Yesterday a large number of Iraqi Shi’a stormed into the Green Zone in protest and occupied the Iraqi Parliament. The immediate driver of this activity was a call by Muqtada al Sadr for the Iraqi Parliament to actually convene and take a vote on pending legislation to force Iraqi Prime Minister al Abadi to replace ministers with non-partisan technocrats. The real cause of the unrest is with the way power is currently portioned out within the Iraqi government, which is partially done by sectarian allotment among Sunni Arabs, Shi’a Arabs, and Kurds. When the current Iraqi government’s institutions and structures were being rebuilt one of the reforms was a very, very soft form of consociational (confessional) representation. Perhaps the best known example of this type of system is in Lebanon where certain numbers of seats in the Lebanese Parliament and certain ministerial and military positions are reserved for members of specific Lebanese sects in order to force power sharing, compromise, and the creation of a functional civil space among the often hostile and antagonistic Lebanese sects.
Iraq’s system isn’t a full consociational system as the elections to Parliament are based on party lists, not sectarian quotas regarding seats. Though in practice the party lists have produced a Shi’a majority bloc, with both Kurdish, Sunni, and mixed sectarian minority blocs within the Iraqi Parliament. Iraq’s consociational system instead focuses on having some ministerial positions allotted in a consociational manner to force power sharing and compromise. It has, unfortunately, not always worked effectively, and has been a source of serious contention, and a conduit for corruption. One of Prime Minister al Abadi’s goals has been the reform of this system by transitioning it away from consociationalism based on sectarian confession (Shi’a and Sunni) and ethnicity (Kurd) and towards a technocratic form of government. Unfortunately this has been stalled out; largely because those currently benefiting from the consociational system don’t want to give up those benefits so the legislation is stalled and a quorum cannot be produced in Parliament. The longer it drags on, the more the frustration grows. And today a lot of that boiled over. The good news is that the Iraqi Security Forces are not treating this as a type of activity that requires a counterterrorism response. This is a very good sign and watching the response of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Interior Ministry will provide us with important information going forward.
Baghdad is itself currently in a state of emergency. Al Sadr has called for his followers to leave Parliament and instead sit in and occupy Grand Festivities Square. Earlier today the angry occupiers ran many of the Iraqi Parliamentarians out of the building and chased them through the streets, while others took shelter until it was safe to leave. It is important to remember that because of the security measures put into place under the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Interim Iraqi Government, this is the first time since 2003 that any Iraqi not part of the government and having business within the parliament building has actually been inside the Iraqi Parliament. While that in and of itself is truly revolutionary it is not clear whether the al Abadi government will be able to survive the crisis, which adds one more layer of complexity to Iraqi and American attempts to reduce and attrit the Islamic State and manage Iraqi Sectarian divisions to prevent a full fledged civil war.
It is unclear where things go from here. The Iraqi electoral process has always been held together with willpower, baling wire, and duct tape. As a result Iraq’s Parliament and government have never had full or widespread legitimacy. It is possible that cooler heads will prevail now that a scare has been put into the Iraqi Members of Parliament and progress will be made. It is also possible that the al Abadi government could fall or, even worse, the current Iraqi government structure could fail. Holding elections among the current Sectarian unrest and the challenges posed by the Islamic State would be hard enough to successfully complete. Having to reconceptualize and rebuild the Iraqi governmental structure would be something unprecedented, if it could even be done, under these conditions. As has too often been the case in Iraq over the past thirteen years, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
(Full disclosure: I know several elected members of Iraq’s national parliament who I met when deployed to Iraq in 2008. Two of them were classified as terrorists by the previous Prime Minister, al Maliki, in 2010 in order to flip the election results in his favor as they were on Ayad Allawi’s party list.)