This article analyses the nature of the legitimacy deficits of the post-2003 Iraqi state and the grounds upon which alternative political orders have been proposed. The theoretical framework groups possible changes into three types: redistribution, regime change and secession. Empirically, the article illustrates these dynamics through two contemporary challenges to the Iraqi state: the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the Tishreen protest movement. The intention is not to compare and contrast the two, as they are widely divergent types of alternative orders, but rather to reflect on the nature of their grievances against the Iraqi state, and the role of identity in shaping their alternative visions. The article argues that identity is key to understanding both the perceived legitimacy failures of the state and the political alternatives proposed, but also efforts by the political elite to delegitimise these challenges to the state. Finally, the Iraqi case demonstrates that the role of identity in legitimation is fluid and contingent rather than static and deterministic, with the salience of different identities shifting over time and being affected by other forms of legitimacy.
- The Iraqi state suffers from a legitimacy deficit it must urgently attend to. Failure to respond to moderate demands can result in a complete rejection of state legitimacy, with the potential to generate extremism and armed conflict along any number of faultlines.
- Identities, such as sect and class, can affect the relationship between citizens and the Iraqi state, but they do not prescribe it. A reliance on identity politics to legitimise the state is not sustainable.
- Iraq suffers from a Catch-22. Systemic change to increase input legitimacy, such as abolishing the muhasasa system, will be violently resisted by the state and could lead to civil war. More modest reforms to address key failures of output legitimacy, such as reforming the rule of law to ensure accountability, are unlikely to be effective without systemic change.
- Policymakers should work productively with all protestors who demand the redress of similar grievances. This will be more effective in bolstering overall state legitimacy than trying to properly represent all communities via their sectarian elites.
Photo by Muhammad Nabeel