Minister Ali Al-Adeeb has granted each state university a budget of its own in proportion to its size, and delegated the responsibility to hire staff to each university’s governing board. Adeeb’s initiative is to be applauded – but the reality on the ground is that such moves to decentralise power and share responsibility are the rare exception, not the rule.
The concentration of power at the top enables corruption. While corruption indices are inaccurate, the culture of corruption is very real: another legacy of living under Baathist dictatorship. Far too many Iraqis still see the state as the enemy; any opportunity to steal or cheat the system is thus celebrated as a victory for the poor man trying to reclaim his ‘rightful share of the oil,’ rather than an act that debilitates the wherewithal of society as a whole. The judiciary is often complicit, with judges notoriously swayed by the most lucrative bribe or the threat of the biggest bully.
Iraqis’ culture of relying on the state to deliver everything contributes to their sense of disappointment. At my last visit a few months ago, I was struck by the number of students I spoke to who held expectations of a government job, an allotment of land and a house – to be handed to them by the state immediately upon graduation. When I explained to them that most Britons spend most of their lives working to pay off the mortgage, many laughed in disbelief. They thought I was joking.
Further protests in Iraq may attract renewed media attention. If they grow in size and intensity with the rising temperature of Iraq’s unfolding summer, they may even instigate enough political machinations at the top to threaten a premature end to Maliki’s second coalition government. Or they may even turn out to be the stimulus that prompts Maliki’s revival. More likely, they will do neither. Maliki’s coalition government will probably ramble on, making progress on some issues, while failing to address many others. Reforms will likely be slow, sporadic and contradictory: a reflection of a society and state that, eight years on, is still struggling to break from the legacies of old, unable or unwilling to conceive a shared vision of its future.