The iconic slogan of the Arab uprising of 2011, “al-sha’ab yurid isqat al-nidham” (the people demand the downfall of the regime), which Iraqis have been chanting on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere, is more suited to protests against one-man or one-family rule than an oligarchy with opaque lines of control.
Today, the political sphere in Iraq is more of a diffuse web of vested interests (formal and informal, Iraqi and foreign) than “a regime”. Going against it is less like butting against an immovable rock and more like punching through jelly.
Paradoxically, this might be one of its most powerful attributes and one which could ensure its survival. It precludes the possibility of state capture without its complete destruction by way of a major civil war or a foreign 2003-esque intervention.
Because of this opaque, decentralised political system and in the absence of clear and focussed demands, the protesters’ total rejection is more likely to yield zero-sum contestation than solutions. It may also mean that the current upheaval might go no further than an outburst of raw anger that eventually runs out of steam or is brought under control – looking more like France in 2005 than Tunisia in 2010.
This means a meaningful solution can only be achieved through structural change or “reform”. Here the challenges remain daunting. The political classes lack the credibility that could help convince the Iraqi public to support reform initiatives.
Moreover, there is another structural impediment that those seeking reform face, one that has characterised Iraqi politics since 2003: the lack of a formal parliamentary opposition.
This means that whoever takes up the mantle of “reform” is inevitably complicit in and empowered by the very system that needs reforming. Iraqis have no formal political force to resort to beyond the ruling oligarchy.
This is not to say that reform is impossible. Iraqi intellectuals have proposed various frameworks with which to implement gradual, long-term, structural reform. For example, Iraqi journalist and analyst Mushreq Abbas and others have called for a new electoral law and an independent electoral commission that would allow the electoral process to become more representative and pave the way for the formation of a genuine parliamentary opposition beyond the ruling oligarchy.
Like last year, there are some who are hopeful that these protests will turn into a revolution. Yet it remains unclear what a revolution looks like in a place like Iraq where political and military powers are so diffuse.
The most dangerous scenario would be for the violence to escalate and persist to the point of creating splits in the political and military establishments. This could set Iraq on a trajectory towards an internationalised civil war.
Likewise attempts at shock therapy – say a coup in the form of a government of national salvation that bypasses the ruling oligarchy – could also set Iraq on a similar path.
In both cases, the risk of conflict stems from the ferocious resistance that those with a vested interest in the status quo – including Iran and its Iraqi allies – would surely put up. However, these remain unlikely scenarios.
The most probable (although by no means preordained) outcome is a distinctly unspectacular one. A combination of carrot, stick and fatigue may eventually contain the protests. Alternatively, they may force the government to resign only for the system to reproduce itself in a new cabinet.
Either way, the political classes will acknowledge the scale of discontent but fail to follow through with a coherent and actionable reform plan beyond piecemeal concessions. This would temporarily calm things down until the next crisis and so the cycle would repeat.
Trying to preserve the status quo, however, would be a mistake on the part of Iraq’s governing classes for several reasons.
First, assuming the protests can be contained over the coming days, the next outburst may come far sooner than usual. Later this month is the Arbaeen, one of the most important events in the Shia religious calendar, which will see millions of Shias head to Karbala to commemorate Imam Hussein. This could easily turn into a gigantic platform for protest and even insurrection.
Second, even with an uneventful Arbaeen, the escalation of Iraqi protest between 2011 and today raises questions about how sustainable the cycle of pressure leading to riots followed by cosmetic reforms really is.
Third, the current political order seems increasingly unstable. The governing oligarchy must yield some room for new political forces to enter the scene, for the sake of their own survival as much as for the betterment of Iraq.
The farce of the ruling parties taking up the mantle of reform must give way to a system that allows for truly independent and reform-minded figures from beyond the oligarchy to enter the political system.
In this way, a formal parliamentary opposition can emerge to push the status quo towards change. This may not overturn the current system but it could at least establish a balance between satisfying vested interests and introducing structural reform.
The alternative is nothing less than a ticking time bomb.
Excerpted from: Iraq’s protests and the reform farce’.
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