The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) held a panel discussion on November 11th, 2019 about the recent protests in Iraq, which assessed the implications for Iraq’s future, prospects for reform, and Iraq’s regional relations at a time of immense geopolitical uncertainty. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: Ali Allawi, former Iraqi minister of defense and finance; Laith Kubba, senior advisor to the Iraqi prime minister; Falah Bakir, senior foreign policy advisor to the president of the Kurdistan region; and Ramon Blecua, former EU ambassador to Iraq. Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow at the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Ali Allawi began the discussion by explaining that Iraq does not fit the classic definition of the nation-state, which has made it difficult to identify the commonalities among its people that might create the basis and stability for a common future. He added that Iraq has failed to create institutions capable of overcoming the ethnic, tribal, religious, and class differences that mark its population. Allawi also said that, prior to the recent uprisings, there had been a reluctant acceptance of the post-2003 order, which no longer relied on the people as a source of legitimacy. Allawi noted that the Sunni minority is now in a state of deep introspection, especially in a post-Islamic State group environment, while the Shiite majority sees that the state has been configured in such a way as to give power to a very small group of people.
Laith Kubba said that Iraq needs not only a functional state, but also a sense of direction, in order to be revived. He argued that the recent demonstrations, which have become a call for radical change, are a landmark event in Iraqi history, on par with the U.S. withdrawal and the fall of Mosul. Kubba continued by saying that Iraqi youth are connected to the rest of the world and looking toward the future, adding that they are asking simple questions, such as: why can’t we make Iraq a decent country? He noted that what is happening in Iraq is not isolated from what is happening across the region, whose dynamics all feed into domestic politics. Kubba concluded that he is optimistic about the situation in Iraq as long as the country does not slip into violence, because the trends are positive despite the pressures.
Falah Bakir argued that the Iraqi political elite need to ask themselves what went wrong, adding that the government failed to deliver what it promised to the people. He said that the situation now is serious and that the political elite should not underestimate the protesters’ demands. Bakir noted that the Kurdistan region is very much affected by the situation but said that everyone must focus on Baghdad, as the stability of the country comes first. He also questioned what could be done to create trust between the ruling elite and the people, to create stability, and to ensure less interference in internal Iraqi affairs. While he admitted that no one can address all of the public’s demands, he emphasized that it is not an option to sit and do nothing. The protestors, he argued, should be assured that their demands will be met, reforms will take place and they will not face violence. He concluded by questioning whether the international community has done enough to help Iraq recover its economy and institutions.
Ramon Blecua posited that Iraq has come a long way in the past two years and that Iraqis should take pride in being able to absorb and deal with issues that would have been extremely disruptive in other countries, such as the Sunni insurgency and demands for Kurdish political identity. He argued that there is more to the crisis than dissatisfied youth, saying that successive Iraqi governments have been buying time by increasing the number of public sector jobs, without opening up the private sector, liberalizing, or utilizing the country’s full potential. He said that, while the government should be held accountable for these issues, it is unfair to take stock of the new government’s performance after just one year. Blecua pointed out that Iraq is already receiving large amounts of aid from the European Union, arguing that what it needs is not more aid, but rather the will to fix its economic system. He added that Iraqi leaders need to understand that the people are not going to wait forever while the elite use the country’s resources for their own benefit.
The subsequent question and answer session focused on the most pressing issues facing Iraq and potential solutions. Allawi said that Iraq is now facing a range of issues, including widespread corruption and the capture of the state by political elites, arguing that there is no short-term solution except to contain the protests. He added that the United States and the European Union helped Iraq immensely, but there is nothing to show for their substantial expenditures. Kubba said that the fundamental issue between demonstrators and the government is that of trust. To address this issue, he recommended the formation of a body of respectable dignitaries, academics, and statesmen, perhaps with U.N. support, to sum up protesters’ demands and work with the government on a realistic implementation schedule. He also said that reaching out to Iran must be part of the solution and now is the right time to do so.
Bakir argued that there is a need to focus on deliverables that will satisfy the protesters and to focus on the economy. Today, he said, there is an opportunity for the people who have been in power to conduct a serious national dialogue about how to make a difference in Iraqi citizens’ lives and win back their trust. Blecua agreed that the focus must be on the economy and specifically on decisions that can be taken quickly and have a large impact. He recommended reforming the banking sector, creating a sovereign fund, and tackling mismanagement.
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