The State of Broken Promises: The current protests in Iraq


Corruption has reigned supreme in Iraq for decades, and little has changed for the average Iraqi. Moreover, promises that Western allies made to the Iraqi people of an end to corruption have remained unfulfilled.

The United States’ 2003 intervention in the Iraqi political sphere initiated the agenda to implement a democratic system within the country. The idea was to facilitate and allow power to be distributed fairly among all the major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region. The hope was for equal representation to strengthen and empower the political system in Iraq. It is not prudent simply to blame intervention for the current problems, which continue to plague the Iraqi government engulfed with self-minded politicians.

Since the new political system was introduced after 2003, protests have targeted corruption undertaken by particular personalities who hold or held political power. These protests were a result of a failure to meet the people’s demands, which include a decent level of prosperity for all Iraqis. The situation became so severe that basic services such as clean water, electricity, and other infrastructural projects failed to materialize.

While Iraq continues to be rich in natural resources, such as crude oil, the people on the ground never really experienced the full benefits the natural resources offer. Poverty and corruption became widespread due to the lack of good governance and the infiltration of self-interest. The Iraqi people’s trust in the government continued to fall, with corruption swallowing up a large portion of the country’s budget, which otherwise could have been used to support the weak and frail Iraqi society.

The protests today are a manifestation of the Iraqi people’s discontent with the political situation and their frustration with continued corrupt practices, which ultimately caused a divisive political environment in Iraq.

Corruption has ultimately led to Iraq’s transparency and global reputation to be questioned—to the extent that it now ranks among the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index. Something has to change in Iraq, and this is what the protestors are calling for. Meeting basic demands was no longer enough of a mandate from the protestors, and instead, there is now a call for radical reform to take place.

Corruption within Iraq is a complex matter, and the powerful elites utilize their tools at their will to ensure the status quo is kept. With the help and aid of the armed forces, military, and other state organizations, corrupt individuals are provided access to the national budget, which ultimately allows them to control and run the state of affairs within the country, and effectively create a state within a state.

While democracy is encouraged, that encouragement only goes so far and is often used for the wrong reasons. For example, particular individuals who call for democracy sometimes call for its limitations within elite circles as well. An example of mixed democratic rhetoric and corruption is the funding of sectarian sections of the military via Iraq’s national budget in a questionable manner.

Not only has corruption permeated the administrations of Iraq, but so has a lack of real representation in the country. When we speak about democracy, do we simply mean the process of a vote? Plenty of countries in the region hold elections. Indeed, even Saddam Hussein held so-called “elections.” It is not enough to merely have elections, but instead, other rights need to be present within a true democracy. The right to protest, for instance, is a necessary component, as is the elected politicians being responsible for the people. These are the fundamental conditions for living in a vibrant, prosperous democracy—something Iraq and the Middle East, in general, have seen little of.

Successive governments in Iraq have also prioritized certain members of the Iraqi state over others, except for the Kurdish people who never received priority. Saddam Hussein certainly practiced this with certain tribes who he knew he could rely on for support. Following the fall of the Iraqi dictatorship, new institutions and structures to re-engineer Iraqi society were introduced. This created a new democratic vision of society. The constitution was voted on democratically by the Iraqi people, but ongoing corruption meant it was never fully implemented.

Despite these changes, the political climate in Iraq has long been far from normal or stable. The state has faced consistent challenges from armed groups such as Al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State. Iraq has also experienced years of sectarian division and sectarian-driven conflict, largely due to the administrations that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The current protests in Iraq are a natural reaction to promises that both authoritarian and democratic regimes have repeatedly broken. The lack of accountability and closed system politics has led many to feel locked out and unable to change the system using standardized methods. The Iraqi government’s reliance on force has led them to murder their citizens rather than effectively deal with the problems staring them in the face. The only solution is to listen to the people and create a truly democratic government that can tackle corruption that has plagued the state for decades.

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