As in past summers, furious Iraqis have taken to the streets. Their rage is directed toward the clutch of political parties that have ruled the country since the United States invasion in 2003 but failed to improve the lot of ordinary citizens. Services such as electricity and water remain poor, and there are not enough jobs to employ the young population. Underneath these problems lie staggering levels of corruption. Iraq falls near the bottom of the annual Transparency International corruption index.
Protesters chanted “the people want the fall of political parties,” adding an Iraqi twist to the common refrain of the Arab Spring. Young Iraqis with whom we have spoken in recent weeks have expressed unrelenting frustration toward the political elites in their country. The belief that elections can catalyze real change has evaporated for many of them.
The “democratic” experience of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been defined by weak institutions and a corrupt “partyocracy.” Iraqi political parties captured state institutions and enriched themselves through patronage. These parties are led in many cases by aging leaders who cut their teeth on fighting Saddam prior to 2003. The widespread dysfunction of the political system after 2003 is further exacerbated by the wealth of oil. While young Iraqis should benefit from this, many live in poverty, literally on top of the vast resources of the country.
Young Iraqi protesters are also fed up with the informal quota system by which ministries and positions are spread among politicians according to affiliation. This system values membership in a particular group over merit and has led to the rise of incompetent and corrupt elites. It also incentivizes political parties to organize around ethnic and sectarian identity. Many Iraqis perceive sectarianism as a creation of the ruling political parties and instead prioritize issues such as labor and corruption.
It is no surprise that many Iraqis see democracy as a system of governance defined by corruption and paralysis. If one of the few electoral democracies in the Arab world has failed to ameliorate the lives of citizens living within it, what does this suggest about the ability of multiparty democracy to improve the lives of ordinary people in other Arab countries? Rather than discrediting democracy, however, the Iraqi experience points to the need for a political process that is inclusive and empowers youth. Reforms must go beyond the plan that Prime Minister Haider Abadi offered to combat corruption and improve services.
The United States, which continues to exercise enormous influence in Iraq, should embrace demands for change from the young people there. The Trump administration could work with Congress to condition future development aid on political reforms that encourage youth participation in politics. The end of the quota system could bring more youth into the public sector and curb the culture of patronage in ministries. The United States could tie development aid for reconstruction to a commitment by Iraq to employ economically marginalized youth by compelling the government to reform its public sector hiring practices.
About 400,000 young Iraqis enter the job market every year. The public sector cannot absorb them all. Thus, any sustainable youth employment plan must include private sector development. Iraqi entrepreneurs need additional financing and training. The Agency for International Development could renew the Iraqi Youth Initiative, which provided business skills and entrepreneurial training. The program ended in 2012 despite its success. The State Department could expand the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program and higher education programs focused on the employability of graduates. The United States could also work with the Iraqi financial sector to develop credit markets for young entrepreneurs.
The United States should care about Iraqi youth for security reasons as well. Youth are the most vulnerable to radicalization and militia recruitment. Militias often provide better salaries than government security structures, which is why so many youth signed up for the popular mobilization forces during the war against the Islamic State. With better job prospects and greater faith in political leaders, fewer young Iraqis will be tempted to join armed groups operating outside state control, thereby strengthening government security structures in the long term. One thing is certain. By ignoring the frustrations being voiced by young Iraqis today, the United States risks seeing its influence further diminished tomorrow.
Mieczysław Boduszynski is an assistant professor of international relations at Pomona College. He is a former American diplomat who led the political section at the U.S. Consulate General in Iraq. Christopher Lamont is an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo International University. He is a former lecturer at Imam Sadiq University in Iraq.