In both respects, however, these observers would be wrong. The chants were a big deal. And the protests, while not entirely unprecedented, were nevertheless a sharp break from the norm. Because, for the first time in recent memory, Iraqis weren’t demanding their rights under the banner of any specific religious or ethnic group, but their rights as Iraqi citizens. And they weren’t demanding privileges—they were demanding the fall of a system that has worked to keep them apart, and that has been feeding into the pockets of corrupt elites to the detriment of ordinary citizens.
To understand why this embrace of nationality is so important, however, a look into the recent past is necessary. Under Iraq’s current model of ethno-sectarian balancing [paywall], established after the United States-led invasion of 2003, coalition governments hand out ministerial positions and budgets according to the proportion of the country’s sectarian populations—Shiite or Sunni Muslim Arabs, and Kurds. This has led to staggering corruption in which the elite’s control over government ministries, major enterprises, and media has actively worked to maintain the status quo. Spawned in the aftermath foreign occupation, this form of governance has benefitted few and served as little more than a failed attempt for perpetual ceasefire, rather than a sustainable system of government meeting the needs of the Iraqi people.
Corruption and sectarian favoritism in the public sector have played a major role in entrenching sectarian division among Iraqis and have led to rampant unemployment and lack of access to basic services. Transparency International ranks Iraq as the 18th most corrupt country in the world; according to official figures cited in a report from the Telegraph, since 2004, a remarkable $450 billion in public funds have been unaccounted for. Meanwhile, about a quarter of the country’s young population is unemployed, while access to clean water and electricity is unreliable at best.