Baghdad, Iraq – “No to muhasasa, no to political sectarianism,” chanted protesters in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square as calls for a complete overhaul of the political system continued despite Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation on Sunday.
From painting slogans onto white banners plastered across the hub of the capital’s uprising, to reading anti-sectarian poetry into loudspeakers from atop the famous Turkish Restaurant, protesters in Baghdad have adamantly denounced the quota-based muhasasa system.
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While the muhasasa was introduced in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003 in attempt to provide proportional government representation among Iraq’s various ethno-sectarian groups, many Iraqis believe the system is deeply flawed and embodies all that has gone wrong since.
“The term muhasasa is a byword for the political system and all its ills,” Fanar al-Haddad, a research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera.
“The system underpins the corruption, collusion and the patronage networks that characterise public life in Iraq,” he added.
Not only do protesters blame the muhasasa for triggering sectarian violence across Iraq, they also say it allowed certain individuals and groups to enrich themselves over the years and expand their influence, while much of the oil-rich country’s population endured economic hardship.
“The muhasasa is at the heart of all our problems,” said Rusha Omar, a 28-year-old activist and journalist who has been participating in Baghdad’s protests for weeks. “We can no longer tolerate a system that has allowed political elites to treat our country’s resources as spoils.”
How it began
Although the muhasasa was only introduced by the United States after it occupied Iraq in 2003, the system’s foundations were laid out by Iraqi opposition groups in the early 1990s.
Hoping they would someday topple longtime-leader Saddam Hussein, the political opposition envisioned a system of proportional representation and participation for Iraq’s Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other ethno-sectarian groups.
“The current quota system was created by opposition groups who wanted to organise themselves for when they managed to come to power,” said Abbas Kadhim, director of the Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council, adding that the muhasasa was cemented during a series of conferences held mainly in the United Kingdom.
In the aftermath of the fall of Hussein, who was accused of sectarian oppression against Iraq’s Shia majority, the US civilian body running the occupation of Iraq was preoccupied with creating an ethno-sectarian balance in the country. It used the muhasasa to select Iraq’s first post-2003 governing body – the Iraq Governing Council (IGC).
“The muhasasa was essentially the brainchild of significant sections of the Iraqi opposition and also the American occupation,” said Haddad.
It established a system to divide public offices, political positions and state resources along ethno-sectarian lines between parties that make up the country’s ruling class.
While the system gave both political and economic power to parties that came to dominate Iraqi politics post-2003, one of the major ills of the muhasasa, according to Iraqi protesters and experts, was how it deepened sectarian divisions.
“Initially, the system was a way of establishing a system of ethno-sectarian proportional representations,” explained Haddad.
“[But it also] inflamed the political relevance of ethno-sectarian identities and plunged Iraq into a sect-coded civil war that tore the very fabric of society”.
Following the bombing of a Shia shrine in the central city of Samarra in 2006, Shia armed groups targeted Sunni populations leading to widespread sectarian violence that peaked across Iraq between 2006 and 2008.
Although sectarian violence in the country has since significantly subsided, many Iraqis believe that muhasasa has caused lasting damage.
“Until today, Shias and Sunnis take part in elections because they fear one another,” Aqil al-Saray, a 43-year-old protester, and brother of Safaa al-Saray, one of the faces of the protest movement, told Al Jazeera.
“If one sect gains more power, the other worries it would end up getting killed,” explained Saray, as he sat in a tent erected in the name of his brother who was killed on October 28 after he was struck on the head by a tear gas canister.
Several slogans used by protesters in the recent uprising have reflected a strong rejection of sectarian and religious identities, with calls to recognise all Iraqis as one.
One such popular slogan on posters across Tahrir Square has been: “Not Shia, not Sunni, not Christian. We’re all one Iraq.”
Self-interest and foreign intervention
In addition to deepening sectarian divides, the quota-based system obliterated national unity among Iraqi political elites, encouraging self-interest and allowing for foreign intervention instead, say experts and protesters alike.
Because of the muhasasa “none of the are parties [in power] focus on acting on behalf of the country as a whole,” Talha Abdurazzaq, research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“Many of these parties, particularly the Shia Islamists who are the dominant force in Iraq today, were incubated and financed by Iran,” he explained.
Using reports by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security between 2014 and 2015, The New York Times and the Intercept in November published a “detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself in Iraqi affairs, infiltrating Iraq’s economic, political and religious life”.
The Iraq Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Kadhim agrees the muhasasa resulted in a lack of national unity across Iraq, which furthered foreign intervention in country’s internal affairs.
“National interests have been pushed back because Iraqis are divided,” he said. “As each group seeks foreign support for its interests, the door for outside powers to influence internal affairs has been left wide open.”
Corruption and nepotism
In the same way that Iraqis often use muhasasa and sectarianism interchangeably, they also regularly associate corruption with the reviled system.
“Because of the muhasasa, Iraq’s government is formed of ministers and parliamentarians who aren’t technocrats,” Saray told Al Jazeera.
“We’re ruled by people a bunch of cronies who’re in power because they belong to this party, or that,” he explained.
Ali Khraybit, a 27-year-old filmmaker and close friend of Safaa al-Saray, agrees: “Each political party has control over a group of ministries where it hires its own entourage. The system provides a legal cover for abusing the system.”
The system enriched the political elite and those with connections to them, while impoverishing the vast majority of Iraqis.
The muhasasa led to the “emergence of systemic pilfering of the state through elite collusion, consensus governments, corruption and patronage networks,” said Haddad.
According to Kadhim, “it wasn’t not enough for a Kurd, Shia or Sunni, to fill in certain positions, but they had to belong to one of the ruling parties.
“Those in power ended up treating political positions as if they were spoils, giving government positions allocated to them to party members regardless of their qualification,” he explained.
According to Kadhim this system was further abused because of a lack of checks and balances to hold people in power accountable.
“When certain parties are able to exclusively share a number of positions, they end up covering up for each other and no one is held accountable,” he said.
It is for these reasons that Muhtada Abu al-Jawad, a 23-year-old civil engineer and protester in Tahrir Square, believes the muhasasa is “what destroyed our country,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s the main reason we’re protesting today.”