Protests bring Iraq's muhasasa system to its knees

Protests bring Iraq's muhasasa system to its knees
5 min read

Nazli Ihsan-Adil Tarzi

24 December, 2019
Comment: Iraqis have wholesale rejected a system that fostered corruption and inequality, but a viable alternative is yet to present itself, writes Nazli Tarzi.
In Baghdad, the faces of candidates appear on placards emblazoned with red crosses [Getty]
Since 1 October, Iraq's quota-based mode of governance known as 'muhasasa' has been in remission, after protests denouncing a system as inherently corrupt swept the nation. 

Unforgivable violence from state forces, abductions and hundreds of martyred young people has brought the muhasasa to its knees.

The political model, born in Beirut following the cessation of hostilities and the 1989 Taif Accord advances a mirage of representation, and places the key to prized ministries in the hands of inexperienced politicians who have bled state resources dry, through contracts and clientelistic appointments.

The situation has reached a tipping point in not only Iraq, but Lebanon too. The people are staging their own coup, as politicians scramble to disassociate themselves from corrupt parties and claim 'independence'.

The people's coup

Chanting crowds of protesters have grown impatient with a system of spoils that feeds only the upper echelons; politicians, affiliate militias and non-state religious actors, and keeps the poor hungry.

Extensions to its shelf-life, in the form of clerical intervention in the political realm have proven ineffective after 16 years of indignity. The system has waded so deep into corruption that its vestigates cannot be coddled by international allies who recognise the level the elite has sunk to.

Anti-graft, election management bodies and courts are used as political tools to preserve the structures of the muhasasa. However, a nation in revolt has toppled them - denying the ruling class the legitimacy on which its survival depends. This was further demonstrated by the hijacking of government servers several weeks ago.

Cracks within the muhasasa system have for years been papered over with promises of technocratic rule

An alternative power sharing formula?

An alternative to the unworkable power-sharing formula whose screws have loosened, is yet to be proposed. The post-2003 arrangement during the country's Anglo-American invasion satisfied the western-architected conception of Iraq as a society that delineates neatly into three ethno-sectarian groups; Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The people the system is designed to represent remain empty-handed.

Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's decision to step down after the death toll climbed to 400 under his watch, failed to tame public anger.

Political scrambling and discord among parties unable to agree on an interim prime minister has marked the next phase, after the constitutional deadline passed a week ago. The mantra 'either me or chaos' is a convenient evasion of guilt which caretaker PM Abdul-Mahdi has voiced. However, if the current impasse is anything to go by, Iraq's Tehran-sanctioned elite is not yet prepared to sacrifice the monopoly Iran has gained over governing structures.

Militia commander of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali's insistence on US-backed developments, from Abdul Mahdi's resignation to Ayatollah Sistani's early elections panacea, were mocked by activists online for pedaling conspiratorial thinking.

Iraqi satirist Ahmad al-Bashir posed the question to Khazali on twitter, "How is that the Marjiyya has backed a US-manoeuvred remedy?" Meanwhile, Green Zone elites and their backers in Washington and Tehran are unwilling to toy with alternative formulas.

Constitutional quagmire 

Political analyst Yahya al-Kubaisi dismissed proposals brought forward this week as delusional and self-serving, after parliament failed to approve amendments to the election law last Wednesday. The session plunged the elite into another legislative duel. Parliamentary speaker Mohammad al-Halbousi was forced to adjourn the session after Kurdish MPs, alongside members of the Sunni bloc, boycotted the vote.

Opinions are split most noticeably over article 15 that proposes changes to the country's electoral system; a candidate-centred versus a party centred system. The political scene has been denounced on the streets and within parliament for privileging larger blocs at the exclusion of smaller parties and independent voices. 

Another controversy hovered over the proposal to divide up Iraq's electoral management body into nine commissioners. "The multiplication of government appointed bodies is an attempt to reinstate tools of patronage at the elite's disposal" a Baghdad-based expert told me. The draft ignores both the absence of oversight and the spotty record of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.

The game of musical chairs will do little to win over protesting masses

Candidates tussle over premiership

The game of musical chairs will do little to win over protesting masses.

"They're reshuffling an old deck" one 24-year-old Iraqi told me via Telegram "but we're not leaving Tahrir" the public square where protesters have set up Camp for the past six weeks.

Across the bustling mini-state, the faces of candidates appear on placards emblazoned with red crosses. "These men are not deserving and will do everything in their power to help this broken system back to its feet," he said.

From Mohamed Shia al-Sudani, to Barham Salih, Qusay al-Suhail and Faiq Al Sheikh Ali, no candidate was spared defacement. 

An officer-led government? 

Cracks within the muhasasa system have for years been papered over with promises of technocratic rule, but even this failed to address the thorny question over the future of unwieldy militias responsible for countless deaths since protests erupted.

The technocratic intervention of former PM Haider al-Abadi and successor Abdul Mahdi offered no countervailing strategy to the coalition of militias whose interests compete with those of the state.

Read more: EU delegation urges Iraq to end violence against protestors, enforced disappearances

Militias loyal to Iran have cemented a foothold along border areas that serve as important corridors for human and arms trafficking. These activities challenge licit markets locally, and cause irreversible harm to a system struggling to claw back sovereignty.

One aide to the defence ministry touted the idea of an officer-led or civilian transitional government overseen by US-trained military officers. The source retreats into the past decade of US-led reconstruction efforts within the security sector, arguing that suitable candidates do exist.

Other scenarios include a weakened federalised state, total collapse, a more furiously invasive role for Iran, or further disintegration as the centre crumbles.

Voter satisfaction will be difficult to restore as the masses reject the electoral mechanisms that have been feeding the people's appetite for democracy, as well as the elite's greed for the muhasasa.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs. 

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi

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.