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‘Muhasasa’ and the scourge of divide and rule in Iraq

  • Tallha Abdulrazaq
  • 4 Dec 2019

The resignation of Iraq's prime minister will not send protesters home as long as the political system remains intact. So what exactly is this 'system' and why do so many Iraqis blame it for their problems?

Protesters stage a sit-in on barriers at the Ahrar Bridge during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. ( AP )

Former Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s political career imploded over the weekend leading some to speculate as to whether or not this would lead to protesters finally going home. Iraqis have been on the streets since the start of October. 

After all, they had sustained their campaign for root-and-branch reform of Iraq’s failed political system despite the unconscionable use of force by the authorities and their allied Iran-backed militias. Their perseverance and persistence in the face of more than 420 fatalities led to the country’s top politician to stand aside, triggering yet another search for a new premier.

Yet, Iraqis have made it clear that it is far too early to be happy with such accomplishments, and they will continue with the demonstrations until they fundamentally change the system that has had them under the boot of corrupt elites for close to 17 years.

Muhasasa as a tool of social domination

But what is this “system” that is frequently touted in the media but rarely discussed? The lack of discussion has led to a problem where global audiences who are not familiar with Iraqi politics misunderstand the concerns of the protesters. It has also allowed certain pro-regime elements to peddle the myth that the demonstrators are little more than rioters.

The fundamental issue with Iraqi politics is that it is based on the muhasasa system which is basically the division of the senior offices of the state amongst what are perceived to be the three primary demographics, namely; the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. 

The muhasasa system was set up by a coalition of exiled political groups from these three demographics at a conference in 1992, far predating the US-led illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. 

Interestingly, both the United States and Iran support the muhasasa system.

The rationale offered behind such a division was to ensure that the one-party rule of the Baathist regime could never return once toppled and that no one ethnic or sectarian group would be in a position of ultimate authority over the others. But this was undoubtedly a catastrophic decision for Iraqis, as power-sharing was seen as being preferable to building the conditions for a national consensus based on citizenship.

Clearly, the reason why both the US and Iran support this system is that it more effectively facilitates the age-old method of divide and rule to ensure that Iraq can never again stand on its own two feet and act with sovereignty. This means that the state is now no longer geared towards serving the interests of the people, but will instead serve the interests of foreign powers and vested interests. This is achieved by empowering interested groups who will protect the new status quo in order to facilitate their political and personal corruption at the expense of ordinary Iraqis.

This is evidently the case with Iran, as recent intelligence leaks paint a bleak picture of how Tehran has undermined any notion of an independent government in Baghdad in an act that can only be described as imperialistic

Even historical reporting from the region aptly demonstrated what these leaks confirmed, showing how figures like Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, wield considerable influence with Iraqi politicians. One of Iran’s client politicians, Mowaffak Al Rubaie, was even quoted as saying of Soleimani that “nothing gets done without him.”

That is in and of itself a damning indictment of the Iraqi political system, undermining propaganda spread by both Tehran and Washington that they both support the will of the Iraqi people having primacy over their nation’s affairs.

Citizenship as a basis for state-building

It goes without saying that a small group of political dissidents working under the auspices of both the US and Iranian governments to agree on the creation of the muhasasa system is no accident. Much like the colonial powers in the post-World War II era, both the US and Iran had a vested interest in keeping Iraqis at each other’s throats and incapable of uniting and forging their path.

Aside from their own experiences, Iraqis also have other instructive examples from the region about how the confessional and ethnic division of power simply does not work in a democracy. 

Lebanon is a prime example of how having a Sunni prime minister, a Shia parliamentary speaker, and a Christian president does absolutely nothing for strong and effective governance. The streets of the capital Beirut are literally flooded with heaped garbage that has not been disposed of, not to mention the political paralysis that has created an unprecedented economic crisis leading to mass protests against all the major confessional parties in the country.

An elite that has only its own interests at heart will do nothing to serve the public beyond paying basic lip-service to the notion of “the people”. Political parties who have a vested interest in controlling various ministries – and their hefty budgets – along sectarian lines only care about empowering their supporters while profiting handsomely from the nation’s coffers. 

UN figures show the Iraqi public sector was the largest employer, with 60 percent of full-time employment coming from government jobs in 2011. That number has undoubtedly increased as parties swell their ranks with people desperate to partake in the corrupt system simply because they need work.

Instead of the muhasasa system, what Iraq needs is a state that is based on national consensus forged through a common understanding of citizenship. The grassroots for such a consensus already exists as evidenced by the almost annual demonstrations and the fact that all demographics seem to agree on the causes of the major problems faced by the country judging by the protester demands. This will do away with the incessant factory line of weak coalition governments who cannot pass a legislative agenda due to the divisions within the legislature, and it will facilitate the formation of non-confessional parties who could run for office based on manifestos just like any other functioning democracy.

Until such fundamental change takes place, Iraq will continue to convulse with protests. It is no longer only one sect or ethnic group that has been impacted by the rampant corruption and sectarianism of the political elite, but all segments of Iraqi society. 

Clearly, enough is enough for the protesters and, short of killing them in the thousands and potentially triggering a civil war, the Iraqi authorities are going to have to seriously consider fundamental reform from the ground up.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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