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Now we have hundreds of oppressors: Iraq's false democracy

Unelected Iraqis with positions of power and influence should be held to account for their role in the division of Iraq

Recently, a phrase has become popular among Iraqis. “At least in the time of Saddam we had one oppressor, now we have hundreds,” they say to one another.

With the world’s eyes currently on the Mosul offensive and the drive to reduce the territory held by the Islamic State (IS), little attention is placed on the ideologies that resulted in the creation of such groups.

Thirteen years on and only Tunisia is considered a democracy in the Middle East

Or on the ongoing, broken system of the political elite which has kept the same select few in power and has allowed corruption to rise unchecked.

If, following the more or less guaranteed liberation of Mosul, the systems that fostered the creation of IS remain, lasting peace will be as unstable as Mosul’s infrastructure following IS’s destruction of the city.

The characteristics of democracy vary from country to country and region to region, with no universally agreed upon definition to date. Participation in elections does not constitute democratic freedoms. After all, Saddam Hussein held regular elections during his time in power.

Yet one of the principal motivations for the US-led coalition to invade Iraq, in what was dubbed “Operation Liberation”, was to bring democracy to the region. Britain's Tony Blair highlighted this in his famous speech during the parliamentary debate two days before the invasion: “Let the future government of Iraq be given the chance to begin the process of uniting the nation's disparate groups, on a democratic basis.”

Thirteen years on and only Tunisia is considered a democracy in the Middle East.

Same faces, different decade

Since 2003, Iraq has been burdened with mostly the same faces on the political scene. Politicians such as Nouri al-Maliki, Ayad Allawi, Fuad Masum and many others have all been lurking in the political sphere, pushing for various roles in government despite previously failed forays into power.

In contrast, during the same period the UK has seen four prime ministers come and go, with many more opposition leaders leaving politics.

Meanwhile, Maliki, although unable to gain the majority required to remain in power after the 2014 elections, refuses to concede the prime minister’s palace to his successor, Haider Al-Abadi.

In 2014, Nouri al-Maliki casts his vote in Iraq's first parliamentary election since US troops withdrew from the country (AFP)
This echoes the likes of Donald Trump who recently created a media storm for suggesting he would not concede defeat if Hillary Clinton wins the upcoming US elections.

Nonetheless, despite his stark polarisation of public opinion which is not beneficial for a country with multiple, deep-seated divisions, Maliki is still pushing to retake power within Iraq, funding various works of propaganda, including a feature-length documentary.

It took David Cameron a few hours to announce his resignation as prime minister following defeat in the Brexit vote. Years after Maliki’s defeat in Iraq’s elections, he still insists on his role as PM.

Fake democracy

Hundreds of mini-oppressors – as the new saying goes - have taken their seats in a pseudo-democracy within Iraq, creating a cross between a democracy and authoritarian regime, dubbed a “hybrid system” by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index.

Although elections take place, the influence of nepotism cannot be denied in Iraq. Take as an example the recently selected head of the largest bloc in parliament, the Shia National Alliance, Ammar Al-Hakim, also head of the Islamic Supreme Council political party.

Al-Hakim, a young Iraqi who has spent a major portion of his life in neighbouring Iran and has little political and educational experience, took a position of power in Iraq following the death of his father, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, who was conveniently given a position of power after the death of his older brother, Mohammad Baqir Al-Hakim.

A black and white picture of Saddam Hussein flanked by his sons Uday and Qusay (AFP)
This principle of inherited power has been present in Iraq for decades, from the previous monarchy to the assumption that the heir of Saddam’s presidency would be one of his sons, Uday or Qusay.

Similarly, Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rose to fame in light of his father and uncle’s previous achievements, not necessarily due of his own merit, reasserting the notion that democracy in Iraq is a mere illusion.

Together, without a single vote cast in their direction, Al-Hakim and Sadr hold a significant amount of power in Iraq. Although neither hold high official positions, their realms of influence are greater than positions held by people in ministerial roles.

Many Iraqi MPs have committed their loyalty to either figure, who are seen as spiritual leaders. That’s a troubling concept as, being men of religion, they are outside the remit of accountability or questioning.

The return of fear

Fear of authoritarian figures has trickled back into society. Recently, during a taxi ride in Baghdad, the driver, in what is a common topic of conversation in taxi journeys in Iraq, claimed to me that Ammar Al-Hakim was pocketing a substantial amount of money from car imports from Iran.

But after I jokingly suggested that the other passenger was from the Hakim family, the driver quickly backtracked and I could see fear in his eyes.

Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can put you in a difficult situation with various militias who occasionally patrol the streets of Baghdad in their military garb, severely limiting the possibility of government accountability, both by spreading fear in society to not question their roles and by taking on the role of the state.

A photograph of Moqtada Al-Sadr and his deceased father hanging in a Tuk Tuk in Baghdad (MEE/Ahmed Twaij)
The elite’s political system is evident wherever you go. Cars are frequently branded with logos of the political party to which they are affiliated and therefore expect various road privileges in Baghdad’s busy streets

Often in hospitals, if a patient comes from an elite political family, doctors will be forced to treat them first despite patients who are sicker. “Do you know what family he is from?” often echoes across the streets and corridors of Iraq.

Contempt for elite

This corruption has resulted in a huge lack of confidence in the Iraqi government with approval ratings constantly deteriorating. The result is that systems outside the Weberian concept of a state, like the historic tribal system for example, have greater ability to implement the law than the government.

When I explained what happened to an Iraqi colleague, he responded, 'They deserve it' 

Last month, a car bomb exploded at the entrance to the Green Zone, a heavily secured area in Baghdad reserved for government officials. When I explained what happened to an Iraqi colleague, he responded, “They deserve it.” The detachment of average Iraqis from the political elite is evident.

Prior to the 2014 elections, I recall a significant anti-Hakim sentiment across Iraq. However, on one occasion, walking past a football stadium, I found a substantial gathering of people, waving flags in support of Al-Hakim as they watched him speak live via satellite.

Being inquisitive, I asked some of those attending about the sudden support for Al-Hakim. “We were given free water and clothes,” many of the people told me.

In much the same way, Saddam Hussein was able to entice crowds to celebrate his arrival into various cities across Iraq. The influence of corruption, buying votes and limited freedom of press all contribute to the limitation of Iraq’s democracy.

'Thank God for our democracy'

Walking the streets of Baghdad, it does not take long before forced upon you is the staged smile of one of the political elites, commonly dressed in military uniform despite the fact that they have no intention to reach the frontlines.

These plastered, unsightly placards often have photographs of the individual’s relatives alongside them to reinforce their claim to power, reminding Iraqis that their rise was not necessarily on based on merit.

One of the many photographs of Ammar Al-Hakim found across Iraq (MEE/Ahmed Twaij)
It is already enough that the faces of these individuals are forced onto Iraqis everyday on the street, but now Ammar Al-Hakim uses social media, paying for sponsored photographs of himself on Instagram to incorporate his presence in all aspects of daily life. 

With elections coming up soon in Iraq and with no clear alternatives provided, it appears that the same faces will dominate the political scene.

Instead, Iraq needs an overhaul of its political system. Unelected individuals with positions of power and influence should be held to account for their role in the division of Iraq.

In a system where the president must be Kurdish, the prime minister Shia and the deputy prime minister Sunni, sectarian divisions are only going to be deepened, adding to the list of failures by the first unelected and inexperienced official to govern over Iraq, Paul Bremer.

If Mosul is to remain secure post-liberation, Iraq’s political scene must counter the divisions that paved the way for IS to enter the scene.

In the 1940s, Aziz Ali, a satirical Iraqi singer, wrote a sarcastic song that the government tried to censor, the song included the line: “Thank God for our democracy”, one that 70 years on still applies to today’s Iraq.

Ahmed Twaij is a British doctor, born to Iraqi parents, currently researching in Iraq for a Masters in Global Health with Conflict, Security and Development from King's College London. He is also a freelance writer and photojournalist. He is a curator of EverydayIraq online photography blog. You can follow him on Twitter @twaiji

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Smoke billows from al-Dorra oil refinery in Baghdad behind a portrait of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 05 February 2003 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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