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Between Reform and Legitimacy. An Analytic Perspective on the 2011 Protests

The Arab region has recently witnessed a wave of protests with varying end-results; these protest movements have shared similarities, as well as differences, as to their impetus and motivations. Iraq also saw some protests during the months of February and March 2011, which continued in an irregular manner in the ensuing months and drew inspiration from the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Specific demands were made for improvements to public services, limitations on corruption, and a general increase in the standard of living - absent, however, were demands for comprehensive change in the political system.

The demands of the protestors have stemmed from deficiencies in the performance of the government and the executive organs, and even of the legislative authority. Various reasons exist to explain this, chief among them corruption and political power-sharing deals (muhasasa in Arabic). These deficiencies have led to increased daily suffering on the part of the citizens, which in turn has exacerbated the feeling of dissatisfaction with government policies in general. The protests motivated the government to adopt a number of measures to deal with the popular demands; however, no comprehensive solution for the grievances has been enacted. Today, even if the government and the executive apparatus were capable of assimilating the new social, economic, and political factors, society would be unlikely to extend legitimacy to the system due to identity considerations (sectarian, ethnic, and regional), which represent the basis of the current political system.

In this study, we have concluded that the levels of social awareness in favor of changing Iraq’s political and economic reality remain limited and specific to civil society movements; these movements are inherently weak and thus incapable of mobilizing the street with enough momentum to change the status quo. On the other hand, the state uses the need to combat terrorism as an argument to justify repression. Certain social sectors are in fact supportive of this discourse, as are some pillars of social power that support the political process as a tool for fulfilling their own ambitions regarding the Iraqi street. The Western world, including the United States, has proved more concerned with attempts to influence the more ;radical changes taking place in the Arab region than with the happenings in Iraq.


In April 2003, Iraq witnessed an upheaval in the political system due to the military intervention of the United States, propelling the country into a period of chaos in terms of politics, security, and administration. This lasted until mid-October 2005, at which time Iraqis went to referendum over the shape and content of their country’s political system in the context of a new permanent constitution, and the Iraqi people voted in favor of a federal parliamentary system.

Even after the constitution took effect, the period of political crisis continued due to a variety of domestic and foreign factors. This crisis manifested itself in various ways: escalation of the security crisis, persistently dire economic and social conditions, and continuing vulnerability to foreign interference. The newly inaugurated political system was faced with a degree of rejection based on political-social factors, a rejection which sometimes took the form of armed violence employed by a variety of political opponents. This grim political reality effectively reduced the attention paid to the performance of the government and executive apparatus, whose deficiencies were increasingly glaring in the form of dwindling public services and inadequate administrative capacity, not to mention the spread of poverty.

With the political situation in Iraq showing signs of movement toward stability in 2008, predictions of the eventual fragmentation of the country began to be cast aside. A new direction emerged among the opponents of the political system, with a shift from the use of armed political violence to the practice of peaceful opposition. This intersected with the rise of a third camp whose focus was not on security so much as the issues affecting the conditions of the citizens and the services that were made available to them.

This shift led to a confusion in the post-2009 political scene following the provincial and legislative elections, with the political system suffering from a preponderance of interest-based rhetoric at the expense of competence; i.e., the dominance of the power-seekers over the statesmen. This reality revealed that the majority of political cadres were ill-qualified to fulfill their respective positions. The issue was compounded by the flagrant delay in forming the new cabinet, as well as by proposals for projects serving personal or party interests in areas concerning the citizenry.

In this critical stage of Iraq’s history, as 2010 drew to a close, the region witnessed a host of changes, which were viewed by some as an extension of American theses proposed in 2004 and 2005 under the title “The Greater Middle East Project”, which had with creative chaos as its modus operandi. The Greater Middle East Project suggested that nations of the regions should enact a host of reforms in order to respond to the challenges presented by Iraq’s post-occupation phase. These reforms included an embrace of peaceful alternation of power as well as an increase in the margin of freedoms. As for the creative chaos, it consisted of unleashing a movement among the peoples of the region, with the eventual intention of inciting internal and regional conflict. This would be followed by the dominance of a single power in each country; the United States would then be able to intervene, dealing with these emerging powers as competent representatives of their populations in an environment of increased regional stability.

However, repercussions of Iraq’s plight were such that the US suspended these proposals, recognizing them to be poorly matched to the historical phase in which they had been crafted and fearing increased vehemence in the opposition to the American Project. Today, however, the proposals have found an audience among domestic elements in the various countries, owing to a variety of motivations (some of them external). This analysis is informed by the view that domestic protest is attributable to the actions of foreign elements. It is pointed out that, while the masses were moved to demonstrate vigorously for change in the context of a harsh social reality, the extent of the actual change that took place remains largely superficial in both Egypt and Tunisia (with the second tier of government officials having simply stepped in to assume authority).

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The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.