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Sectarianism to Nationalism Reconsidered

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Raad Alkadiri

The genesis of the article ‘Iraqi Politics: From Sectarianism to Nationalism’ was a series of conversations and indicators over the course of the previous year that pointed to a significant shift in popular sentiment regarding the government and the political order. Political activists in the country, many linked to mainstream parties, were pointing to a change in opinions and priorities (particularly as younger Iraqis came of age), and some political leaders, including Iraq’s then Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, appeared to be taking heed.

Demographics underpinned part of this change. With over 70% of the population under 35 years old, a new constituency was emerging that had little-to-no experience of life and politics prior to the post-2003 order. Their political awareness had been shaped in the 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s fall, and there were increasing signs that they were rejecting the traditional tropes of Iraqi politics, including ethno-sectarianism. Local opinion polls, such as a 2017 voter attitude study by the al-Bayan Center, indicated that a majority of voters cared more about corruption, jobs, and services than the traditional identity issues that had shaped politics since 2003. That poll also found that only 24% of respondents intended to vote for religious-backed entities in the planned 2018 elections.

There were also signs of a slow burn of popular discontent, suggesting that parts of the Iraqi population were growing more alienated from the political system. Demonstrations that started in the predominantly Sunni west and north-west of the country at the start of the decade had moved to the southern Shi’a heartland by 2015. Protestors’ demands matched the complaints captured in opinion polls. They wanted better administration of services, less corruption, a greater share of Iraq’s oil wealth, and – crucially – jobs. Moreover, their willingness to come out on the streets of various cities, and with greater frequency, pointed to an increasing lack of patience with the status quo.

By the beginning of 2018 there were signs that these pressures were resonating with Iraqi political leaders. As the article noted, in the aftermath of the campaign to defeat Islamic State, Abadi had adopted a more nationalist tone and revived reform efforts. Equally, a number of political factions, led by the-then Sadrist-Communist coalition, Sairoun, were increasingly eschewing identity politics in favour of an issue-based agenda demanding good governance.  Other parties, such as Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma and Abadi’s Nasr also shifted somewhat in this direction, as did a number of local parties that contested the election. This manoeuvring was part of a more general pattern of fragmentation within the traditional identity-based blocs that had dominated Iraqi politics since 2003, and the emergence of their constituent parties as independent electoral vehicles that competed with each other more formally for votes and, ultimately, for political leadership.

In one sense, the forces identified in the 2018 did lead to a different political environment. The May election that year resulted in a more atomised parliament, and the two blocs that eventually formed to dominate the assembly – Islah and Bina – were cross-communal (although nonetheless dominated by Shi’a factions).

But, crucially, while the character of politics changed, its nature did not. Government formation and power-sharing remained a function of elite bargain between Iraq’s political oligarchs who refused to surrender their stranglehold over politics. Prime Minister Adel Abd al-Mahdi’s cabinet, formed in November 2018 after months of political haggling, was a product of consensus that protected the interests of the political elite at the expense of improved governance or delivering on popular demands for better services and more jobs. In hindsight, the fragmentation of the identity-based communal alliances in the run up to the national vote appears to have been driven far more by personality differences and internal competition for power rather than reflecting genuine structural change.

Events since then have reinforced this conclusion. The earlier demonstrations mentioned above proved to be a prelude for massive protests that swept Baghdad and the southern provinces beginning in October 2019, and which despite government repression and COVID-19, continue to simmer. This broad but largely uncoordinated popular movement, which demands a homeland, an end to corruption, change in the political system, and improved services and jobs, cost Abd al-Mahdi his premiership, and forced issue politics further into the mainstream. More importantly, it helped to redefine political competition, between an elite desperate to preserve its prerogatives at all costs, and a population that is increasingly alienated and angry, and which wants meaningful change.

This is the divide that the current interim Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, now straddles, and it is one that will shape politics in the run up to early elections, which Kadhimi has promised to hold by the middle of 2021. Competition is no longer just between venal ‘Green Zone’ political factions who have used their advantage to amass power and money. This oligarchy now faces pressure from below for reforms that would strip it of its monopoly, and which would structurally alter the political and economic dynamics in Iraq.

Kadhimi and some other Iraqi leaders, such as President Barham Salih, appear to genuinely support fundamental change, but they face significant challenges. Their room for manoeuvre is severely limited by a political elite determined to protect its vested interests, even at the cost of domestic instability and violence, and ruining state finances. At the same time, the scale of reform required to address the structural problems that Iraq faces are immense. As the article noted in 2018, ‘[r]eform in Iraq necessitates more than just a change in policies; it requires a root-and-branch restructuring of the political, economic and constitutional foundations of the state.’

The conclusion then remains the same today. Reform in Iraq is a generational project that will take longer than the term of any one prime minister or government. But for it to begin, Iraq’s political elite will need to rethink the state and the underlying social compact with the population; this elite will also need to institute major reforms that threaten its vested interests. There is popular pressure for reform. The task for Kadhimi and whoever follows him after the next elections is to lay the initial building blocks for long-term change, and to create the political cohesion necessary to enact it. Otherwise, the current decline will continue, threatening the foundations of what is already a very fragile state and risking its financial collapse. Iraq’s political oligarchy may preserve some of its ill-gotten gains, but it would be a pyrrhic victory.