Friday, December 30, 2011

Making Sense of the Arab Spring - Part 3: Egypt's Stalled Democracy

Will Egypt's democracy activists be able to tame the military? As I mentioned in a earlier post on Egypt's Arab Spring, the main threat to Egypt's democratic transition is neither its Islamist-secular divide, nor intra-Islamist conflict between moderates and Salafis. The key impediment is the military (or what should more accurately be called the military-industrial complex) . Will the military cede power to civilian leadership? Thus far, the answer is not at all encouraging.

Two recent events underscore the power and central role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in post-Mubarak politics: on December 28th, SCAF announced that it was lending $1 billion to the central bank to prop up Egypt's deteriorating currency. Egypt's foreign currency reserves have been cut in half from $36 billion since political demonstrations a year ago to $18 billion at the end of this past November, threatening a balance of payments crisis. As reserves approach dangerous levels, the developing crisis threatens to devalue Egypt's currency still further and add to inflation, leading to a spike in local commodity prices that Egyptians can ill afford.

SCAF's other move was the sacking the following day of the offices of 17 civil society organizations, 3 of which are American, on the grounds of accepting foreign donations and "operating outside Egyptian law" (never mind that the military itself accepts $1.3 billion in US foreign aid each year).

Both of these developments suggest that we should not expect any meaningful democracy to develop in Egypt anytime soon. As Freedom House, one of the organizations whose computers and files were seized, noted, the attacks “come in the context of an intensive campaign by the Egyptian government to dismantle civil society through a politically-motivated legal campaign.”

SCAF's ability to lend the Egyptian government funds and suppress legitimate civil society organizations tells us two things: first, the military is really a state within a state that answers to no one but its leadership; and second, it is not serious about allowing anything more than the trappings of democracy to emerge in Egypt.

In their obsessive focus on the Islamist movement in Egypt, Western analysts continue to overlook the main roadblock to positive change, namely the SCAF. The Egyptian military has huge economic holdings that are estimated to constitute anywhere from 8% to 30% of total Egyptian GDP. Whatever the correct percentage, the question becomes whether the state controls the military or the whether the state is merely an appendage of the military.

The military is thoroughly enmeshed in Egypt's economy. It manages bakeries and gas stations, owns industrial factories that produce everything from bottled waters to tanks, and even controls toll roads inside Egypt. The military owns large amounts of land around Cairo where its members live in fashionable gated communities, complete with sod for golf courses flown in from the United States.

The Egyptian military differs from many of the armed forces in other states involved in the Arab Spring. It is not organized according to the professional model that characterizes the Tunisian military. It was never fragmented like the Libyan military which, for all intents and purposes, was thoroughly destroyed with the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi. While certain cliques control the Egyptian officer corps, it is not organized along sectarian lines like the Syrian military which, if Bashar al-Asad's regime falls, will take down the Alawite dominated army with it.

The Egyptian military more closely resembles the former Kemalist military in Turkey. For decades, it too controlled a large state public sector, including banks, industry and trading companies. The Turkish military removed governments at will, especially when it thought they were infringing on its rights. It took a long time but the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) that controls the Turkish government has finally been placed the military under civilian control. If the Turkish model provides any example, the effort to convert Egypt's military into an apolitical institution, designed to do what the armed forces are intended to do - defend the nation - will involve a long struggle indeed.

SCAF reflects more the Algerian model where, as one Arab colleague, Dr. Abdel Hamid al-Siyam, put it, the military owns a state, and that state is called Algeria. Indeed, SCAF owns a state as well and that state is Egypt.

That separating the military from its economic holdings will be extremely difficult was already evident this past November when SCAF proposed rules that would remove the military and its funding from constitutional oversight. The last thing SCAF wants to see is that its budget be made public. When nation-wide demonstrations were called to reject the military's refusal to place itself under civilian control, a brutal crackdown ensued in which 40 demonstrators were killed in a week of protests.

What then can one expect now that Egypt has held its first post-Mubarak elections? As the recent election results indicate, a new Islamist dominated government will undoubtedly be installed, but with little or no power of control over the military. While it might be allowed to implement some of its political agenda, ]such as reining in what are considered religiously inappropriate Western entertainment programming, the new government will not be allowed to infringe on the military's prerogatives.

While the SCAF might see this as an acceptable political equilibrium, the new Egyptian government will be unable to implement the economic reforms necessary to jump start the Egyptian economy or tackle the massive corruption that pervades the state apparatus unless it can gain control of military spending. As exit polls and numerous analyses of the elections have made clear, the vote for the Islamists was not a vote for a more religious society and constraints on individual freedoms, but for controlling corruption and expanding economic opportunity. If this doe not occur, the new government will lose its legitimacy.

Egypt needs to create at least 175,000 new jobs each year (some estimates put hte number at closer to 250,000) just to maintain the present high level of unemployment which hits Egyptian youth especially hard. If more jobs aren't forthcoming, more demonstrations can be expected. While many junior officers and conscripts find the military's attacks on demonstrators repugnant, the military has plenty of funds to continue to support the special security forces that it uses to suppress demonstrations.

After the first elections in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak (elections that have been compromised by irregular ballots and shifting candidate names on elections lists, just to name two problems that have surfaced), we can expect a political system that parallels those of some central American states where elected officials serve as front men for military rule, or the Pakistan model where the president and prime minister bow to the rule of the army and its security arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The United States, Europe and Turkey are wise to have begun a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood which will need all the support it can muster if it is to mount any type of challenge to the SCAF. While it might seem a radical step, withdrawing the US's annual $1.3 billion in foreign aid to the military and channeling it instead to local development organzaitions would send a strong message to those who control Egypt's military-industrial complex. The message is simple: either allow for substantive change, including civilian oversight of the military's budget, and tackling corruption in the state public sector, or lose US financial support.

Hopefully, the US learned by now that support for autocratic forces is no longer a viable long-term strategy in the Middle East. Only meaningful democratic change will bring stability to the region. Egyptians are a politically sophisticated people who not allow themselves to establish a radical and intolerant Islamic state. The US and its allies insult this political sophistication if they do not keep up the pressure on the SCAF to allow real democratic change

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Ripple Effects of the Political Crisis in Iraq

What are the dangers posed by the spreading political crisis in Iraq, both domestically and in the larger region? Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's gambit of issuing an arrest warrant forVice-President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of having been involved in the 2006 bombing of the Shiite al-Askari mosque in the city of Samarra and of being complicit in the assassination attempt of former deputy prime-minister Salam al-Zawbai'i in 2007 ring hollow.

First, these charges are not new. Coming immediately after the final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, they smack of sectarianism and a power grab. The charges leveled against deputy prime minister Salih al-Mutlak, of administrative irregularities, which effectively prevents him from serving in his current post, also seem highly dubious, since corruption and malfeasance plagues much of Maliki's current administration. These charges were leveled a day after Multlak referred to Maliki as a "dictator."

First and foremost, al-Maliki's actions threaten to further undermine efforts at national reconciliation among Iraq's 3 main ethnoconfessional groups and, in the process, erode Iraqi federalism. That both al-Hashimi and al-Mutlak are Sunni Arabs strikes many Iraqis as sectarianism on the part of Maliki's Shiite dominated government. Already the Sunni Arab Provinces of north-central Iraq have voted to create their own semi-autonomous region on the model of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), although the Diyala Provincial Council subsequently rescinded its vote after widespread demonstrations against the province becoming a semi-autonomous region (see al-Hayat, Dec. 21).

Second, Maliki's efforts to consolidate power in his hands increases Iranian influence in Iraq since they are designed to reduce the influence of secular and anti-Iranian political forces. Maliki has not only alienated Iraq's Sunni Arabs but the Kurds as well. It was Kurdish deputies in parliament who allowed Maliki to create a ruling coalition after 9 months of wrangling following the March 2010 parliamentary elections.

The semi-autonomous KRG suffered attacks by Iranian forces earlier this year, ostensibly to root out PJAK guerrillas who fight Iran from Iraqi soil to improve conditions of Iran's Kurdish population. Certainly , the KRG is loath to see increased Iranian political clout in Baghdad. That the Kurds are sheltering al-Hashimi in the KRG is indicative of their displeasure with Maliki's actions.

Third, both the Kurds but especially the Sunni Arab population sees Maliki's actions as an attempt to marginalize them politically. This process further undermines trust between the central government in Baghdad and the provinces, threatening to stokes the flames of civil unrest. Now that American troops are gone, the prospect of a reemergence of the Sunni Arab insurgency and increased conflict between the KRG and Baghdad over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas along the so-called "Green Line" separating the KRG and Arab Iraq have increased and could lead to renewed bloodshed.

Fourth, Maliki's moves have created apprehension in Saudi Arabia and among the Sunni Arab dominated Gulf states which are already nervous about Iran's efforts to become a regional hegemon as evidenced by its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. As the crisis in Bahrayn makes clear, there is great concern on the part of the Saudi and Arab Gulf monarchies that their own Shiite populations will demand more political rights. If the current crisis in Iraq continues, the result will be further efforts of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to interfere in Iraq's domestic politics on the side of the Sunni Arab population as they did when the insurgency led by al-Qai'da in the Mesopotamian Valley began after 2003.

Fifth, Maliki's actions at consolidating political power in an authoritarian manner have enhanced the cynicism of the populace at large and undermined their confidence in the democratization process. Just when many Iraqis thought that the March 2010 parliamentary elections heralded a turn towards real democratization, Maliki manipulated the political process to exclude al-Iraqiya, the winning coalition. Hence Maliki's ability to ignore the people's will by not ceding any meaningful cabinet posts and political power to al-Iraqiya has undermined Iraq's still fragile democracy.

Sixth, if the crisis continues, it will accelerate the "brain drain" that Iraq is suffering as educated Iraqis from the middle and upper middle classes seek to leave the country to fulfill their professional goals. The loss of the educated classes has many negative consequences. It hinders improving the quality of the services provided by the state bureaucracy which is populated by many employees who do not possess the necessary education or training for the positions that they hold. It also undermines efforts at economic development because the state lacks the competent officials required to facilitate foreign investment, not only in the dominant hydrocarbon sector but in the developing private sector as well.

Finally, while Maliki's short-sighted policies may enhance his political power, the resulting political discontent and instability that these policies engender could undermine foreign investment. Already the Maliki government is embroiled in a dispute with Exxon-Mobil which is owed $50 million for the energy giant's work at increasing oil production in the West Qurna field in southern Iraq.

What makes this conflict especially troubling is Exxon-Mobil's signing of a separate contract with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which has infuriated the central government in Baghdad. Analysts have suggested that the Iraqi government is withholding payment over what it considers an illegitimate contract signed by Exxon-Mobil with the KRG.

If political instability increases, including attacks by insurgents on foreign companies engaged in exploration of Iraq's oil fields (and natural gas fields as well), the entire process of foreign investment in Iraq's energy sector could grind to a halt. Since the Iraqi government began awarding contracts to foreign oil companies in 2008, the profits derived from these contracts, known as Technical Service Agreements (TSA), have been very small.

While foreign companies must invest large sums of money upfront In Iraq in the hope of gaining more lucrative contracts in the future, there is no incentive for them to take such risks if these investments will not produce profits in the long term. The key phrase here is long-term. No foreign firm will invest in Iraq if it thinks that the country is politically unstable.

KRG president Masoud Barzani has called for a national conference of all political parties to confront the ongoing crisis. President Jalal Talabani has expressed doubts in the charges leveled against Tariq al-Hashimi (al-Hayat, Dec. 21), and Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Sadrist bloc, one of the mainstays of Maliki's parliamentary coalition, not only called Maliki a "traitor" for traveling to Washington, DC to meet with President Obama (al-Hayat, Dec 12), but now has called for new parliamentary elections to address the current crisis.

Maliki may have overplayed his hand. There are calls for a no-confidence vote in his government and al-Iraqiya has proposed replacing Maliki with either Ibrahim al-Ja'fari or Adil Abd al-Mahdi. While Maliki's attempt to dispense with the cumbersome 3 party structure that requires compromise with political forces he finds distasteful, such as the Kurdish bloc and al-Iraqiya, he should realize that national reconciliation is not only in his own personal interest - namely retaining his position as prime minister - but in finally beginning the healing process that Iraq so desperately needs.

While the Iraqi people look on with great dissatisfaction, if not disgust, Iraq's political elite has yet to learn the lesson that there can be no authoritarian regime such as that of the former dictator Saddam Husayn. Compromise and national reconciliation represent the only road forward in Iraq, Failure to do so will have serious negative consequences that will only serve those forces that want to see Iraq become a weak and fragmented nation-state.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Crisis in Iraq

Developments over the past few days represent the continuation of a disturbing political trend since the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Methodically, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been maneuvering to gain complete control over Iraq's political system. Placing independent government agencies under his control, such as the Central Bank and the Independent High Election Commission, intimidating the judiciary to adjudicate decisions that favor his rule, and creating security services that report directly to him, Maliki is on his way to establishing an new authoritarian political system.

President Obama's comments that we leave behind a stable and democratic Iraq indicates one of the problems with US policy in Iraq. The US has not been forceful enough in criticizing Maliki's moves to undermine Iraq's nascent experiment with democratization. While respecting Iraq's sovereignty as an independent nation-state, the issue is not one of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs but one of keeping the pressure on authoritarian rulers and authoritarian wannabes throughout the world, including Iraq.

For those who argue that what is happening in Iraq - particularly the efforts to marginalize the Kurds and arrest Sunni political leaders such as Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of engaging in terrorist activities - reflects its "artificiality" as a nation-state, we need remember that the March 2010 parliamentary elections. These elections witnessed a large nation-wide turnout of well over 60%, were devoid of violence, were said to be fair and free according to international observers, and were won by a cross-national coalition based in secular politics. That coalition - al-Iraqiya - won the votes of Sunni Arabs , Shiites and not an insignificant number of Kurds. The new reformist Gorran (Change) Party. that won a large number of seats in the Kurdish Regfional Government parliament elections of July 2009, along with its coalition partner, the Services and Reform List, won 8 parliamentary seats in the March 2010 elections.

The point here is that the problem is not Iraq's artificiality as a nation-state, but the quality of its political leadership. And we need remember that the current leadership gained power with US help when it facilitated the return to Iraq of large number s of expatriate politicians, including Nuri al-Maliki. Beyond the need to criticize repressive regimes, the US bears considerable responsibility for the current political state of affairs in Iraq.

What should the US be doing given Maliki's high stakes actions that could lead Iraq back to sectarian violence and even the possibility of its splitting up as a country? The US still has many cards in its hand. First an foremost, it controls the flow of new weapons and military technology to Iraq. Second, it is involved in training of Iraqi troops, security personnel and police forces.

Third, the US continues to advocate on Iraq;'s behalf in international economic fora, such as helping Iraq conclude its debt obligations to Kuwait resulting from the 1990-91 occupation of that country. Fourth, the US plays an important role in mediating relations between Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states which view the Maliki government as a Trojan Horse for Iran. Finally, for all the talk of Iranian influence, Iraq's political elite still seeks to use US influence as a counterweight to Iran. In short, the US still wields considerable influence in Iraq.

In the short term, the US should maintain some patience since a political solution to the current impasse between Maliki, and the Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders may still be worked out. However, in back channels, it needs to make known in the most vigorous manner, its alarm and dissatisfaction with Maliki's behavior. If such behavior intensifies, public criticism will be in order.

If Maliki continues to pursue his authoritarian policies, the US needs to ask itself whether it wants to be drawn in to another situation such as occurred in Egypt under the rule of Husni Mubarak. Is it worth maintaining a strong position for US military and police trainers and selling weapon systems to Iraq if the Maliki government comes to replicate the type of dictatorial rule that was overthrown in 2003? Is the US willing to once again support authoritarianism with the idea that the benefits gained by not criticizing Maliki are offset by its ability to use its position in Iraq to offset Iranian influence in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula?

The disastrous US policies in Iran that led to the revolution of 1978-79, the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt with the resulting chaos and threat to stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the turmoil that resulted from supporting Muammar al-Qaddafi's rule in Libya demonstrate the self-defeating consequences of supporting authoritarian rule in the Middle East (and elsewhere).

The Obama administration needs to realize that democratization in Iraq is not just an abstract question of creating a desirable political system. Failure to push forward with democratization in Iraq means to effectively exclude the Sunni Arab population as well as the Kurds from political participation and power. The danger here is a return to violence and the possibility of Iraq breaking up into 3 mini-states. Already, the demands of the Sunni Arab provinces in north-central Iraq to create a regional government such as the KRG point to the centrifugal political forces at work.

A fragmented Iraq would not be in Iraq's interest, the interest of the broader Arab Mashriq, and certainly not in the interest of the United States. The Obama administration needs to carefully assess whether the short term gains of maintaining its position in Iraq are worth not calling Maliki to task for his destructive political policies.

Iraq is at a tipping point. Is the US ready to meet the challenge or will it hide its head in the sand and continue to foster the illusion that Iraq is on its way to becoming a "sovereign, reliant and democratic country"?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Democratization and the US Legacy in Iraq

What is the US legacy in Iraq, especially its impact on democratization in the Middle East? By the standards that were originally set forth as the reasons for the 2003 invasion, we have a very mixed picture. Saddam Husayn and his repressive Ba'thist regime are gone for which many Iraqis are thankful. Yet Iraq faces many problems which threaten its efforts to achieve security, national reconciliation and economic growth. Perhaps worst of all, the cause of democratization in the Middle East has been undermined by many aspects of US policy in Iraq.

First, should the US have invaded Iraq? Let us begin by admitting that it is unconscionable that there was so little criticism of Saddam Husayn and his Ba'thist regime prior to its overthrow in 2003. Whether the statistic is 2 or 3 million Iraqis, Saddam and his henchmen were responsible for genocide. That so few intellectuals, both Arab and Western, called this to the attention of the world is something of which no one can be proud. If we are to take human rights seriously, then Saddam and the Ba'th were among some of the most egregious violators of the late 20th century.

The US and the world community came to possess an enormous amount of documents after the 1991 Uprising (Intifada) that followed the 1991 Gulf War. An extraordinary trove of documents that called for mass killings, many signed by Saddam himself, made clear the extent to which the Ba'th was responsible for genocide. If the US and other countries - Western and non-Western - had been serious about removing Saddam from power, they would used these documents immediately after the 1991 Gulf War to indict Saddam and demand that he be remanded for trial in a special international tribunal as was done for Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, and with former Serbian dictator, Slobadon Milosevic.

To argue, as some critics of the US invasion have done, that Iraq is worse off today than under Saddam and the Ba'th is an untenable position. However, that does not mean that we need agree with the manner in which Saddam was removed from power. If we have learned one lesson from the Iraq experience, it is that unilateralism in international affairs is neither an effective nor acceptable component of a country's foreign policy.

Second, despite the sectarian infighting that continues to bedevil Iraqi politics, we need to keep in sight the impact that many of the early, ill advised decisions taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The CPA's policies set the stage for the many of the problems Iraq faces as US troops complete their withdrawal from the country.

The most serious mistake was disbanding the 385,000 man Iraqi conscript army. That army had an ethnically integrated officer corps. Most of its members despised Saddam and his regime because elite units such as the Republican Guards, the Special Republican Guards and the Fedayeen Saddam (Those who would sacrifice for Saddam) received preferential treatment. Members of the conscript army remembered being left in Kuwait in January 1991 to suffer carpet bombing by US and UN coalition aircraft, receiving substandard weaponry and often not being paid. Many begged the US to give them back their positions after May 2003.

Had the conscript army not been disbanded, a force would have been in place that could have assured stability in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam and the Ba'th. Disbanding the national police and the ill conceived policy of de-Ba'thification (a policy strongly influenced by Iraqi expatriates who were more interested in their individual political agendas than Iraq's national interests) only added to the number of Iraqis who developed a hostility to the US occupation. Because of the dire economic situation, many Iraqis were forced to join the anti-American insurgency that developed in late 2003 and after.

The extensive looting that occurred in Baghdad in April 2003, including the destruction and theft of many priceless artifacts in the Iraq Museum, led many Iraqis to immediately lose trust in American intentions in Iraq. Subsequently, few Iraqis were willing to support the US' occupation and fewer still believed in the stated goal of the invasion that the US truly wanted to bring democracy to Iraq.

The formation of the Iraqi Governing Council shortly after the toppling of Saddam along sectarian lines - the first government to be constructed according to ethnoconfessional quotas - set a terrible tone for post-Ba'thist Iraqi politics. While sectarianism informed most Iraq governments in the 20th century (the regime of General Abd al-Karim Qasim between 1958 and 1963 being a notable exception), none had ever made ethnoconfessional quotas an explicit criterion for membership in government.

Worse still, and often ignored by analysts of Iraq, was the failure of the US government to confront the severe unemployment and material suffering of the populace caused by the UN sanctions regime of the 1990s and the Ba'th's policies of favoring certain regions of the country, e.g., providing electricity to Baghdad at the expense of the largely Shi'i inhabited south.

As the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) demonstrated, when funds were used to give Iraqis work, even at menial jobs such as cleaning up neighborhoods, or repairing sewer lines and schools, violence virtually disappeared. A more culturally informed policy - an understanding that Iraqis needed not only physical security but economic security - would have nipped the insurgency in the bud. It would have undermined the incentives for Iraqis to take up arms against US forces and against the nascent Iraqi army and newly formed police forces.

The CPA's elimination of agricultural subsidies in August 2003 made Iraqi farmers' crops less competitive with Iranian and Syrian exports of fruits and vegetables. One of the outcomes was the migration of large numbers of Iraqi farmers, especially younger ones, to urban areas where they became available for recruitment by sectarian militias and criminal organizations.

It was only in 2006 and after when the Bush administration did a major shift in its policy that the insurgency was finally crushed. A key factor was the development of the "Awakening" (al-Sahwa) or "Sons of Iraq" movement that ended the military power of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq - an arm of al-Qa'ida in the Mesopotamian Valley.

The key factor in turning the situation around in Iraq was cultural sensitivity - listening to and respecting Iraqis, and following their lead in trying to bring stability to the country. Had the US followed such a policy earlier on, and had Saddam been removed from power by an international coalition, and not just by unilateral US action, the tremendous human and material losses in Iraq could have been avoided.

We also need to remember that Iraqis voted at high turnout levels in parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010, in Arab provincial legislative elections in 2009, and in the Kurdish Regional Government local parliamentary elections in 2009. The problems of Iraqi democracy are not those of its citizens but those of its elites, many of whom arrived on the political scene with the US invasion in 2003.

These political elites continue to pursue narrow political agendas, manipulating sectarian identities in the process. We need remember that Baghdad's and Arbil's sectarian entrepreneurs represent only a small (albeit powerful) percentage of the overall Iraqi populace, whether Arab, Kurdish, or Turkmen.

Many analysts still stress the sectarian dimension of Iraqi politics and, by extension, apply it to all the Arab world. This has led these analysts to trot out old, worn-out concepts such as the Arab "democracy deficit," and the lack of national identity. While still in its infancy, the Arab Spring belies many of these concepts. It is time for many Western analysts to look at themselves in the mirror and question their analytic frameworks. Which analysts, myself included, predicted the Arab Spring?

The US, the EU, and countries such as Turkey, India, Indonesia, and other countries committed to democracy need to continue to support forces in the Middle East, especially the region's youth, who are struggling for democratic change. The continud efforts of sectarian elites in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to impose authoritarian rule should not become an excuse for democracies outside the region to lose hope in its future.

While democratization movements face many challenges, achieving democratic change is the key to solving the problems of the Middle East. There can be no economic growth if social and political participation is limited to small rapacious elites or if women - 50% + of the population - are excluded from the public sphere by movements that purposely misinterpret Islam. Corruption - pervasive throughout the Middle East - can only be eliminated through representative, accountable and transparent governance.

Because the US made many flawed policy decisions in Iraq is no reason to compound these mistakes. Public opinion polls and many other indicators continue to show that Iraqis want democracy, but a democracy that offers them social justice in the form of needed social services. It would be a great tragedy if the US legacy in Iraq were to undermine US and Western support for democratization in Iraq and throughout the region.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sectarianism in Iraq: a Review

The following review of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity by Fanar Haddad, published by Columbia University Press, will appear in the winter 2012 issue of The Middle East Journal (vol. 66, no. 1).

Iraqi officials often deny the existence of sectarianism in Iraq. Conversely, Western analysts often view Iraq as an artificial nation comprised of an amalgam of mutually conflictual ethnoconfessional groups. A binary that presents Iraq as either devoid of or consumed by sectarian identities is obviously conceptually flawed. In Sectarianism in Iraq, Fanar Haddad seeks to expand our understanding of this difficult and complex topic.

Drawing upon symbolic anthropology, cultural analysis and post-modernism, the author develops a sophisticated analytic framework that emphasizes the impact of the post-Gulf War Uprising (Intifada) of 1991, the 2003 American invasion, and what the author terms the “civil war” that developed in the wake of the invasion to frame his study.

Sectarianism in Iraq is particularly insightful when examining the changing nature of social and political identities. The negative legacy of Saddam Husayn’s political manipulation of ethnoconfessional identities, especially during the 1990s UN sanctions regime, was compounded after 2003 by a weak state that has consistently failed to exercise the leadership needed to promote social trust and national reconciliation.

The author deftly analyzes how Shi'i identities following 2003 have come to reflect the obverse of Sunni Arab identities prior to 2003. The once dominant Sunni Arab political community now expresses themes of marginalization and victimization similar to those formerly expressed by Shi'a.

Sectarianism in Iraq exhibits conceptual parallels with Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear. While offering a trenchant critique of Ba'thist rule, Makiya presented Saddam’s regime as so powerful as to create an aura of its invincibility. In the process, Makiya inadvertently provided Saddam’s regime with support since his analysis suggested that efforts to overthrow it were futile.

Likewise, Sectarianism in Iraq presents a picture of post-1991 (and especially post-2003) Iraq in which sectarian identities have paralyzed state and society. The volume leaves the reader with the feeling that Iraq suffers from a social disease that can never be cured.

In presenting a partial analysis, the author proffers a theory that is conceptually monochromatic, half of the dialectic as it were. On the one hand, he is extremely thorough in demonstrating state discrimination against the Shi'a since the modern state’s founding in 1921. However, the study says virtually nothing about the powerful nationalist movement that emerged after WW I which fought to promote a national sense of Iraqi identity and to unite Iraqis of all ethnic and confessional origins.

The historical memory of that movement still lives. As the author himself notes, a Rwandan style genocide could never occur in Iraq (p. 54). Yet he never explains what factors lead some Iraqi to construct what he aptly terms a “myth-symbol complex” based in sectarianism as opposed to one that is grounded in a sense of national Iraqi identity.

Consequently, Sectarianism in Iraq cannot explain why Iraqis celebrated en masse Iraq’s unexpected victory in the 2007 Asia Cup, or why Iraqi Shi'a and Sunnis (and even Arabs and Kurds) still intermarry. It offers little insight into why public opinion polls consistently show that Iraqis view unemployment and lack of social services as far more important problems than sectarianism. It cannot tell us why Rashid al-Khayyun’s Against Sectarianism (Didd al-Ta’ifiya) was one of the most popular books at this past summer’s Baghdad Book Fair.

The author cannot expalin why so many Iraqis still keep a photograph of Gen. Abd al-Karim Qasim in their home or work. Qasim, the only modern Iraqi leader to rule in a non-sectarian manner (1959-1963), is still beloved for his commitment to social justice for all Iraqis, regardless of ethnoconfessional background. Clearly, the Qasim's continued valorization provides insight on what Iraqis desire in a ruler today.

Nor does the author analyze the role of cross-cutting cleavages - based in social class, education, gender, generation, or ideology - in creating conflict within ethnoconfessional groups. For example, the mercantile middle classes, that form the social base for Nuri al-Maliki’s Da'wa Party/State of Law Coalition, fear their fellow Shi'a in the populist Sadrist Movement, which is rooted in the urban and rural poor, much more than any Sunni Arab political movement.

Despite being viewed as anti-Shi'i, the Ba'th Party’s first two leadership cadres were dominated by Shi'a, under Fu’ad al-Rikabi in the 1950s and Ali Salih al-Sa'di (a Fayli Kurd) in the 1960s. If sectarian identities were as pronounced as the author implies, it is difficult to explain why 50% of Saddam’s praetorian guard, the Fadayeen Saddam, were Shi'a.

What Sectarianism in Iraq fails to adequately clarify is the distinction between secular and religious Shi'a, as well as between middle and upper class and poor Shi'a . The author demonstrates that hostility to the Shi'a - under Ba'th Party rule and prior regimes - was based in the fear that the Najafi Hawza represented a “fifth column” intent on promoting Iranian influence in Iraq, especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Historically, regime discrimination against the Shi'a seems to have been more directed against the clerical class than educated secular Shi'a, many of whom were Ba'th Party members.

This study fails to focus on the contestation between Iraqis who view sectarianism as socially destructive (evident in my research with Iraqi youth, in the activities of many civil society organizations, and in the arts, such as the film, Baghdad High), and sectarian entrepreneurs (elites) who promote sectarian identities to advance narrowly defined political and economic agendas. As such, it tells us little about the possibilities for change, whether leading towards national reconciliation or towards further social and political decay.

By ignoring the inner dynamics of Iraq’s main ethnoconfessional groups, we cannot understand how cross-ethnic political coalitions might develop in the future, such as the al-Iraqiya Coalition that won the March 2010 parliamentary elections with support from secular Sunni Arabs, Shiites and even a significant number of Kurds.

Finally, a more appropriate title for this study would be Sectarianism in Arab Iraq. While 20% of the population, the Kurds (and minority groups) are given no voice in this volume. As is well known, Saddam’s genocidal “Anfal” campaign against the Kurds (not mentioned at all) was couched in a sectarian discourse.

Fanar Haddad has tackled one of the most difficult aspects of Iraqi politics and society, providing numerous insights and a rich empirical data base. What this study underscores is both the complexity of the question of sectarian identities in Iraq and how much research is still needed on this critical topic.

Friday, December 2, 2011

My appearance on al-Jazeera today

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of joining Dr. Azzam al-Tamimi, director of the Institute for Islamic Thought in London, Dr. Antoine Basbous, founder of the Paris based L'Observatoire des Pays Arabes, and Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on al-Jazeera Arabic's nightly program, Hasid al-Yawm (The Day's Harvest), with presenter Layla al-Shayib. The topic of discussion was the future of relations between the newly powerful Islamist parties in the Arab World and the United States.

Speaking in Arabic, I discussed the Arab Spring and the future of US-Arab relations. I argued that the US has little to fear from the victory of Islamist parties in recent elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco (see my series of postings on Making Sense of the Arab Spring). My point was that the region has changed and with it, Arab Islamist parties. Rather than fear these parties, the US should engage those that are truly committed to democratic governance.

The assumption that Islamist parties are ipso facto hostile to US interests in the Middle East is faulty. As I pointed out, both the US and the newly victorious parties - al-Nahda in Tunisia, Justice and Development in Morocco, and the Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt - support democratic freedoms, social justice and economic development.

Compared to the authoritarian regimes that were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, new governments which are ruled by parties that enjoy legitimacy based on victories in free and fair elections promise much greater stability and potentially less political conflict. Such an outcome is obviously in the interest of all concerned.

If the new Islamist dominated governments can move beyond a narrow Islamist agenda to focus on social reconstruction, tackling corruption, energizing the economy to produce desperately needed jobs, and improving the education system, they will become extremely popular.

While Islamist governments will no doubt seek to implement policies that secularists, both in the Middle East and the West, find objectionable, such as promoting specific forms of dress and regulating entertainment programs, they may actually promote a transition to democracy much as the mildly Islamist AKP party has accomplished in Turkey.

If the participation of the 88 Muslim Brotherhood members who were elected to the Egyptian parliament in 2005 is any indicator, participation in deliberative bodies acts to moderate radical political agendas. Without negotiating with other parties, members of parliament accomplish very little and risk being turned out of office during the next elections cycle. In Iraq, for example, 66% of the members of parliament (Council of Representatives) lost their seats in the March 2010 elections because voters thought they had not done enough while in office, especially to provide needed social services and fight corruption.

My comments on Hasid al-Yawm today were a plea for a new policy on the part of the US - one that seeks to help countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt meet their development needs. What I argued for was a new partnership between the US and the countries that comprise the Arab Spring. Especially in a period of serious economic downturn, when its ability to wield power has been curtailed, the US should welcome the positive change that is occurring in much of the Arab World.

The US should try and provide technical assistance, and help create an international development fund, that would help the Arab countries which are trying to democratize achieve the ends that will serve the mutual interests of all concerned, namely strengthening democracy, individual freedoms and social justice.