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Iraq’s ethno-sectarian quota remains assertively in power

Wednesday 24 October 2018, by siawi3


After all, Iraq’s ethno-sectarian quota remains

Zeidon Alkinani

22 October 2018

So long as the ethno-sectarian quota exists, a political class that serves foreign interests will continue to determine Iraq’s political and economic destiny.

Sulaymaniyah: A man is looking for his name in front of a polling station on a voter register for the parliamentary elections. Picture by: Tobias Schreiner/DPA/PA Images.

In the face of historical electoral results and popular uprisings against poor governance and corruption – Iraq’s ethno-sectarian quota remains assertively in power. The official quota or ‘al-mohasesa al-ta’ifiyah’ as it is known in Arabic, is the most fundamental problem with today’s Iraq. This is due to political parties’ ability in mobilizing communities through ethnical and sectarian motives, when the battle is nothing but political. Its function distributes the top governmental positions as follows: A Shi’ite Arab Prime Minister, a Kurdish President and a Sunni Arab Speaker of Parliament, as a proportional representation to the country’s largest three communities.

This quota was first introduced by the US occupation during its early stages in 2003 when the occupational ambassador Paul Bremer appointed pro-invasion Iraqi exiles based on identity backgrounds in the provisional government known as the Iraqi Governing Council and continued throughout the country’s interim and transitional governments. This communally divided quota unfortunately, became a political tradition that shapes the power sharing between the identity–based political parties until our current state. Voters for most of the post–2003 Iraq period also reflected significant identity–based preferences. Alarmingly, this is arguably due to the lack of non-sectarian options that enjoy similar influences, platforms, and powers as the sectarian ones. Such ethno-sectarian share of power motivated regional players with power determinations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to exploit Iraq as a proxy battlefield throughout the years. Consequently, it debilitated intra–societal relations as witnessed during the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, the sectarian conflict in 2006-2008, the war with Daesh or ISIL between 2014-2017, and the rise of Shi’ite paramilitary groups funded and armed by Iran throughout the years, and in particular during the rule of former PM – Nouri Al-Malki.

Nonetheless, the surprising election results and the protests which swept the country’s capital and southern provinces presented the most threatening year to the corrupted regime, and in turn presented hope to many Iraqis affected by it. In spite of the low 44.5% turnout in the election results last May, the country witnessed for the first time since 2005 the fall and demise of the ruling Islamic Da’wa party and the unfamiliar alliance between the secular Iraqi Communist Party and the Shi’ite and formerly paramilitary Sadrist organisation known as the Sairoon alliance. The latter raised two signals: a secularist political rise and a growing Shi’ite anti-Iran inclination as commonly advocated by the Sadrist leader, Muqtada Al-Sadr, whom is one of, if not the most powerful figure in post-2003 Iraq. Iran’s proxy games in Iraq and support to paramilitary groups with public allegiance to their Supreme Leader – Ayatollah Khameni has played a major role in destabilizing the country’s security. Later in the year, protests swept the country’s capital and mainly Southern province of Basra. Apart from the anti-Iran factor that was witnessed as protesters burned the Iranian consulate in Basra, the uprisings were mainly motivated by the poor electricity services which most of the population depend on during the humid and hot summer. It was also a reminder of the poor governance by the corrupted political class, which alongside electricity, also failed to provide clean water, secured borders, efficient education, infrastructural development, employment opportunities for the youth and other public services.

A widespread youth-led activism also reflected a positive image of hope and determination in contrast to the pessimistic one commonly portrayed by the international media – ignoring Iraqis’ resilience, resistance, creativity and love of life in the face of hardships. In addition, the prominence of the protests encouraged both current and potential rulers to react with a sympathizing approach, as the anger on the streets was impossible to silence nor ignore. Whilst PM Haider al-Abadi sacked his Minister of Electricity and visited Basra as a way of calming violence, Sairoon surprised the post-elections governmental formation negotiations by calling for Al-Abadi’s resignation, after almost announcing the formation of a governmental coalition with him. Sistani’s call for the appointment of a PM based on merit instead of ethno-sectarian background was a turning point in Iraqi politics as the mere fact that Sistani, as the country’s most senior cleric, intervened in such a political affair with such a statement is a key milestone.

The political discourse was filled with promises of forming a technocratic cabinet that would appoint independent ministers and officials whom are professionally suitable for their roles and not party-politically driven. Nevertheless, Iraq still witnesses another government being formed according to the ethno-sectarian quota. Sunni Arab lawmaker, Mohamed Al-Halbousi was elected as the Speaker of Parliament or the Council of Representatives on September 15th, 2018, with his party, literally using the word ‘Sunni’ when describing their share in the government. Separatist Kurdish politician Barham Salih was ’elected’ as President of Iraq on October 2nd, 2018, while advocating and supporting Kurdish independence in last year’s referendum. Rumours on the heavy regional and domestic political Shi’ite negotiations are confirming the potential appointment the ethno-sectarian quota’s veteran, Adel Abdelmahdi as Prime Minister, as a result of a national and regional Shi’ite agreement. Abdelmahdi, if elected will face the challenge of forming a Cabinet which must appeal to the different political parties, all of which are ethno-sectarian driven.

Finally, following heavy regional and domestic political Shi’ite negotiations, Salih agreed to appoint the ethno-sectarian quota’s veteran, Adel Abdelmahdi as Prime Minister. Abdelmahdi would face the challenge of forming a Cabinet which must appeal to the different political parties, all of which are ethno-sectarian driven. Nevertheless, his appointment, as previously mentioned, highlights the certainty of Da’wa’s end in grabbing the premiership – as he presents himself as an independent politician after leaving the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Thereupon, not only are we witnessing the return of corrupted, unqualified, disloyal politicians, and a governmental formation by parties that did not even perform well enough in the election results, but also a repeated scenario of the ethno-sectarian quota. The continued use of this externally imposed, self-demising quota can be tied to the fact that Iraq’s most influential external actors such as Iran and the US are politically and economically benefiting from their allies in Baghdad. So long as this remains the case, a political class that serves foreign interests will remain in power and will continue to determine Iraq’s political and economic destiny.

Zeidon Alkinani is an independent Iraqi-Swedish political writer and analyst. MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. His main research focuses on the MENA region, Iraq, sectarianism, US Middle East foreign policy, the Arab Spring, post-war development and many other global issues.



Is Iraq entering an era of post-sectarianism?

Seyed Ali Alavi

20 August 2018

In the absence of civil war, the people of Iraq have found an opportunity to demand that the political elite deliver on their election campaign promises.

Protesters gather at the Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 27, 2018. Picture by Khalil Dawood/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. While Iraq is in the grip of a breathtaking summer heat-wave, the odor of dissatisfaction rose in the major southern cities of Basra, Najaf and Karbala and swiftly spread to the outskirt of the capital city, Baghdad in July 2018. The spontaneous protests began weeks after the general election concluded in Iraq.

On 12 May 2018, Iraqis went to the ballots to elect members of parliament and subsequently a new Prime Minister. In a sense, these elections were unique in the history of Iraq since the 2003 invasion for three pivotal reasons. First, this is the first general election since the demise of ISIS and its proclaimed caliphate in Iraq. Second, the election occurred a year following a referendum for independence in the Kurdistan region. Third, the election was marred by regional tensions between regional powers.

The May turnout was reportedly around 45 percent, the lowest since 2003. In some constituencies, the results of the elections were contested and faced recounts. Nevertheless, many commentators were caught off guard by the results of the ballot boxes. Iraq’s populist Shia cleric, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Al-Sairoon party gained more seats than the incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and the powerful coalition of Iranian backed Shia paramilitary factions of Al-Fateh led by Hadi Al-Ameri.

Al-Sadr, led a popular movement advocating a cross-sectarian national government and its umbrella party included non religious parties including Iraq’s Communist Party. Nevertheless, after weeks of behind the scenes political haggling over which party will dominate the key ministerial positions, protestors in the south of Iraq poured into the streets. Demonstrators flared over lack of public services. Residents in Basra went on a rampage after accusing the municipality of financial mismanagement, entrenched corruption and failing to provide basic services, and systemic nepotism.

Reportedly in late July, thousands of protesters in Baghdad and the Southern cities called for the downfall of traditional political parties. Many Iraqis believe that since the invasion of Iraq, a generation of certain political elites have been taking a central place in ruling the country whose political patriarchy have for more than a decade made power the province of their own. A resident of Najaf, on condition of anonymity, expressed to me that for a decade appointed governments had no plans to accommodate the Iraqi nation’s financial concerns. He adds that since the Iraqi government declared victory against ISIS in December 2017, people became even more frustrated with the authorities. This is because the Iraqi people witness the political elites keenly turning to their convoluted routine of haggling to obtain more leverage while paying little attention to the Iraq’s economic concerns.

What is important here is that the demonstrations began in Shia populated cities. Since the removal of Saddam’s regime, the central government in Baghdad is mainly dominated by Shia parties. Having such large scale demonstrations in the Shia holly cities of Najaf and Karbala is unprecedented. In fact, sporadic unrests were mainly taking place in Sunni areas in central Iraq. In 2014, extremist groups such as ISIS managed to take advantage of Baghdad’s failure in accommodating marginalised Sunni communities within the governmental apparatuses, and it established a so called Caliphate that lasted for three years.

In the absence of civil war, the people of Iraq have found an opportunity to demand that the political elite deliver on their election campaign promises. What is important, is that the Iraqi protesters chant slogans demanding services and jobs, with an absence of sectarian rhetoric amongst the protestors. It is the nature of that unsettledness that is the main melody of recent demonstrations in southern Iraq. Although the response of the caretaker government of Iraq has been heavy-handed, the protests continue to focus on the economic demands.

There is one other key aspect that should be mentioned; Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is revered by millions of Shias supported the protests. Sistani’s representative stated that “the incumbent government must work hard, urgently, to implement citizens’ demands to reduce their suffering and misery”.

Amid weeks of mass protests, Iraq’s electricity minister Qassem al-Fahdawin was suspended by Iraq’s Prime Minster in late July. Subsequently, Prime Minister Al-Abadi began conducting meetings with delegations of local tribal leaders and prominent individuals, promising a range of swift actions to meet people’s economic demands. In late July, Al-Abadi also ordered compensating poultry farmers who suffered economically due to the bird flu earlier this year.

On 23 July, Sunni Arab tribes of Hawija symbolically issued a press statement backing the protests in the southern provinces. In a sense, there were similar demonstrations in some major cities in the Kurdistan region in December 2017. The Kurdish protestors across Suleimania and Halabja took to the streets over lack of basic services and delayed salaries. A resident in Suleimania expressed to me that many people in Kurdistan have sympathy towards their fellow countrymen in Najaf and Basra, as all suffer from the same pain of lack of basic services and entrenched corruption.

What is clear, however, is that the protests in Iraq are not a revolution. This is a new phase of political maturity across Iraq’s streets. The recent demonstrations have brought a new non-sectarian dimension to Iraq’s socio-political arena. The future Iraq, like the present one, cannot be governed without accountability or with pure impunity. Each pole of power needs to adjust itself to Iraq’s post-sectarian era. Like the creak of a sail-rig as a ship begins to turn, a sign of change in Iraq’s socio-political structure can prove decisive. The time is ripe to turn to a non-sectarian technocratic cabinet that focuses on providing welfare to Iraqi citizens and fighting against corruption. But this begs the question of how the future government will address Iraq’s concerns tangibly. The peoples’ voice is certainly intended to show their frustration with the authorities’ inability to address the country’s economic concerns in the past.

In a sense, in the new Iraq, the economic concerns and peoples’ financial daily struggles transcend tribal and sectarian fault lines. This is a great challenge and also a significant opportunity for policy makers in Iraq to direct the country towards a non-sectarian and non-tribal governance where the regeneration of the country is the main action plan.

Seyed Ali Alavi is a teaching fellow at SOAS, University of London, department of Politics and International Studies. His expertise lies in the International Relations of the Middle East.