By giving up his bid to retain his job, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of Iraq raised hopes on Thursday of a way out of the political impasse that had prevented the formation of a new government. But the premise that this political process will put Iraq onto a path to stability is doubtful.

A deeper problem compounds the sectarian differences plaguing Iraqi society: Iraq’s middle classes are under severe attack, and with them the prospect for real democracy. These middle strata, especially the educated and professional, form the backbone of any mature society.

The Association of University Lecturers in Iraq said last month that 182 university professors have been killed since 2003. In May 2005, the Iraqi Medical Association estimated that about 10 percent of Baghdad’s 32,000 registered doctors – Sunnis, Shiites and Christians—had left work in the previous year.

The business sector is similarly endangered. Problems began with the IMF-inspired privatization policies of the U.S. interim government soon after the invasion. All restrictions on foreign investment were lifted and multinational corporations swept in, leading to the collapse of many small businesses, and with them local economies and employment.

Last month witnessed an acceleration of violence against civilians in Baghdad that targeted businesses. Ninety people were killed or kidnapped at their workplaces and money and assets were stolen.

The elimination of large and vital sectors of the Iraqi middle classes is not new: It happened twice in the 20th century.

The first was the emigration of the Jewish community in 1950-51. Until the late 1940s, the Jews were a prominent part of life in Baghdad, where the great majority of an estimated 120,000 Iraqi Jews lived. Jews were government functionaries, professors, businessmen and professionals in medicine, law, journalism and music. Formation of the state of Israel and war with the Arab states made life increasingly hard for the Jews—a great majority emigrated.

The second wave of middle class expulsions targeted Shiite merchants, who had replaced the Jews in the markets in the 1950s. Saddam expelled large numbers of Shiites in the 1970s and ’80s on the grounds that they were Iranian. Many were wealthy merchants and professionals whose property and businesses were expropriated for the benefit of the regime and its clients.

Until the 1970s, Iraqi society, despite violence and repression, had been progressing away from the narrow confines of religion and tribe with the formation of political parties and professional associations. The middle classes were the bedrock of this developing civil society.

However, by the end of the 1970s, the middle classes had lost their independence. Pressured by Saddam’s regime, professionals found that the only way to survive was to join the Baath Party apparatus. Lucrative contracts and business opportunities were distributed depending on proximity and loyalty to the ruling clique. Now the former Baath Party members are being punished for doing what was necessary to get by.

As the independent middle classes were decimated, what remained outside the regime’s sphere were the poorer sectors, dependent for their livelihood and security on the warlords, tribal sheiks and religious networks that connected them to the sectarian parties. These leaders and their cronies are now in charge of government ministries and are monopolizing opportunities for gain as they oversee the dispersal of large budgets and employment opportunities. The middle class that emerges from this process will not be independent.

This cycle of eliminating the independent middle classes must be broken. Rebuilding the middle strata is crucial for democracy and must be part of the discussion on rebuilding Iraq.

How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "The Missing Middle Class," Middle East Report Online, April 21, 2006.

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