Iraq is currently witnessing a huge discrepancy between the performance of the political class and the security, social and economic pressures experienced by the people.
Despite its apparent failure in dealing with the security, economic and social issues that have placed Iraq at the top of the list of “failed states,” the political class decided to reward itself with unprecedented privileges, expressing extreme indifference toward the voters.
During the past few years, the legislative, executive and independent institutions issued decrees that granted their members very high salaries and huge additional privileges. Lawmakers earn an estimated $22,500 each month in salary and allowances for housing and security. In contrast, a mid-level government employee makes around $600 a month.
While these extensive privileges were supposed to serve as motivation for the lawmakers to work harder, failure continues to plague the Iraqi parliament, which seems unable to hold frequent meetings because of the chronic absence of more than half of its members.
The fact is that Iraq is a rentier country where the political elite oversees the distribution of oil revenues in a way that serves its interests. An equitable relationship between taxation and representation does not exist in rentier states, where the ruling elite practically turn into owners that distribute the wealth as it sees fit, while the people become dependent on donations from the rulers.
Such a relationship had explicitly existed under the regime of former President Saddam Hussein. The official media outlets of the time used to label any financial or material grant given by the government to the citizens as a “gift from the leadership.”
Such rhetoric no longer exists today, but the investment of the easy money from oil proceeds still serves the goals of political forces. The political conflict is basically about each group seeking to control a greater share of the oil revenues.
The new factor now emerging is that despite the deadly violence perpetrated at the hands of terrorist organizations and the repression practiced by government security authorities under the pretext of confronting terrorist groups, many Iraqis are showing the determination to address this situation.
At the beginning of September, a new wave of protests started in Baghdad and several Iraqi cities. This time around, protests seemed to have more modest demands and clearer objectives. They came as a result of an organized process that started several months ago, specifically through a Facebook page under the title of “Campaign for the Cancellation of the Parliamentarians’ Pensions.”
This campaign called to cancel the huge pensions obtained by the parliament members, as well as the large privileges enjoyed by officials inconsistent with the living standard of a country where large segments of the population suffer from poverty, unemployment and the absence of public services.
Some criticized this campaign, finding that it focused on a secondary and limited issue instead of key problems such as the escalating violence, growing authoritarianism of the state apparatus, rampant corruption and the sectarian distribution of quotas, among others.
Some critics of the prime minister considered that focusing on criticizing the parliament members’ privileges only serves Nouri al-Maliki’s policies, which aim to weaken the Council of Representatives at a time when he is expanding his influence.
Supporters of the campaign believe, however, that addressing corruption must start by dealing with what they deem "masked corruption," exemplified by legislation that grant senior officials significant privileges. According to them, the parliament should reform itself and act as a responsible institution in order to be able to reform the rest of the institutions and fight corruption in the executive branch. After all, it is the only institution capable of issuing legislation that limits those privileges.
Following the demonstrations, the government was forced to announce a bill whereby the pensions of parliament members and senior officials would be reduced. It refused, however, to grant a license to the demonstrations, and the security apparatus violently suppressed the demonstrators. The contradictory position of the government reveals a hidden fear of the evolution of protests to a continuous popular movement that could spin out of control.
The maneuvers of the political class were not limited to the executive, as they also included parliament. Whereas the parliament resists the demonstrators’ demand to cancel its members’ pensions, the speaker and some of its members denounced the security forces’ suppression of demonstrators. And while the parliamentary blocs promised to review the salary issue, the parliament refused to discuss the issue at its meeting held two days later.
It is safe to say that the symbolic dimensions of this protest movement are more important than the explicit demands.
As faith in political parties degenerated due to the general feeling that these parties have failed to adequately rule the country, achieve peace or work for economic and social development, the political vacuum widened. Some civilian groups and others that focus on political, social, economic or cultural issues started to fill this vacuum.
Remarkably, these demonstrations started upon the initiative of individuals who do not belong to any political party and do not enjoy the sponsorship of any religious view. The demonstrations were free of any sectarian slogans and a significant number of intellectuals and secular writers took part in them.
The ethnic and sectarian political groups have thus far benefited from the deep social divide that prevented the emergence of civil, cross-sectarian movements, strengthening their grip over the federal and local authorities and using a large part of the state's resources to their own ends.
Thus, the emergence of a genuine protest movement motivated by non-ethnic or sectarian reasons will constitute a significant challenge for this system and perhaps provide a useful way to redefine the political struggle and move it beyond an ethnic and sectarian conflict to a socioeconomic one. Yet, there is still a way to go before this protest movement matures and turns into an active popular movement, given the sectarian divisions and the escalating violence that continue to impede its development.
Harith Hasan is an Iraqi scholar and the author of Imagining the Nation: Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq. On Twitter: @harith_hasan