War, destruction, suppression, and revolution at the crossroads of the Old World; a vicious cycle of instability that has crushed Middle Eastern hopes for truly democratic institutions. Time and time again, belligerent forces from within and without have made democratic protest a dangerous occupation. The modern history of Iraq is a history shared, at least in part, by many of its neighbors. On one hand, occupation under Ottoman hegemony. Exploitation through neo-colonialism after the conflicts of the early 20th century. Islamic fundamentalism, interstate conflict, and foreign intervention. The most recent 50 years of Iraqi politics have been overshadowed in some part by violence. On the other, periods of rapid economic development hand-in-hand with growth of political rights. Attempts at legitimate, secular institutions to create civil society. A profound spirit of resilience through the hardships that have been inflicted on the Arab peoples for centuries. The result? A region at a crossroads of democratic erosion; two paths laid bare before governing officials and citizens. One towards a state of progress and further democratization. The other, a far-too-familiar backslide into authoritarianism. A perilous situation, but hope is found in the citizens who speak and act for a free society.
Recent demonstrations in Baghdad from 2019-2021 for a more equitable government were met with tremendous resistance. The protestors’ goal: eliminate corruption in leadership. The inefficiency of the current government had led to a breakdown of public services. An economy unfriendly to the Iraqi working and middle class due to a stagflationary trend ensured wages fell while unemployment grew. The failure of the Iraqi economy to promote social mobility and the lack of functional education services seem to support an economic-civic theory of democratization. Due to the economic crisis, wealth inequality, a disenfranchised middle class, short-term regime change was inevitable. Regardless, without a proper financial and service net in place, the Iraqi population became restless, demanding immediate change-a demand met with rifle fire.
Disproportionate-and at times indiscriminate-violence was on the menu. Assisted by Iranian paramilitary forces, riot police fired tear gas canisters as projectiles-sometimes hitting demonstrators in the head-causing deaths and serious head trauma. Live ammunition was also circulated and occasionally used against the overwhelmingly unarmed protestors. Some younger members of the demonstrations responded in kind with rocks, molotov cocktails, and re-thrown police projectiles. The result of the skirmishes in the capital was a death toll over one thousand. Nearly 40,000 also wounded and several thousand arrested. But the sacrifice of Iraqi citizens was not without merit. As a direct result of the unrest, sitting Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi resigned. Election reform was pushed through parliament and subsequent elections resulted in a loss of power for pro-Iranian groups, likely due to Iranian involvement in anti-protest actions.
However, all is not well in the oil-rich Arab republic. Slow progress towards a working government in the new balance of parliamentary power is creating what Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, calls “risky business, with potentially far-reaching consequences undermining Iraq’s stability in the short and long run”. Inability to create a functional coalition is not a new issue in parliamentary democracies. Indeed, Germany also experienced difficulties in their new government after the most recent round of elections. However, a mark of functional republics is the ability to move past these troubles and create a government for the sake of the voter base. This is not the case in Iraq, at least not yet. The most troubling implication of this stagnation of polity is the potential for another power vacuum to swallow up dreams of Iraqi democracy. As observed in the country’s recent past, power vacuums create even worse conditions for the citizens in the long-term. Indeed, the Middle East’s late 20th-early 21st century politics and conflicts could be studied through a lens of how political vacuums are filled.
So how can Iraq move forward past this difficulty and realize the peoples’ ambitions of a free, democratic society? The democratic path is certainly the more difficult one; it will require the patience and dedication of both electors and elected, majority and minority. Unfortunately, a few “bumps in the road” may further obstruct the citizens’ goals. One such issue is a creeping increase in the popularity of populist politics and political parties in Iraqi elections. Said parties are absolutely a contributor to Iraq’s government-formation issue, and will likely shape political discourse in the legislation for several years. Parties such as the Sadrist movement (the 2021 elections’ biggest winner) that rely on religious identity politics and populist talking points are chilling reminders that authoritarian-style ideology still has a grip on much of the world, and it requires only the right conditions in order to manifest itself out from behind the shadows of free society.