Last week, the New York Times published one of its finest pieces of reporting this year. Written by Robert F. Worth, it’s an autopsy of post-Saddam Iraq, where the autocracy of the Baathist regime has given way to a kleptocracy in which “literally everything is for sale.” Worth depicts an Iraq that’s essentially a giant graft scheme, with elites cashing out while everyone else scrounges for scraps. Construction projects meant to create new community spaces or just fix up the local mosque sit half-finished, their funding either stolen or bottled up in disputes. Thuggish militias threaten violence to land lucrative contracts and establish monopolies.
All of this is made possible, naturally, by Uncle Sam. Every month, the Federal Reserve of New York, where the Iraqi government has an account, ships hefty sums of dollars to Baghdad. This cash is then ostensibly auctioned off to Iraqi banks, which are supposed to then lend it out. Instead the auction acts as a banquet for thieves and fraudsters, who have even created fake banks in order to launder money. And the corruption isn’t just limited to the financial system. The root of the problem is Iraq’s parliament, which, after every election, allows the winning parties to divvy up an ever-expanding number of civil service jobs. This is the linchpin of the graft: powerful positions are filled with cronies who then enable contract corruption and kickbacks, greased by pilfered dollars and enforced by militias.
Increasing numbers of Iraqis have grown fed up with this strip-mining of their country. Iraq has seen anti-corruption demonstrations before, during the Arab Spring and between 2015 and 2018. Yet the protests that spilled into the streets last autumn and have continued on and off are unlike anything since the fall of Saddam. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have participated, demanding an end to poverty, government malfeasance, and foreign interference by Iran and the United States. The protesters are disproportionately young, a new generation tired of having their futures conned away. Back in November, they even managed to force the resignation of Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi. And while the demonstrations have sometimes turned violent, that’s often been thanks to government forces and Shiite militias, which benefit from the current patronage system and seek to preserve it.
Driving the protests is an economy that’s been paralyzed by corruption. “My wish is to own just 50 square meters in this country,” one protester said. “I have a disabled son and two other children, I just want to care for them.” Elsewhere the Times reported of the demonstrators, “Many suggested the government is no better than the system in place before the American-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.” That’s a striking statement and a familiar one. Back in 2016, an AFP report found frustrated and impoverished Libyans pining for the days of Moammar Gaddafi, the dictator overthrown with help from a NATO intervention in 2011. Gaddafi was brutal, surely, but at least the electricity worked and you could withdraw money from the bank.
Whenever Washington supports toppling a dictator, it suffers from a failure of imagination. It can’t grasp that what comes afterwards might be worse than what’s already in place, whether a robber regime in Iraq or a failed state in Libya or an even more brutal dictator in Egypt. Instead it remains trapped in a series of abstract causes and effects, believing that the average man will favor freedom and freedom will translate into democracy and democracy will lift everyone up. Yet the average man also isn’t a nose-pierced democratic activist, laudable though such people might be. He cares about what kind of government presides over him, but he cares more, and firstly, about feeding his family. If he can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how power is in theory distributed, whether one is a member of the democratic club or not. That’s the calculus now facing many Iraqis, for whom too little has changed since Saddam’s statue was yanked down. That we spent so much money and blood to empower this nationalized looting ought to shame us more than it does.
The yearning for democratic representation is nothing as against the pang of an empty stomach. And so the question becomes whether Iraq can fix the latter by means of the former. That will first require scrubbing away the stain of endemic corruption, an enormous challenge given how many elements of Iraqi society are entangled therein—the militias, coexistence with Iran, the need for those dollars. Yet the most important necessity of all is that the government keep its legitimacy, and on that, the hour may be late.
As proof of how stark matters in Iraq have become, consider one of the country’s most enigmatic figures: Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is best known in the United States as the leader of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that in the early days of the occupation killed American troops. Yet since then, he’s reinvented himself as a kind of nationalist rabble-rouser. In 2016, he led formidable demonstrations in Baghdad that demanded an end to corruption and patronage.
Yet two years later, a political bloc controlled by Sadr, called Sairoon, won the largest number of seats in the Iraqi parliament. And when the next (and current) round of protests broke out, Sadr’s position was more muddled. His supporters initially showed up, only to be called back and then return in opposition to the reformers they’d marched with, according to reporting from the Washington Post. Sadr also issued a code of conduct for the demonstrations, calling for them to be gender-segregated and warning of “immorality”—which only served to peeve the women in the movement. Why the mixed signals? Some said it was because Sadr had joined the political class, which is true, but the protests themselves have changed too. As analyst Abbas Kadhim told the Post, “For Sadr, reform means a gradual movement towards putting the country on track rather than the radical reform that the protesters are taking about.” (Sadr the Burkean! What will 2020 bring next?)
That more balanced approach may ultimately leave Sadr trapped between two falling stilts, no longer able to exist in both worlds as the gap between them widens. Unstable oil prices, the coronavirus, a heat wave, electricity shortages, and the recent explosion in Beirut have all served to fuel the protest movement, which seems both unlikely to peter out any time soon and more revolutionary than those that came before. We in the West, accustomed to understanding Iraq through a sectarian identity politics lens—Sunnis versus Shias with the Kurds up north—may soon find our expectations scrambled. Instead Iraq looks a lot like many other places, divided along class lines with a populist appetite for change. Once Iraqis were oppressed by Saddam Hussein. Now they long to be free of the den of thieves we bequeathed them.
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