The Arab Spring rocked the Arab world in the early part of the decade. However, the anti-government uprisings did not visit Iraq despite the country suffering from significant turbulence in recent years.
Nonetheless, the current protests in Iraq are proof that the movement which shook the foundations of authoritarian regimes across the region is not going anywhere anytime soon. These movements do not evolve out of the ether but, instead, are closely related to the dysfunctional states which govern nations in the Middle East.
Iraq did not only fall into instability after the country’s liberation, but it has a political history of authoritarianism, which reigned long before. In truth, the people of Iraq are too familiar with politicians taking power, abusing power, and not being held to account. The reaction and mass protests to the latest corruption, in a long line of corruptive and mismanaged practices, are understandable—even noble.
However, the demands being shouted for in the streets for a change to the Iraqi Constitution is not a solution. For constitutional changes to effect lasting political change, those in power need to abide by the constitution and the rule of law.
Despite the fall of Saddam Hussein, a man who took the extra-legal rule to new levels, abidance by the constitution, let alone reverence for it, is a long way off. The dream in 2003 was of a free, legal, and democratic Iraq. Instead, what has reigned is a lawless, sectarianized state, which has become increasingly authoritarian. The demands for constitutional changes will not achieve the desired outcome if no one is willing to play by the rules.
The authoritarian element of this new democracy has existed for some time: first, under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – who used his influence and power to enrich himself and incorporated sectarian militias inside the government – and second, the fight against the Islamic State that has led to the side-lining of entire communities inside Iraq.
Despite Iraq having declared a military victory against the Islamic State, the government’s reaction toward communities who suffered under terrorist occupation has been unconstitutional and thuggish. Hoax trials have been the norm, and a failure to rebuild what was destroyed in the war has been the hallmark of the recovery of the state against terrorist groups.
Iraq does not have a political class who are willing to abide by the rule of law. Therefore, the demands to change the constitution will not solve the endemic problems which plague the country. The necessary first step in improving poor governance is demanding that politicians stand by and implement the law even if it is grossly unpopular.
This type of reform is not an easy project to embark upon for a relatively new democratic country which has suffered various insurgencies in the space of little over a decade. Yet, it is a necessary one if the protestors’ legitimate demands are to be truly realized.
Iraqis are often not recognized as full-fledged citizens but, instead, subjects to be ruled over. What exists is a pseudo-democracy with rights to protest, but only within certain limitations, a right to vote in a flawed system which delivers corrupt leader after corrupt leader, and a right to exercise self-determination—except if you are the Kurdistan Region. This rule of government is more symptomatic of a medieval European monarch than of a modern 21st-century democratic state. Indeed, this is the real problem at the heart of the protests.
The failure to create a law-abiding democratic state has led to catastrophic failures, which are at the sharp edge of these protests. The corruption which has rotted trust from the inside out like worms in an apple only occurs because no one in parliament respects the anti-corruption laws in place.
Changing the constitution is a plea from citizens for real change in the state, but real change can only occur if the state respects the constitution and the law in the first place. Simply changing the constitution will not achieve any meaningful change.
Iraq is akin to someone who is suffering from an illness. Corruption is merely a symptom. Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has offered to resign but, again, this will not solve the endemic problem which has engulfed Iraq. Treating the symptoms alone while leaving the underlying illness to spread is a recipe for death. The law must be respected and not used as a tool to suppress political opponents or communities. If this course of action is not taken, the patient will die along with Iraq’s short experiment with democracy.
Shwan Haji is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leeds in the political department.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany