After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Iraqi people, especially the youth, hoped to build a new country that would bring together all citizens on the basis of justice and equality. But the political system has failed to do that.
Security is not assured. Unemployment is high. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line. Electricity is always cut when the temperatures rise—even after the government spent $40bn on the grid over the past 15 years. Hospitals provide very poor service. Education has deteriorated dramatically. Schools are falling apart, a violation of children’s rights. Armed factions roam beyond the state’s control. The industrial and agricultural sectors have collapsed.
In short, the war is over but there is still suffering. Were today’s political leaders aware of the extent of the devastation left by the former regime of Saddam Hussein? Did they realise the need to instil in young people an enthusiasm for the new democracy, and to remove the remnants of a 30-year dictatorship?
They did not.
The failure of the political class led to the rise of a new generation of engaged Iraqis. This generation is aware that the leaders do not carry any moral authority and do not represent its aspirations. This view is widely felt, especially after it became apparent that political leaders used religion as a cover to blatantly loot public money (which has spurred protest movements).
Speaking out carries potential risks. After I criticised a politician on local television in 2016, a fire broke out in my family home. We don’t know whether this was caused by an accident or not.
When I was asked by The Economist’s Open Future initiative to write about young people’s views on how to govern Iraq, I reached out to other young Iraqis on social media. Many believe that Iraq is lost to corrupt leaders and that it has become prey to powerful parties in neighbouring countries, notably Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The view is that Iraq’s political authority has lost its legitimacy and is now dead—it just needs a death certificate.
Another problem is the structure of the political system based on quotas, whereby Shia, Kurdish and Sunni parties divide up cabinet posts among themselves. This has harmed the country. Governments have handed out jobs not on the basis of competence and expertise, but based on sectarian and political affiliation. This favours the dominant sectarian parties and keeps the status quo. It also breeds corruption.
Young Iraqis believe that a directly-elected president, despite concentrating power, may be a better solution. This is because the current parliamentary system, in which leadership is based on deal-making, is unable to produce a political class that hears the interests of young people. The feeling is that parliamentarians do not represent them or their provinces. They are useless, and place a burden on the budget because of their huge salaries and spending.
The head of corruption must be cut off by abolishing the quota system. Iraq will be much better without religious quotas because people will serve based on their effectiveness, not on the basis of their community. Less substantial reforms are useless—like firing a bullet at the body of a dead man.
Iraq is in a dangerous situation. We need a new vision that takes into account the increasing political awareness of Iraqi youth. Young people believe that protests will achieve their aims. There will be more protests if the government does not respond to the demands of the people.
A better form of governance for Iraq will not come easily, but only after long and hard work that needs to be done.
Rawan Salim Hussein is a 16-year-old Iraqi high-school student.