Marsin Alshamary on Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy

Marsin Alshamary

Marsin Alshamary is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. She is the author of the paper “Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy” in the Journal of Democracy.

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The thing that really astonishes me is that there’s never any agency given to Iraqis, both during the war and the occupation, but also 20 years later. It always goes back to what the Americans did. There’s a defeatism about Iraq’s ability to do anything on its own and I think that’s at the heart of why people can’t see anything democratic in the country.

Marsin Alshamary

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:41
  • Is Iraq a Democracy – 3:37
  • Iraqi Social Cleavages – 9:20
  • Iraqi Consociationalism – 26:33
  • Challenges to Democracy in Iraq – 36:55

Podcast Transcript

Not everyone describes Iraq as a democracy. Freedom House categorizes it as Not Free. V-Dem calls it an electoral autocracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit refers to it as authoritarian. Nonetheless, no matter how you describe Iraq’s political system, it is certainly not a dictatorship. It continues to have elections and peaceful transfers of power between different leaders. It’s an important attribute many overlook when they depict Iraq as an authoritarian regime. 

Long-time listeners of the podcast know I like to reward political systems for what they do well particularly when their circumstances are not favorable to democracy. Last year I did an entire series on democracies in hard places. It’s an important framework for how we should think about Iraq, because whether you think Iraq is a democracy or an autocracy, it is certainly a hard place for a democracy to flourish. 

Today’s guest, Marsin Alshamary, does describe Iraq as a democracy although she recognizes it is an imperfect one. She recently wrote a paper in the Journal of Democracy called “Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy.” I reached out to her, because she provided a rare depiction of Iraq that maintained both optimism and hope despite her frustrations with Iraq’s ongoing challenges. Marsin Alshamary is a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. 

Our conversation discusses Iraq in ways most people overlook. We talk about its government, but also its people. Marsin acknowledges the problems Iraq faces, but also recognizes what it has accomplished. 

Now if you like this conversation, please consider supporting the podcast as a paid subscriber on Apple Podcasts or as a monthly donor at Patreon. For as little as $5/month you will receive access to bonus episodes including the most recent one on Guillermo O’Donnell with Gerry Munck. It’s part of a series of bonus episodes on the great thinkers of democracy that began the previous week with a episode on Robert Dahl. Look for the link in the show notes to access these bonus episodes at Patreon. You can also email me with questions at But for now… This is my conversation with Marsin Alshamary…


Marsin Alshamary, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Marsin Alshamary

Thank you, Justin.


Well, Marsin, I was really drawn to your essay, “Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy,” because I felt like it’s a lot different than a lot of the messages I hear about Iraq. In the paper you wrote, “Iraq today is more of a democracy than most people think, but less of a democracy than it could be.” So, Marsin, can you help us understand how is Iraq more of a democracy than most people think?

Marsin Alshamary

To really understand that I think you have to pause for a moment and realize that it’s very hard to divorce discussions of Iraq’s current political system from the 2003 War and Invasion and the stain that that left on Iraq. So, for example, in the many interviews I’ve done, if I talk about anything positive happening in Iraq, if I say, for example, peaceful transfer of power at this date or that date, the response immediately is, ‘Oh, the invasion was worth it’ or ‘Bush was vindicated’ or something along those lines. It always goes back to the war, to the invasion. Was it worth it? Is it related to it? But the thing that really astonishes me is that there’s never any agency given to Iraqis, both during the war and the occupation, but also 20 years later. It always goes back to what the Americans did.


There’s a defeatism about Iraq’s ability to do anything on its own and I think that’s at the heart of why people can’t see anything democratic in the country. So, if you push all that aside and just look at Iraq itself as a country today in a forward-looking manner that doesn’t fixate on the legacy of the war and you just adopt a sort of political science perspective as to what a democracy looks like, you come up with a very minimal definition with free and fair elections occurring regularly, peaceful transfer of power, basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and expression, independent media, independent judiciary. These are the things that we assess any democracy by. Then it becomes a lot easier to look at Iraq’s progress. You see it’s lacking in very key ways.


But at the same time, if you look at measurements of democracy, like Varieties of Democracy on so many of these, Iraq actually scores higher than the regional average in the Middle East and North Africa and that measurement actually includes Israel. So, it’s a pretty robust measurement.


I love how you emphasize the agency of the Iraqi people, because the success or the failure of any democracy really isn’t based on how external actors behave. It’s not going to depend on what Americans do. At the end of the day, the democracy itself is going to depend on how Iraqi people embrace democracy, how they can fortify their institutions and what they do with their own local politics. Tell me a little bit about how you see Iraqi people engaging in politics and in democratic politics that maybe people overlook or just don’t expect.

Marsin Alshamary

There are some very interesting discussions about democracy in Iraq today and I’ve kept up with them for years now. So, there’s two different strands. On the one hand, there was for a while, this sense that Iraq lacks stability in such a way or Iraq lacks services. There’s poor governance in the country, so much so that there’s an authoritarian nostalgia in the country. A thought that, ‘Oh, perhaps under authoritarianism, we didn’t have freedom of speech, but at least we had a job and we had stability.’ But for the record this is actually wrong because we had wars and we had sanctions. So, there was neither this nor that. But the key point here is that it’s about the Iraqi demographics. Most Iraqis were born after 2003 or they were so young at the time that they really have no memory of authoritarianism.


So, they have a very high standard of what democracy should look like and they have a very high standard of what economic prosperity that comes from democracy should be like. So, in this environment of a very youthful country, the discussion about democracy and authoritarianism and economic rights is a very complicated one. There’s a struggle within the Iraqi population itself where if you look at how they assess democracy, they’ll say that democracy is not necessary if you have a system that gives you economic rights. Democracy is not necessary if you have a stability. But at the same time, if you ask them what system of governance is most suitable for a country, most of them will say democracy is the best.


So, there’s a bit of a contradiction that I think is natural in that they understand that they have a flawed democracy, that it can amount to a lot better, and then they understand exactly the ways in which it’s flawed, but they associate the flaws with democracy. They don’t associate it with other causes. So, Iraqis have a very high expectation of what democracy should deliver both on the socioeconomic front, but also on the security front.


So, are those high expectations an advantage or a disadvantage? Like do those high expectations symbolize an effort to make Iraq more democratic or do you feel like those high expectations just set itself up for failure?

Marsin Alshamary

No, I think these high expectations are absolutely necessary and that this generation of youth are completely entitled to them. Without these expectations, Iraq could be performing so much worse because it’s these expectations and this understanding of democracy that propels youth to the protest squares to stand against the government anytime they overreach or anytime they began to behave in authoritarian ways. So, I think they’re actually quite necessary.


Let’s talk a little bit about Iraq as a country, because a lot of people don’t really understand the dynamics of the country and those dynamics – like the country itself, the people themselves – determine the politics in so many different ways. I grew up thinking of Iraq as an Arab country, so I thought of it as very monocultural. I mean, it sounds as if it’s going to be the same type of people within the same country. But I get the impression that Iraq is far more diverse than most people understand. Can you talk a little bit about the diversity of Iraq as a country?

Marsin Alshamary

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if it makes you feel better, I’ve talked to a lot of political scientists who work in different countries and everyone is in agreement that Iraq is incredibly complex, both as a country and as a political system. So, if anything here requires more explanation, then don’t feel that you’re misunderstanding something simple. You’re probably not understanding something incredibly complex. So, Iraq as a country is very diverse, and I would say this is something that you see across this part of the Middle East. This is something that’s true of Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq is no different than these places. It’s one of the oldest countries in the world, so understandably you’ll find a lot of different civilizations and groups of people here.


It is Arab dominant. The majority of its residents are Arab, but there are also a lot of Kurds in Iraq, so much so that they actually have their own region within the country. But purely in terms of demographics. In addition to these ethnic groups, there’s also minority groups, Syrians and Yazidis. If you parse Iraq along religious lines, it’s divided not only by ethnicity, but it’s also divided by religion. I think a lot of people at the time of the 2003 War came to realize that Islam was actually very diverse and had multiple sects and that these sects played a large role in how political violence unfolded.


So, Iraq is unique in the region in that it is an Arab state with a Shia Muslim majority rather than a Sunni Muslim majority, which is what you usually get in the rest of the Middle East or the rest of the Arab world. So, you not only get ethnic cleavages, you also get religious cleavages and sometimes they intersect. For example, Iraqi Arab, Sudanese and Iraqi Kurds largely share a religious identity, but they don’t share an ethnic identity. This translates politically to very interesting outcomes.


So, you’ve described some of the differences between sex and ethnicities, and you hear a lot about that in the news. Like when you hear about conflicts within Iraq, you hear about differences between Shias and Sunnis. Sometimes you hear about the tragedies that have happened to the Yazidi people, but you also emphasize that Iraq is a federal state. How important are regional differences for Iraq as a country?

Marsin Alshamary

Iraq’s federal system, and I’m going to borrow a language that’s not my own, but that other Iraqi analysts have used, is what they call an uneven federal system. From 1991 to 2003, the Kurdistan region of Iraq encompasses three governorates in the North had de facto autonomy from Saddam Hussein and so for years they were on their own. So, in order to entice them to come back into Iraq post-2003, they needed to be given certain rights. Federalism was seen as a solution to that. They created a Kurdish region so that they would be able to have their own systems of governance and be able to protect themselves from challenges and incursions and the like. Federalism was essentially created in Iraq to allow Kurds to have a semblance of autonomy and it didn’t translate into regionalism for the rest of Iraq. It could have.


There are mechanisms in the Constitution that would allow Iraq to have a more useful federal structure, to create more regions with more autonomy from Baghdad. But the issue that came up is that the region that people can conceive of is a region in southern Iraq, in the deep south of Iraq, that’s Shia dominant. But no one wanted that, particularly not the government in Baghdad, because that area was so rich in oil that you’d never want it to be under the hands of anything but a central state. They were never able to push for that despite actually having a strong desire to get a region. There is also talk of a region of Governorates that had a Sunni dominant population. But the fear there was that, ‘Oh no, is this along sectarian lines? Is this going to divide the country?’


So, the issue with federalism in Iraq is that because it was created for encouraging a secessionist group to come back in the fold, it’s continuously associated with secessionism. If you ask any Iraqi on the street about federalism, they’ll say, ‘Oh no, we don’t want to divide the country.’


But what about regionalism that isn’t necessarily defined by politics itself? Like in the United States, there’s a huge cultural difference between somebody who lives in Texas and somebody who lives in California. There’s a big difference between somebody who lives in the Midwest and somebody who lives on the East coast. In Iraq, I know that a lot of the regions are going to be based on sect, based on ethnic groupings and other things that aren’t necessarily based on place, but is there a sense of just regional identity as well as sectarian and ethnic identity?

Marsin Alshamary

Yeah, there is. I mean, understandably in the U.S. it’s such a huge country that everything is basically like a little country of its own. So, even in the U.S. I’ve become regionalist and can never hear anything bad being said about the East Coast. So, in Iraq there’s a version of this. It’s a much smaller country, but southern Iraq has this identity that’s developed over the years. Sadly, it’s an identity that’s been built out of neglect and out of oppression where the entire region feels… See, I called it a region even though officially it’s not one. The entire set of these nine governorates, its residents, their citizens, continuously feel neglect from governments. Both the current government after 2003 and prior to that extreme repression from the Baathist government.


There’s this idea of no one being interested in building this region, supporting it, and taking it out of poverty. This extends to how they perceive international organizations. That no one really wants to do anything there. There’s no appetite. It’s just a place where you get oil from and then you basically leave it. Sadly, an entire identity has been built around this neglect and it has very little to do these days with sectarian identity. It’s really about the area, about the region.


There are also identities that are built more around cities. For example, in Northern Iraq, Mosul has a very distinct identity and culture. It’s very rich and I think it’s because of its great history of being a city that’s very close to Turkey and Syria and Baghdad that it developed an identity that is very cultural and they have their own very clear dialect. So, that makes things very clear for them if they ever wanted to create a region, that there’s all these cultural attributes that they can use to make one.


For areas that are more tribal, there’s a strong tribal identity, not in the sense of allegiance to a particular tribe, but kind of the norms that surround the tribe. The culture of hospitality and an Arab culture that can be used to group people together. So, Iraq is very rich in identities and I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing because they can be cross-cutting in very useful ways, but they can also be very divisive.


So, are these regional identities cross-cutting across some of the other cleavages like the sectarian and ethnic identities that exist?

Marsin Alshamary

I mean, I promised I wouldn’t get personal today because I always tend to when I’m talking about Iraq, but as an example my last name is the name of a tribe and the tribe in Iraq actually has members that are both Sunni and Shia, so it represents a very interesting cross-cutting cleavage. And it’s not the only one. By the way, there are many tribes in Iraq that have both Sunni and Shia members and this represents, I think, one of the strongest cross-cutting cleavages in the country. But there’s also socioeconomic status and class, which I think is very big.


If you follow Iraq closely, a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, Iraq was never really a sectarian country because Sunnis and Shia married each other. You’d never see that somewhere else.’ But if you actually looked at it, it’s always Sunni and Shia of a certain socioeconomic class that would marry each other, because it’s like you went to college together. So, that’s a lot of capital that could actually be used to Iraq’s benefit, but you really have to understand how it works.


So, do these cross-cutting cleavages, do they make it easier for democracy to consolidate in the future or do you think that they’re an obstacle for democratization or consolidation rather of democracy in Iraq?

Marsin Alshamary

That is my hope. My hope is that these cross-cutting cleavages give birth to parties that are cross-sectarian and inclusive ethnicities by using other identities or by using other things that appeal to various citizens. We’re seeing this more and more in Iraq in the last two to three years where there are new political parties or political organizations that are very deliberately anti-sectarian and are trying to be inclusive. So, they’ll try to have candidates who are running in different Iraqi governorates just to be more representative. The way they do this is exactly how you described by the cross-cutting cleavages rather than the ones that are divisive. I think this is the future of Iraqi politics.


So, to bring us back to the idea of different sects and ethnicities that do exist within Iraq, though, there’s an interesting line in your piece where you write, “Today, the Shia population is confident enough to challenge its own ruling elite.” That raises the idea that even within these cultural groupings whether they be based on religion or whether they be based on ethnicity that there’s conflict within these cultural identities. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamics within a sect like shi’ism within Iraq or within other ethnic groups as well?

Marsin Alshamary

In Iraq, right now, the conflict has moved from being between sects to within ethno-sectarian groups and it’s a conflict that takes place at an elite level. It’s a struggle for power. So, to be the representative of this electorally lucrative group of people, when it comes to the Shia, because if you have the Shia population behind you, you have a lot of seats in Parliament, essentially, because they’re the biggest group. This is the thinking of the political class that has essentially been ruling the country since 2005 or so and that make up the most important traditional political parties that run the country.


They’re completely out of touch with everyday Iraqis though, because while they’re still thinking of the country in this particular way of identity and votes, everyday Iraqis, particularly the Shia Iraqis, really don’t want anything to do with sectarianism and find consociationalism to be abhorrent. On the street in Iraq today, people associate consociationalism with corruption and with poor governance. They really think it’s the root of all problems. So, there’s this mismatch between what the people actually want and what the politicians want and that’s largely because the politicians haven’t adapted yet to what the public wants. I don’t think that they will adapt. I think what’s going to happen is that naturally you’re going to get a new political class that comes from the Iraqi Street.


Now, I’m saying this as though there were no obstacles to this happening from the political elite, as though there were no arms on the street in Iraq, as though there’s no electoral manipulation. So, take all of this with a grain of salt. Like there’s a space for things to happen, but people also have to be cognizant of their own security risks and things like that. That is an issue in Iraq.


Do elites fail to understand the demands, the ideas, of the Iraqi people, because the Iraqi population itself is changing so much? I mean, you’ve said before that the average age in Iraq is 21. That’s incredibly young and that means that from election to election you’re having an enormous change in terms of what the electorate even looks like. Is that really one of the big driving forces that’s creating a disconnect between elites and the people?

Marsin Alshamary

Yes. The generational gap between the political class and the public is very important here. The formative years of most of the political class are under Baathism, so they think that all they have to do for Iraq is to make sure it’s not under Saddam Hussein. We’ve done that great. We’ve done a great job. There’s no violence, even better. But it’s very low bar. For the average Iraqi, they grew up under a sectarian civil war, so they actually find sectarianism to be something that’s destabilizing and they never want to see that or it’s manifestations again. But they also care much more about things like employment and overcoming poverty and just everyday concerns of citizens. They care about climate change even. I mean, Iraq is very vulnerable to it. It’s an incredibly hot country.


What’s holding back a political entrepreneur from stepping in and recognizeing those unmet demands from the electorate? What’s keeping somebody like that from stepping in and really just dominating the politics because they’re the one voice that’s speaking to what many voters want to hear?

Marsin Alshamary

Well, you asked the right person this question, because I talk to a lot of political entrepreneurs. I ask them, ‘What are your greatest obstacles and also what motivates you to go on?’ So, based on all these interviews, there are specific obstacles that are more to do with the system and then there’s obstacles that are more to do with society. On the systemic obstacles you have, of course, if someone gets too popular, there’s always a fear of outright violence against them or threats against their family, because like I said, there’s arms on the street and a lot of political parties do have armed wings, so they can credibly threaten. Still, if not threaten, what I’ve heard a lot happening is that they’ll actually try to buy you out or try to entice you with cars and dollars.


That is a structural challenge that they have to face. When they run for office, if they look like they’re going to be very popular, it gets some more attention from the traditional political class, which will then seek to co-opt them. That’s one way that the system tries to mitigate their participation. But then there’s also legal mechanisms that the traditional political class try to put in place. For example, the use of the judiciary in very targeted ways is something that takes away democratic points from Iraq. But there’s also what we see right now, the revising of an electoral law passed through Parliament. So, the process through which it passed is a fair democratic process. But they went back to one that we had prior to protest movements, prior to new elections. It’s one that really favors large parties.


So, they’ll try to keep themselves in power by using every tool at their disposal including the way that elections are organized and the way that electoral districts are designed. It’s very similar to the U.S. in many ways actually now that I talk about it. But essentially the problem is when you have powerful parties with money, it’s very hard to work against them. But then you also have the additional factor of powerful parties with money and arms, so the task becomes even higher from the societal level. These political entrepreneurs face a challenge in that Iraqis are no longer interested in voting.


Voter turnout has been diminishing over the last few years and there’s even an increased boycott movement. The thinking behind the boycott movement is if we don’t participate, then we’re de-legitimizing the government, which means they can no longer represent us. They’re not a real government. It’s not a real democracy, et cetera. So, that’s the thinking behind the boycott movement. It doesn’t really translate into that in practice. What it ends up doing is it creates essentially larger portions of a smaller pie for the same set of political elites. I think they’re very much in favor of low turnout where they can know for sure that their people will turnout, but the entire possible electorate of young people not turning out is a blessing for them.


I think this is where the new political parties aren’t being very smart. There are two strategies for winning an election. You either turn over people in the other camp or you go to the people who don’t vote and everyone knows going to the people who don’t vote is infinitely easier than changing someone else’s mind. There are so many people who don’t vote in Iraq. But I don’t see a very good concerted effort in a unified way to get them to vote for a new political party. There’s a lot of independent actions from particular candidates at the local level.


They’ve been very successful within a small, modest circle, but there hasn’t been a concerted effort across various opposition figures in Iraq whether from those borne out of the protest movement or those who were part of the political elite and decided to leave them for ideational differences. I think a unified movement that tries to harness the power of the non-voters is the way out. It’s such a large group that even the threat of arms and money is a bit of a weak threat in opposition to how large a segment of society this is.


So, you’ve mentioned consociationalism already in terms of how Iraqi government and its politics works. But when I think of consociationalism, I think of Lebanon, especially when I think of consociationalism in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the degree of consociationalism is embedded within its constitutional framework and within its law. Is Iraq’s consociationalism embedded within its legal framework and its constitution or is it something that just persists because of customs and habits that have been established since 2003?

Marsin Alshamary

Iraq’s consociationalism is a set of informal norms, but it is so sticky and pervasive and it has trickled down to every segment of government that it might as well be enshrined in the constitution at this point. I mean, luckily, it’s not enshrined in the constitution, because it makes it a little bit easier to overcome it. But when you look at Iraq from the outside and you see how much consociationalism has trickled down everywhere within the government, you would be forgiven if you thought it was part of the way that the system was actually formally designed and not an informal norm.


You actually have a term in the paper that might actually better reflect the type of consociationalism in Iraq. You actually call it promiscuous power sharing. It’s a term that I’ve heard Dan Slater use when he talks about Indonesia. Why don’t you explain what it is, because I’m sure most people have never heard of it and how it helps describe the type of governance in Iraq?

Marsin Alshamary

Erica Simmons and Dan Slater came up with this term promiscuous power sharing and they were specifically talking about Indonesia and Bolivia. But as I was reading their description, I was thinking this is exactly what Iraq looks like. The idea is you have this moment of political chaos and you want to transition, which in Iraq 2003 is an expression of this, and you set up a power sharing system, consociationalism, because it allows you to bring everyone peacefully together and it gets you through this crisis.


But what ends up happening and what you see happening in all these different cases is over time elites collude to be part of a government to an extent that they make a mockery of representation altogether. They no longer feel that they have to stick to or align with their constituents or represent their constituents’ needs. They’re all in agreement that they all come together, all the political parties into what they call a party cartel and they form a government. So, despite how badly or how well you did in the election, so long as you are present, you’re part of this big group and this big group colludes to protect each other’s interests at the expense of the population that they were supposed to represent. It’s worn out of a moment of wanting peace, but then it becomes really ugly because it then stops being representative.


Rather than having different groups in society be in conflict with one another, what you end up getting is a colluding elite on the one hand and a very dissatisfied population on the other. It actually ends up leading to violence and chaos because it just creates more grievances among the population. So, it’s this really ugly version of what consociationalism should be all about.


So, when I talked to Dan Slater about Indonesia on this podcast, it was interesting because in Indonesia, specifically Jokowi, the current president of Indonesia, actually brought in Subianto, who he ran against. It was a very polarizing, contested campaign, but he brought Subianto into his cabinet in a very important position and even more recently in the Malaysian elections Dan had written a piece for the blog that talked about how Anwar had finally won his election in Malaysia and was becoming Prime Minister after many years working in opposition and coming so close to becoming Prime Minister for a long time. But in order to become Prime Minister and form a coalition, he had to bring in the old autocratic party that had ruled Malaysia for so many years back into his coalition so that things didn’t really feel like they changed after all that time.


I just imagine that if Iraq reflects that same type of system, that idea of promiscuous power sharing, that if you have any political entrepreneurs that arise, they’re going to have enormous incentives to come into the coalition and essentially become just a part of the elite so that they never really offer an alternative to what currently exists. Voters will become disillusioned very soon after they learn about that new political entrepreneur. I mean, does that sound right?

Marsin Alshamary

This is where I think the boycott and electoral turnout is really important because if political entrepreneurs are making gradual gains and there’s a few of them, it’s much easier to draw them into the fold of the consensus system. But if they come in with very large numbers, because they’ve tapped into this incredible segment of the society that doesn’t want to vote, then it’s not as easy to bring them into the fold. Then you can have what Iraq has never had before, which is a majority government and an opposition government. Then you can do things like question ministers for their performance and bring up corruption cases and hold people accountable.


I think that’s the key difference here. We don’t really have a clear idea of different segments of society as electorates and what their potential is and how they map onto the system. So, my hope is there.


I find it interesting that you’re talking about a lot of the challenges that democracy faces in Iraq, but Islam hasn’t come up. Indeed, based on your paper, I don’t get the impression that there’s any reason for it to come up. Does Iraq demonstrate that Islam as well as Arab culture really are compatible with democracy?

Marsin Alshamary

I think what Iraq demonstrates is that in order to have an enduring democracy, which Iraq doesn’t have, it’s not consolidated, it’s a work in progress and it might go downhill, you need it to be organic and rooted in society. It’s not going to look like what Western democracies look like. It’s not going to have necessarily that liberal aspect that is so prized elsewhere. You know, rather than me talk about it, I always tell people to read Shadi Hamid’s book, which I think deals with it in a wonderful way. But one thing I found really interesting in Iraq is that there is a conversation happening about Islam and democracy that I saw happen in the US like two decades ago.


There is a question of whether Islam can be compatible in democracy. In Iraq, the reason it’s asked is because Iraq has largely been ruled, at least the Prime Ministers, have represented Islamist parties pretty continuously from 2005 onwards with a brief break from 2019 for two years. But for the most part, it’s a country that’s been ruled by Islamists. So, there’s this association that Islamists are corrupt or unable to govern, that they don’t provide democracy, that they have ulterior motives, et cetera. The discussion in Iraq has then become what is the proper separation of religion and the state in the country. Can you have an Islamist in a democracy?


This is a really interesting discussion because it’s kind of polarized Iraq in the sense that in order to be what Iraqis call a liberal, or they developed their own word, which is madani, it’s a specific word that tries to put secularism aside but still have everything else just to appeal to the population. There’s still this perception I’ve noticed that you can’t have personal piety and political liberalism or political inclusion or separate religion and the state. Politically, they can’t coexist and this is a discussion that’s slowly happening. I’ve seen it with civil society organizations. There’s a need to either be like I’m a liberal, therefore I don’t have these personal practices and I believe in this kind of state. But if you are personally pious, there’s question marks about your ability to actually uphold the state that I believe in.


I think these are the very, very nascent stages of this discussion. I think it will mature. Because Iraqi society is very rich, different kinds of individuals, various levels of both piety and political interest. But to me it was so funny because it’s literally the same discussion we had in the U.S. about if you’re personally pious whether you are really able to be a Democrat. Can you actually separate your personal beliefs from your political beliefs? But it becomes even more complicated in Iraq for the Shia, because there is this model next door of a theocracy. So, it’s at much higher stakes in Iraq than it is in the U.S.


But when you talk about Islamists, I think it’s important to keep in mind that you can be Muslim without being an Islamist. You can even be a pious Muslim without being an Islamist, because it’s almost an ideology – the idea of Islamism. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my understanding of Islamist parties and the idea of Islamism itself.

Marsin Alshamary

Nope. That’s exactly right. Islamism is more of a particular political ideology that is unsurprisingly native to the Middle East. But the thing that I was talking about is this association of Islamism with Islam that still hasn’t matured in Iraq. I mean, to give you an example of it, no one can see me on this podcast, but people who know me know that I wear a hijab and so I’m very visibly Muslim. I was having a meeting with a civil society organization in Iraq and one of the people present looks at me and says, ‘oh, but you’re wearing a hijab. You must be an Islamist.’ That was a moment of awakening for me. A realization that, ‘Oh no. They hadn’t yet separated the fact that I could be wearing a hijab and also believe that religion and the state should be separated along these particular lines.’


So, like I said, it’s a discussion that’s happening and I think it’s wonderful that this discussion is happening, by the way, because we’ve never really had an opportunity to do that in Iraq. We’ve been under authoritarianism for so long and been told how to think about religion and politics that this is wonderful. I enjoy these conversations. I enjoy the stages that they go through to get to a conclusion.


So, based on our conversation so far, it sounds like the greatest threat to Iraqi democracy is going to be weak economic performance. That if the state can’t deliver, not just strong growth, but equitable growth, that it’s going to be a challenge to be able to maintain any form of democracy, even a flawed form of democracy. Why do many Iraqis, not all, but many Iraqis seem to associate democracy with weak economic performance?

Marsin Alshamary

It’s due to a number of factors, but I think the biggest one is that they think of Iraq as being a flawed democracy. It’s obviously a consociational system which they associate with corruption, which is associated with poor economic management and therefore poverty and unemployment. This is the link in Iraq, and this is why Iraqis think that democracy leads to bad economic planning and to mismanagement of Iraq’s incredible wealth. By the way, I say this, but if you actually look up the public opinion data on Arab Barometer, I’m not just talking about the Iraqi Street based on walking around and talking to people, but the actual surveys on it.


There’s a strong association of democracies with poor economic performance and one of the things about Iraq that we haven’t talked about today is that it’s an incredibly corrupt country. I mean, the degree of corruption in Iraq is astounding and horrifying. I think that adds to the citizen’s sense that not only do they not have jobs and the social security and all these things, but also, they’re being insulted because they’re technically in a rich country that can’t provide for its citizens’ most basic needs. This really is the challenge for Iraq going forward, because economic grievances are hugely associated with political instability.


So, this might unfold any moment into protests and perhaps the next mass protests in Iraq won’t be ones that are reformist minded. They won’t want to send people to parliament and try to seek change. They might give up entirely on that mechanism and lead to something more revolutionary. Given how many arms are on the street in Iraq, anything that’s destabilizing in that way can easily devolve into armed conflict or to civil war. So, there’s always that systemic threat in Iraq.


But in a completely different perspective, if you just look at Iraq’s demographics, we talked about how young the country is, every year there’s new people entering the job market in Iraq and the job market in Iraq has not been developed. It’s still mainly public sector employment. You can’t keep employing people in the public sector. You just can’t keep affording it no matter how much oil you sell, particularly at the rate of population growth we have and the fact that oil is estimated to be in the decline in the future.


There’s no investment in long-term economic productivity outside of the oil sector. No investment in the private sector and no concerted effort to reshape the social contract between the state and citizens so that there isn’t a sense the state has to provide a public sector job for everyone which is the mindset in Iraq at the moment. It’s changing slowly, but what Iraq is going through essentially is what a lot of countries went through after they left the Soviet Union. You have a state-run economic system that’s just no longer sustainable, not with population growth. Of course, Iraq is a weird Frankenstein monster in that it both has that and then like an open market because of 2003, so adding more pressure for reform. But I think you characterize as correctly. I think the biggest challenge to Iraq is economic.


So, you mentioned 2003 again and you mentioned it earlier in our conversation. I want to circle back. How do you think about the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and its legacy knowing what you know about the state of Iraq today?

Marsin Alshamary

I mean, I think there are a few things that a lot of people point to when they think about the American invasion. It’s usually the debaathification issue and the disbanding of the Army, et cetera. I think we’ve already dealt with those as a discipline as Iraqi analysts. But the ones that we talk about less are the ones that we started this conversation with, which is the U.S. by invading and occupying Iraq tainted the country permanently so that nothing can happen in the country without being associated with the invasion. Everything has to be seen in the light of whether it was the right move or the wrong move which I think is the wrong question.


In addition to that there’s legacies that we don’t talk about as much. I’ve written about corruption being one of the legacies of the American invasion and that’s something I strongly believe in. Iraqis are very, like I said, upset about corruption in the country. But people frequently think that corruption is something that happened in recent years. It had its roots in the 1990s. It had roots in the way that the US mismanaged funds in Iraq and kind of threw money at everything in a way that Iraq could never really bounce back from both in how civil society sought out funds and more importantly how contractors working with the government became accustomed to this particular relationship with ministries for contracts and things.


So, there is this pervasive corruption in the country that does have roots in the policies that the US took in 2003. There’s less an acknowledgement of this and one of the things that I’m trying to work on is more of an acknowledgement of the US’ role in corruption, because it’s unfair to ask Iraq to overcome this deep-rooted corruption in the country without acknowledging how far back it goes and what events motivated it. Like I said, this goes back even beyond the invasion. This goes back to the sanctions that were imposed on the country in the 90s.


Do you feel like there was a way to topple Saddam Hussein that wouldn’t have made so many of the mistakes that America did? Because oftentimes when we think about the American invasion of Iraq it’s easy to just go through a litany of mistakes that America made. But was the original mistake, the original sin, to just have the hubris to think that you could overthrow a dictator and make everything better in the first place?

Marsin Alshamary

That definitely was the original sin and I don’t think anyone is in disagreement about that, but what’s amazing to me having gone through grad school as a political scientist and learning all these things is how could an entire foreign policy community, an entire government, think that they can go into a country that is, like you said, so diverse, with so many cleavages and simply remove one man and think that it’s going to morph into this friendly, happy democracy that’s going to be a US ally for life. I mean, you can tell from my face that I still to this day don’t understand how so many people miss this when it’s politics 101, if you’re talking about IR or civil war or any of these subfields.


I think there’s a lot of individuals, Americans and Iraqis, who are involved in promoting this that carry a lot of responsibility for pushing a false narrative of what Iraq would look like and for not carefully planning. You know, we said the original sin is invading, but beyond the original sin, why were there so many other mistakes made? Why are these mistakes such easy ones to avoid? I mean, I don’t know. We’ve talked about this all day. We have such a nuanced understanding of what Iraq looks like. We have such a nuanced understanding of how political violence unfolds in other countries. How can an entire community of people who are specialized in this not realize that waves of violence would unfold and that it would be permanently damaging to the region for years to come?


Circling back to the original quote, it said, “Iraq today is more of a democracy than most people think, but less of a democracy than it could be.” I think one of the reasons why it’s still less of a democracy than it could be, apart from all of the challenges and just listing those challenges, is really the idea of democratic consolidation. The fact that for Iraq to become more of a democracy, it’s going to need to find ways to consolidate its democracy. I get the impression from reading your piece that the most important ingredient for democratic consolidation is really going to be a confident opposition. Why do you feel that a confident opposition is so necessary for democratic consolidation?

Marsin Alshamary

To take that a step further, it’s a confident opposition in an environment of freedom of speech and expression. Those two things are completely linked and this is what worries me about Iraq today. There’s this recession that’s been happening over the last few years in freedom of speech and in the freedom of expression and predation on protestors, et cetera. You know, recently two Iraqis wrote in Al Jazeera about the changing environment for civil society. This is the main challenge and it’s closely associated with being able to foster an opposition. An opposition isn’t just necessarily a parliamentary opposition.


It’s an opposition that can eventually go into Parliament and it’s because you need a sizable, respectable group of people who can stand as representatives of the Iraqi people and hold others accountable and hold members of the traditional political class accountable through the mechanisms that we already have existing through Parliament and through other various government institutions. The reason I think this is important for democratic consolidation, even though it’s a very difficult path, is because if we don’t go this way, then we are either headed towards revolution or violence or we’re headed towards allowing these incursions on freedom of speech and on other democratic institutions to continue happening so that they’ll slowly take away the progress that we have made.


What we have in Iraq today, we can’t take for granted. Every day that we don’t fight for it, we will lose it. Every day that we aren’t building political entrepreneurs, as you called them, every day that we’re not building civil society that holds accountable people in government, we’re going to be losing more freedom of speech, we’re going to be losing more assembly, more things that are important to us. So, we essentially have no choice in Iraq, but to pursue this model of reform and to do so most effectively is to invest in this opposition, this credible, strong opposition.


So, a popular term in political science is authoritarian legacies and I get the impression that authoritarian legacies are likely one of the things that are holding the Iraqi people down, that have weighed down its democracy in many ways. We’ve kind of hinted at those, but I also think about the reverse idea, the idea of democratic legacies. That when a democracy fails, when it collapses, like in Tunisia, for instance, that the experience of democracy might offer a legacy for people to find their way back to it once again. Do you feel that if democracy fails in Iraq, that the people would be able to find their way back to democracy again in the future?

Marsin Alshamary

I think Iraq has had years to build civil society and to have discourse. We have so many discussions in Iraq about electoral laws and democracy and freedom of speech, et cetera. These things are valuable and they’re attributes that will stay with us even if the system takes a bad turn in the future and we go towards what I call multi-party authoritarianism or subnational authoritarianism. The political consciousness that’s developed in Iraq, like we said, the young people who have very high aspirations for what democracy should be like, they will continue to perpetuate these ideas no matter what system of government that they’re living under. That gives me a lot of hope. But being realistic, it’s very difficult, if you lose certain assets, it’s very hard to come back and get them later.


So, for me, the best path to democracy is to not lose what we have and to continue building forward because it’s very difficult to build something once you’ve lost it. It’s not impossible. I mean, with Tunisia, for example, no matter what happens in the country, the Tunisian people remain the same. They are the people who created a democracy during the Arab Spring out of pretty much nothing. As a force they are going to be present in Tunisia no matter what in the same way that this new generation of Iraqis, this new group of civil society, is going to be present in Iraq and a force in Iraq no matter what actually happens in the political system.


Well, Marsin, that gives me a lot of hope. Thank you so much for talking to me today. I want to plug the article one more time. It’s called, “Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy.” It’s in the latest edition of the Journal of Democracy. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Marsin Alshamary

Thank you so much for having me today. It was really nice talking to you.

Key Links

Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy” in the Journal Democracy by Marsin Alshamary

Follow Marsin Alshamary on Twitter @MarsinRA

Learn more about Marsin Alshamary

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