Iraqi politicians’ continued failure to form a functioning government calls for a reexamination of the country’s current political system, al-muhasasa al-ta‘ifiya—a sectarian apportionment of political positions, also known as consociationalism. Given Iraq’s political deadlock, it is clear that a different, more effective system must be introduced and implemented. Despite experts’ recommendations for various anti-sectarian systems that could govern Iraq’s multiethnic and religiously diverse society, the current system has become rooted in the country’s identity, making change difficult to come by. But the reality is that the muhasasa system continues to hinder the country’s development across many sectors.
Perhaps most significantly, the muhasasa system lies at the root of the seemingly endless corruption that has penetrated every ministry and agency in Iraq, and that takes an outsized toll on the country’s poorer citizens. In order to create a new and more just system, however, it is necessary to first better understand the development of the muhasasa system and its deep impact on Iraq’s economic, social, and political sectors.
The Beginning of Legalized Corruption
The 2003 US Invasion of Iraq under the premise—later disproven—that Saddam Hussein was in possession of nuclear weapons, devastated the country economically, socially, and, most importantly, politically. The United States focused its efforts on the military aspects of the invasion rather than creating a post-conflict reconstruction plan, and therefore formed the Iraqi Interim Government, which was to govern until a new constitution was drafted, and which effectively brought back angry exiled officials who subsequently found refuge in American support and were handed seats in the government.
The United States focused its efforts on the military aspects of the invasion rather than creating a post-conflict reconstruction plan.
In 2005, this transitional government fulfilled one of its main tasks, successfully drafting Iraq’s new constitution after preventing the United States from doing it in their place. But as was to be expected, the United States supervised and therefore heavily influenced the writing of the constitution, which represented a destructive rather than productive approach to governing Iraq. The new constitution, which required that certain government positions be filled by individuals of a specific ethnic or sectarian background, essentially served as an instruction manual for corruption. And this is what began the nightmare that Iraq continues to live to this day.
Although the muhasasa system was originally created early in the 1990s during a meeting of the Iraqi opposition, it was first implemented in 2005, and was intended to ensure proportional representation for the three main groups in Iraq: Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. The system requires that the president be a Kurdish Iraqi, the vice president a Sunni Muslim, and the prime minister a Shia Muslim. The system was also designed to empower the elites representing these three different communities, which is where things could, and did, go very wrong. Instead of the muhasasa system working to manage the sectarian violence in Iraq that once took the form of wars, attacks, and bombings, it simply turned this violence into an institutionalized war that is controlled by elites and that causes arguably even greater damage than that of physical violence.
Who Benefits from the System?
In the beginning, the people who benefited from the system were those responsible for bringing it to the country: the exiled opposition, which included members of all three main groups. Powerful elites were thus able to benefit from the muhasasa system, as it guaranteed their political positions due to their ethnic-sectarian identity. But this sectarian-based governance system made it easy for officials to use their background to ensure success by employing propaganda aimed at those of the same sect and advocating for the election or reelection of party members.
Even today, Iraq’s elites remain the beneficiaries of the system, to the detriment of most Iraqi citizens. This is evident in the fact that both before and during Iraq’s October 2019 protests, Iraqi citizens took to the streets demanding jobs, security, and access to basic rights. Meanwhile, some intellectuals and experts were busy proposing government reforms, including election reforms, which were indeed enacted into law in November 2020. The new provisions set four-year parliamentary terms and allowed the Council of Representatives to be dissolved by a majority vote of its members. Although the new provisions are a step in the right direction, they do not address some of the 2019 protesters’ main concerns, such as the designation of districts or seat allocations within districts. In addition, while protesters demanded the end of the muhasasa system and the start of a new era, they faced great opposition from elites who wanted to retain the system that continues to grant them power.
While protesters demanded the end of the muhasasa system and the start of a new era, they faced great opposition from elites who wanted to retain the system that continues to grant them power.
The division of control over ministries in the muhasasa system has further hindered progress toward a productive and responsive Iraqi government. In today’s caretaker government, for instance, the majority of ministries are held by Shia politicians, and the minority by Sunnis, with a few other ministries jointly controlled by Yazidis, Christians, Shabaks, and other minority ethnic and religious groups of Iraq. Despite elections that have the potential to bring new faces to government, the parties controlling the ministries typically remain the same, and Shia politicians nearly always administer the most important ministries—a situation that is by design, as the muhasasa system was created to prevent a second Sunni Baathist uprising.
By controlling essential ministries, Shia parties can maintain their power in the country. Their hegemony is compounded by the fact that they also currently hold a majority in parliament. As a result, favors between ministers and high-level officials are seemingly endless. But this power is not limitless, as this sectarian division of control can stifle productive efforts if, say, one of the Shia ministries requires the Kurdish President’s approval of an issue that might be deemed controversial among the Kurdish population, or if a Sunni-led ministry needs the cooperation of a Shia-controlled ministry.
Two countries have been the main beneficiaries of the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and of the muhasasa system. Although the United States complied with demands that the framers of Iraq’s constitution be elected and not US-appointed, it still made indirect efforts to influence the drafting of the constitution, cultivating relationships with council members willing to protect the new status quo in exchange for empowerment by the United States. Furthermore, it attempted to instill fear in the masses about the possibility of a single-party Baathist regime returning to power if the muhasasa system were not implemented, thus ensuring that its divide and conquer strategy would be successful. This would guarantee that Iraq’s internal divisions would prevent it from ever becoming self-sufficient in any sector, forcing it to rely on foreign countries like the United States, Iran, and Middle East neighbors. Iraq thus became a weak country that was easily looted, exploited, and forced to suffer from poor governance.
Iran has always been a significant player in Iraq’s political affairs and policies. As the region’s most predominantly Shia country, Iran rejoiced at the election of Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2006, especially following years of having been neighbors with Iraq’s Sunni Baathist regime. Iran’s influence really took off, however, when in 2005 it helped Iraq assemble the National Iraqi Alliance (initially the United Iraqi Alliance), a Shia Islamist bloc that includes the country’s major Shia political groups, such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Islamic Dawa Party, and the Sadrist Movement. The alliance met with remarkable success in the 2005 election, winning 128 of parliament’s 275 total seats. By providing strong support for such a large bloc in parliament, Iran knew that it would be able to secure influence over Iraqi politics.
By providing strong support for a large bloc of Shia parties in Iraq’s parliament, Iran knew that it would be able to secure influence over Iraqi politics.
Especially after the rise and fall of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, Iran’s strong involvement and its focus on gaining the upper hand in the country while simultaneously competing with the United States has been exposed on numerous occasions. For example, an article published by the New York Times leaked Iranian intelligence cables that suggest that former Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was elected due to his close relations with Iran. The article also details how Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and especially its Quds Force branch, work to influence Iraqi politics through bribery and espionage. This influence was essentially handed to Iran, a result of the muhasasa system’s emphasis on sectarian divisions, since the Islamic Republic was on excellent terms with the Shia parties that dominate the system. Today, Iran treats Iraq’s affairs and resources as if they were its own.
The Power and Promise of Protest
One of the most effective means for peacemaking and conflict resolution is a “bottom-up” approach, which requires that facilitators consult with residents of the countries or regions involved to ensure that plans do not overlook any potential cultural or political insights. Facilitators are then expected to empower ideas provided by local actors in ways that produce a successful peacekeeping and reconstruction plan. During the 2019 protests in Iraq, the youth leading the revolt encouraged many conversations about the government, society, and the future of the country, conversations that took place at all levels of society, including at home, in school, and at the countless book fairs that were held in the streets during the protests.
Out of these conversations arose new voices and new parties, including the Imtidad (Extension) Movement, led by Alaa al-Rikabi, a pharmacist and social activist who gained significant support from his fellow protesters. In Iraq’s 2021 parliamentary elections, Imtidad demonstrated that Iraq need not remain stuck in a sectarian system, winning nine seats—a number that is not far from that held by older, more established parties. This win was the first move toward a bottom-up resolution approach in which citizen-led political movements become the essence of change in the country.
As part of its mission statement, Imtidad works to bring more independent parliamentary representatives into its movement to eliminate the muhasasa system and to establish a true democracy.
As part of its mission statement, Imtidad works to bring more independent parliamentary representatives into its movement to eliminate the muhasasa system and to establish a true democracy. But despite Imtidad’s presence in parliament, further development is needed to increase the movement’s impact and allow it to achieve its goals. In order to do this, it must expand its strong social media presence into an impactful physical presence as well, including programs and events that would allow it to increase its popularity among a broad section of society. However, Imtidad lacks both the funds and the political training that could help it achieve these goals.
Common political strategies could make a significant change in an Iraqi political campaign, and are not too difficult to adopt. For example, outreach seminars and talks on college campuses could target politically oriented students who are interested in gaining real-life campaign experience and offer them internships. Getting the youth involved would not only bring new and much-needed perspectives to the movement, but would also enhance the next generation of Iraqi politicians and activists’ knowledge about political affairs and parliamentary procedures
The background of Imtidad’s members makes the movement well-positioned to conduct outreach programs that target the youth using their own language. The movement is composed of middle-class citizens who have minimal political experience, which in this context is actually beneficial. Imtidad’s members can therefore communicate with the masses without resorting to a confusing politico-speak; they simply need a larger platform to help them do so. The movement must therefore utilize public appearances and make its talks and speeches available online to ensure its message reaches the largest possible number of Iraqi citizens.
The middle-class background of Imtidad’s members not only helps it connect with voters, it also helps prevent it from taking part in government corruption, as the movement’s members were themselves victims of the current corrupt system. In fact, ridding the country of this corruption is the main change they set out to achieve. But the movement is politically new, and therefore must participate in parliamentary procedures, undergo political opposition and friction, and face political challenges. Imtidad must therefore expend great effort to develop its political training for members, whether through in-person and online seminars, assistance in obtaining political or policy-related degrees and certificates, or other forms of training. This would allow the movement to build a stronger base for future elections and prepare for a potentially long-lasting presence in the Iraqi political scene.
Imtidad is a political movement, and therefore must participate in parliamentary procedures, undergo political opposition and friction, and face political challenges.
Imtidad must also work harder to cater to the needs of the youth in ways that allow them to view the political climate of the country in a more positive way. This can be done by providing opportunities for art, music, theater, poetry, and other artistic modes of expression in which young people can participate. This would help cultivate the sense of cooperation and hope that the youth need in order to partake in this challenging mission to change an entire political system. By encouraging a sense of community among Iraq’s youth, Imtidad and others can work to ensure that future generations no longer remain focused on ethnic, gender, and sectarian divisions, but instead finally become capable of mobilizing the value of unity in order to remove the corrupt muhasasa system and build a brighter future for all of Iraq.