Iraqis protest in Basra against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment [AFP]
Date of publication: 7 October, 2019
Comment: If Iraq's party system based on religion, ethnicity and endemic clientelism is not addressed, protests will recur and frustration will reach dangerous levels, writes Judit Neurink.
Angry at endemic corruption and high levels of youth employment, demonstrators in Iraq are demanding an end to the present government in Baghdad.
While the death toll in the streets continues to rise after days of protests in Shia areas, a number of parties have left the parliament, signaling support to the protesters. Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand imam who controls one of the largest blocs in the parliament after leading major demonstrations against corruption in the past, has called for new elections.
Only a year after Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi came to power with a cabinet made up mostly of technocrats, the youth of Iraq has lost faith in his promises of reform. With 60 percent of Iraqis under 25-years-old and youth unemployment at 40 percent, they have taken to the streets.
And neither curfews nor internet shutdowns, tear gas nor live ammunition have been able to stop them.
Yet a new government will not solve their problems, as it will be made up of the same parties that are currently in charge. That is ensured by the system put in place after the American invasion of 2003, when politics became religion - and ethnicity-based.
Power is shared between three groups - Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, with the Shia majority having the upper hand. The new parties refined the system of clientelism that was already in place under dictator Saddam Hussein and his Baath party, so that the parties now divide the majority of the country's jobs and wealth between them.
After an election, along with their parliamentary seats, the political parties also claim a proportional number of jobs and positions in each ministry. So even though Abdul-Mahdi appointed technocrats to head the ministries, the parties still had a say in these appointments while also claiming their proportion of the positions in the civil service. Partly as a result of this practice, the number of civil servants has rocketed from 850,000 in 2004 to over 7 million in 2016.
Corruption is totally ingrained in the system. Young graduates who want a government job can only find one through the parties, and even then, sometimes only after they pay $10,000 or more to the right person.
An MP was recently accused of corruption when her assistant was caught in possession of thousands of dollars received from civilians to connect them with people able to ensure they receive government services they should not even have to pay for. This system of 'wasta' - Iraqi Arabic for 'relations' - is endemic and covers every aspect of life in Iraq.
For example, if a company wants its new medicine to receive approval for the Iraqi market, it has to pay a middleman $30,000 to bribe the right person in the right government department.
Another problem with the system is that government money is awarded for projects without a follow-up on how it is spent, or that the desired outcome will be achieved. As a result, development is extremely slow or absent, as money disappears into pockets instead of being spent. Even though Iraqi Shias are the majority and in power, Iraq's Shia areas are the poorest and have seen the least development.
After the attack of Islamic State group (IS) on Iraq's second city, Mosul, it became clear that government estimates of the number of military personnel available to fight were too high, since many 'ghost soldiers' had paid officers to be enlisted and receive a salary without actually ever serving in their units. Recently, I was informed by a knowledgeable source that simply enlisting in the army could cost a recruit some $10,000 in bribes.
Most of the Shia parties also have their own militias, which are in large part made up of young volunteers who fought against IS and have been out of work since its defeat. As one of the protesters put it very bluntly: "This is not a government, it's a bunch of parties and militias." These militias, some of which are loyal first and foremost to neighbouring Iran which paid and trained them, are now to form a people's army comparable to the Iranian Republican Guard.
The new force is to be integrated into the Iraqi Defense system. But snipers from some of the more radical militias have been firing on the demonstrators, killing dozens.
The system has created an Iraqi Animal Farm in which some are more equal than others. Those who are connected to a party will get jobs and contracts. Those who are not won't get a position or a contract at all.
Last week, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi made this offer to the protesters: 30 percent of government jobs would be given to graduates and 27,000 of the now jobless members of the Shia militias would be taken in by the security forces. But here, the parties will again push their own people to fill the vacancies.
To address the problems of Iraq's youth, jobs need to be created outside the government. The private sector should be stimulated, but a pension scheme must be set up for jobs outside the civil service to make them more attractive.
This can only happen if the parties agree to surrender some of their power and income. The decision lies with the very people who profit from the present situation, so the chance of anything changing is very slim. In the current situation, reforms can never be more than a new coat of paint on a derelict building.
Iraq has seen protests every summer since 2011, and the protestors' main grievances remain the same: Corruption and unemployment. Last summer, they were focused mainly on the oil city of Basra, where thousands were hospitalised after drinking tap water that was polluted due to a lack of investment in the water department.
Even though change was promised last year, as it was every year before that, the taps continue to release a toxic cocktail instead of drinking water.
The lack of change has left young Iraqis more frustrated than ever. Even if the Iraqi government manages to get them off the streets, their mood will not change.
Experience from the recent past should serve as a warning: When Iraqi governments ignored the protests and frustration of Iraqi Sunnis, who also felt deprived of their rights, this led to support for radical groups like IS, which took over a third of the country in 2014.
Protests will no longer be subdued, not even by guns and bullets. If their frustration is not addressed in a way that makes young people believe in a better future, radical groups are sure to exploit it once again.
Judit Neurink is a journalist, author and Middle East specialist who lived and worked in the Kurdistan region of Iraq from 2008-2018. She has written extensively for Dutch, Belgian and international press, and has authored several books.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.