The 20th anniversary of the Iraq war has led to reflections on three decisions made by the United States and its allies in the immediate post-war period. These decisions are widely regarded as catastrophic errors, namely the purge of Baath party loyalists from state institutions, the dissolution of the Iraqi army, and the enforcement of a new power-sharing formula along ethnosectarian lines known as “al-muhasasa al-ta’ifiya”. The muhasasa system is seen as emblematic of a broken political system that has entrenched endemic corruption and dysfunctional governance.
When the Iraqi Governing Council was formed in 2003, its 25 members were chosen on the basis of their ethnosectarian backgrounds. Shia leaders made up just over half of the council, while Kurds and Sunni Arabs had five seats each, and two seats were reserved for Iraq’s Assyrian and Turkmen minorities. The architects of this arrangement believed it was the surest way to ensure inclusive representation and to prevent the re-emergence of authoritarian rule.
Muhasasa is essentially a quota system that distributes power in accordance with the relative political weight of competing factions. However, those who hold positions of influence are often wholly unqualified or placed there for the purpose of enriching their patrons through illicit means. Muhasasa’s detractors believe that until this informal arrangement is dismantled, Iraq will continue to exhibit all the chronic symptoms of a dysfunctional kleptocracy where people are rewarded on the basis of political fealty rather than merit.
While all of Iraq’s ruling elite have benefitted from muhasasa, none will openly defend it because of its toxic connotations. Instead, political factions across the board refer in euphemistic terms to the necessity of maintaining “tawazun”, shorthand for ensuring balanced representation of Iraq’s confessional groups across state institutions.
What gives the ethnosectarian dimension of muhasasa greater credence is the fact that all of Iraq’s governing factions are based on confessional identities. Confession-based political movements are built on more than just tribalistic impulses. Modern Iraq was established by British colonialists on the basis of sowing divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurds, and a century later, the lived experiences of these groups are vastly different.
For instance, the Kurdish parties of Iraq exist by virtue of the fact that Kurds have a distinct communal memory – they were historically marginalised and persecuted on the basis of their Kurdish identity, and they have aspirations for statehood, a position not shared by their Arab counterparts. So it is only natural for Kurds to organise their politics around the centrality of their ethnic identity. Meanwhile, Sunni and Shia Arabs, by virtue of their own respectively distinct experiences with state power, do not have identical political aspirations either.
Any real change to Iraq’s existing power-sharing formula will need to begin at the local level. During the elections of 2010 and 2018, there were attempts by some factions to form cross-sectarian platforms, but these efforts ultimately failed because there was little that bound together disparate groups from across the country beyond nationalistic sloganeering and generic policy positions on creating jobs, improving services, and tackling corruption.
Viewed from the lens of an elite pact, muhasasa’s power-sharing arrangement explains why the post-2003 order has remained robust despite multiple attempts to overturn it. Nevertheless, the existing muhasasa formula is by no means set in stone. The current political settlement that began with regime change and took shape through the Governing Council is not static but rather in constant flux.
The 2019 Tishreen protest movement fundamentally changed the political settlement. Tishreen transformed popular protests from mere symbolic gestures into an instrument of power. Whether it can be harnessed in a way that can yield more tangible changes to the power dynamics depends largely on the coherence and vision of the movement.