Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Is Muqtada al-Sadr the new kingmaker in Iraqi politics?

This posting offers the following arguments.  First, Muqtada al-Sadr is the most powerful politician in Iraq today.  Second, his star has risen in direct relation to the decline in the power of the ability of the Kurds to mediate between opposing Arab parties.  Third, his efforts to curtail Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's power is promoting, at least in the short term, democratic reforms in Iraq.  Finally, as long as the central government refuses to address corruption and provide government services, especially to the poor, Sadr will retain his role as the (youthful) "Godfather" of Iraqi politics. 

When he first appeared on the political scenes in 2003, Muqtada al-Sadr was not taken seriously, even by the Iraqi Shi'a who adore his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad al-Sadr, who Saddam Husayn ordered assassinated in 1999.  Compared with his two brothers, who were killed along with their father, Muqtada was viewed as a family member with little interest in religion.  Indeed, his nickname during the 1990s, "Mr. Atari," drew attention to the fact that he seemed to enjoy playing video games to the study of religion.

Since 2003, the younger al-Sadr has surprised all factions of the Iraqi political spectrum.  Not only did he create the powerful Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army)which challenged US occupation forces, especially in al-Najaf in August 2004, but he also built a powerful political coalition which has become a core element of all political coalitions since 2006.

While the Mahdi Army was rendered ineffective in 2008 when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki  launched an attack on it in Basra, Baghdad and Amarah, al-Sadr quickly moved to  strengthen his political movement in place of his now defunct militia.  In the March 2010 national parliament elections, Sadr's forces, known as the Sadrist Trend (al-Tayyar al-Sadri), shocked its coalition partner in the Iraqi National Alliance - the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) - by winning 39 seats to its 17 seats.  SIIC's loss of its position as the most powerful Shi'i party, having dominated the December 2005 parliamentary elections, caused great resentment towards the Sadrists.

When Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition failed to win the most seats in the 2010 elections, it was only through the support of the Sadrists and the Kurdish List that Maliki was able to retain his office.  While the Arbil Agreement of November 11, 2010 set the parameters for overcoming the gridlock in forming a government that followed the March elections, the agreement was never implemented because Maliki failed to deliver on his promises to incorporate the al-Iraqiya Coalition,  which won 91 to the State of Law's 89 seats, into the Iraqi government.  As struggles have increased between Arbil and Baghdad (see my posting, "Will Iraq's Kurds declare independence?," July 26th) .

Maliki's failure to implement the Arbil Agreement and his increasing authoritarian tendencies caused a large group of political parties to introduce a vote of no-confidence in the Iraqi parliament this past spring. Sunnis feel he is intent on marginalizing them politically, the Kurds feel that he might attack them over their dispute over oil once fighter aircraft are purchased from the US, and many Shi'a feel that he is excluding them from power.

Particularly disturbing to many parties has been Maliki's failure to appoint ministers to important security posts such as the Defense and Interior ministries which he continues to head.  Maliki promises to make amends which have never been followed through have only fueled the political firestorm.

For the no-confidence vote to be successful, there need to be at least 164 votes (half of the 335 members of the Council of Delegates).  The al-Iraqiya, Kurdish List (including the Gorran Party), the Sadrists, members of  the United National Alliance, and even members of Maliki's own State of Law Coalition, all signed on initially to the effort to oust Maliki.  However, sicne then a number of delegates have had reservations becasue there is no clear replaement for Maliki.

Sadr has manipulated the effort to oust Maliki for his benefit by first strongly criticizing the prime minister, but then backing off on his initial commitment to add his crucial "Ahrar" bloc to the vote of no-confidence.  Without this support, the vote cannot succeed.  Instead, he has used his central role to force concessions from Maliki, especially limitations on his power.  When Maliki responded by once again offering to make concessions, Sadr pushed still further, demanding term limits on the post of prime minister (al-Hayat, July 9) and, more recently on July 12th, the Sadrists in parliament proposed a law that would limit the terms of the three vice presidents as well (al-Hayat, July 14).

Ironically, the efforts by Sadr to hold Maliki hostage to his threats to join the coalition to oust him - a coalition that has about 160 solid votes but is having problems gaining the support of additional delegates - is having an impact on curtailing the power of the prime minister.  First, it has forced  Maliki to offer a number of concessions which have been incorporated by the Iraqi National Alliance into a "Reforms Proposal."  Second, Sadr's demands for terms limits on the prime minister and the vice-prime ministers is actually promoting democratic reforms in Iraq by placing legal limits on Iraq's executive branch.

We can expect Sadr's power to increase based not just on the large amount of support he maintains in the Shi;i community but on his more broadly based nationalist credentials as well.  He has invited Sunnis and Christians to run under the Sadrist banner in next year's provincial legislative elections.  This follows a tradition of consistently reaching out to non-Shi'i sectors of the Iraqi populace, such as the Sunni Association of  Muslim Scholars which was organized to combat the US occupation of Iraq after 2003.

Posturing himself as an Iraqi nationalist rather than a strictly Shi'i leader, Sadr aspires to national  leadership.  Thus he is in a stronger political position than his political competitors in the Shi'i community such as the Iranian sponsored militia, the League of the Righteous People (Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq), which broke away from the former Mahdi Army, and the SCCI which aspires to dominate Shi'i politics but does not have much credibility among Iraq's other ethnoconfessional groups.

In the final analysis, Iraqi Arab and Western commentators make a crucial mistake in continuing to view Sadr as a political actor divorced from a larger political economic and social context.  He is a shrew political leaders to be sure, and he derives much power from the "halo effect" of his prominent uncle, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and his father, Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who is beloved among the poor Shi'a.

Still, Muqtada al-Sadr would not enjoy the power he has were he not the head of a powerful social movement which provides myriad services to the poor and lower middle class Shi'i communities in Iraq.  Forward looking Iraqi political leaders need to seriously address the needs of the poor and the economically marginalized groups in Iraq by addressing the extensive corruption that dominates the Iraqi government.  More importantly, they need to seriously address the lack of social services which Iraqis increasingly resent not receiving in a country awash with massive amounts of hydrocarbon wealth, both oil and natural gas.

At the end of the day, Muqtada al-Sadr does not support a tolerant, pluralistic and democratic Iraq.  Nevertheless, he will use the existing legal and constitutional system to further his end of dominating Iraqi politics.  Unfortunately, few analysts recognize the powerful relationship between corruption and lack of services, on the one hand, and the undermining of efforts at democratization in Iraq, on the other.  The Sadrists' power is an example of the failure to view Iraqi politics through the conceptual lens of political economy.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Will Iraq's Kurds declare independence?

KRG PM Masoud Barzani and a Turkish flag 
Recently I participated in the Chinese radio program, "Beyond Beijing," which discussed the topic of Iraqi-Turkish relations (see link below).  A central question was whether the deteriorating situation between the central government, headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which controls Iraq's three Kurdish majority provinces in Iraq's northeast, might lead the KRG to declare independence.  What are the prospects for such an eventuality?  How do Turkish-KRG relations affect this calculation?

Saddam Husayn's overthrow  in 2003 radically restructured Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq. Prior to 1991, the Kurds had been in almost constant revolt throughout the 1960s and 1970s against the central government.  In 1991, the US declared a "no-fly" zone above the 36th parallel which allowed to KRG to be established. When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, the Kurds, especially with American support, were placed on an equal basis with Iraq's majority Arab population for this first time in the history of the modern state.

 During the 1990s, both Saddam Husayn and the KRG cooperated to smuggle oil out of Iraq, primarily to Turkey but also to Iran.  The significance of this cooperation is that it came  in the wake of Saddam Husayn's notorious "Anfall" campaign of the mid to late 1980s which destroyed the Kurdish agrarian sector and led to thousands of Kurdish deaths , including the bombing of the Kurdish city of Halabja with chemical weapons in March 1988.  One would think that the Kurdish political elite would have adamantly refused to have any contact with the Ba'thist regime after violence it  bestowed on the Kurdish people.  Neverthless, Saddam and the KRG had no trouble dividing up the spoils from their joint oil smuggling.

A civil war broke out between the two main Kurdish parties in 1994 - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which broke away fronm the KDP in 1975.  When his forces were about to be defeated, KDP leader Masoud Barzani had no qualms in 1996 about inviting Saddam Husayn to send tanks to Arbil to avert a defeat by PUK forces.  Barzani sought to offset the support Iran was providng the KDP with assistance from Saddam's army.  The KDP leader had no trouble turning over members of the Iraqi opposition in Arbil to Iraqi intelligence in return for Saddam's support.

 What these considerations tell us is that we need to look beyond the rhetoric when seeking to comprehend Arab-Kurdish relations in Iraq.  Despite the insults being traded between Arbil and Baghdad, it is very much in the realm of possibility that the two parties may still be able to come to some sort of an agreement over the extraction and sale of oil.  A declaration of independence will not be based on romantic notions of Kurdish nationalism.  If independence is proclaimed, it will only come after extensive hard headed calculations on the part of the KRG leadership.

What has changed since 2003 that might make the Kurds considering leaving a federal Iraq?  First, Turkey's position towards Iraq's Kurds has changed.  In 2003, Turkey was extremely hostile to the KRG thinking that it could provide a model for its own restive Kurdish population which is 15% of the population but increasing faster than the Turkish population.  This opposition was implicit in its emphasis on its support for Iraq's "territorial integrity."  Turkey was especially concerend that KRG autonomy or even independence would further intensify support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) insurgency in the east against the central government in Ankara.

But Turkey's rapid industrail growth requires huge amounts of energy.  Further, the KRG lacks the necessary techical personnel to develop its economy.  Thus it turned to Turkey after 2003 for needed investments and techical assistance.  Turkey now has close to $7 billion invested in the KRG, far more than in Arab Iraq.  As Turkey's economic investments in the KRG have grown and economic integration bewteen the two parties has increased, Tuirkish opposition to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan has waned, especially after the KRG has sought to help the Turkish army prevent the PKK from mounting attacks from the rugged mountains along the Turkish-Iraqi border.

A second area of change has been the increased struggle between the KRG and Baghdad over the production and sale of oil.  A formula exists which allows the KRG to extract and sell oil, but only if it sends revenues to Baghdad which are then distributed according to a formula based on the assumption that the Kurds comprise 17% of Iraq's population (most feel the figure is closer to 13%).

However, the KRG has contiued to claim oil fields which are located in the disputed areas south and south-west of the so-called "Green Line" which divides the KRG ferom Arab Iraq and which includes the important city of Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city made up of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. The Kurds are furious that Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution which called for a referendum to be implemented in 2006, and which was then postponed to 2007, has yet to held.  The KRG feels that such a referendeum would lead Kirkuk to join the KRG bringing with it a large amount of oil reserves in fields in and around the city.

The KRG feels that it cannot depend on the dysfunctional al-Maliki government to help it develop its oil industry which, as in Arab Iraq, provide the overwhelming bulk of its financial resources.  The KRG has signed contracts with foreign oil firms not just in the KRG but in the disputed areas.  It has also signed agreements with Ankara to build pipelines which will transport oil directly to Turkey.  Meanwhile, it is an open secret that the KRG is smuggling large amounts of unregistered oil to neighboring Iran.

The al-Maliki government and Arab politicians generally view developments in the KRG with alarm.  For them, the Kurdish political elite's behavior points to its building an economic foundation for declaring independence.  After relations between Nuri al-Maliki and Turkish Prime Minister Rajib Tayp Ergogan deteriorated following the latter referring to al-Maliki as a dictator, many Arab politicians now also see a Turkish hand in efforts to weaken the KRG's ties to a federal Iraq.

A third source of change has been the US withdrawal from Iraq.  The Kurds are very nervous about the military buildup in Arab Iraq, especially its ability to acquire sophisticated fighter aircraft.  Might not these aircraft be used to once again attack the Kurds if they don't acquiesce to Baghdad's demands on agreeing to new hydrocarbon law that favors Arab Iraq?  While the KRG could count upon US support prior to December 2011, it no longer has that option.  If it were to declare independence and Turkey were willing to support that move, Iraqi forces would not dare mount an attack on the KRG.

Finally, the challenge that the KDP/PUK elite faces from the Gorran (Change) Party has forced political change in the KRG.  Having won 40 seats, along with Services and Reform List, in the July 2009 KRG Regional Parliament elections, Gorran has constantly raised questions in the parliament about the pervasive corruption and nepotism.  This was impossible prior to 2009 when the parliament was completely dominated by the KDP and PUK.  According to Kurdish colleagues, the level has corruption has been reduced.

As the Kurdish population's anger at the corruption, lack of jobs and inflation has grown, pressure on the KRG leadership has increased to implement political and economic reforms.  Because the KRG elite is unwilling to do so, oil revenues have assumed increased importance as they are the key tool in the KRG arsenal.  Oil wealth is crucial  to KRG efforts to coopt potential opposition elements, and to augment the power of their security forces to suppress those who refuse to play their political game.

The KRG is not at the point where independence makes political and economic sense.  First, it would become a client state of Turkey as in incurred the wrath of its two most powerful neighbors Arab Iraq and, 
Iran.  As many Kurds pointed out during my interviews in the KRG, declaring independence would effectively cut the new state off from investments from the Arab Gulf.  Such investments would become politically impossible by any Arab state, including those in the Arab Gulf.

Another disincentive to declaring independence stems from the KRG's realization that the true prize sought by foreign oil companies lies in the south where huge reserves of oil (and natural gas) are still to be found.  An estimated 70% of Iraq's oil reserves have yet to be discovered.  Also, new reserves of natural gas have been discovered, such as those in the Ukaz field in western al-Anbar Province.  Would the KRG be cutting itself off from possible sharing in this bounty if it were to declare independence?  By remaining in Iraq, it could demand access to revenues derived from oil production in the south as being part of the federal state.

What would make most sense would be for the KRG and the central government to hold secret meetings in which Arab and Kurdish technocrats, who specialize in the intricacies oil and natural gas production, try and work out a formula which will meet the broad demands of both sides.  The KRG would only add external to exising domestic pressures should it declare independence and thus has an incentive to find such a solution.

With Kurdish fears of a rearmed Iraq to the south, the US is in a unique position to both convince the KRG to remain within a federal Iraq and to seek a solution to the hydrocarbon crisis which will satify both Kurdish and Arab needs.  The KRG needs American security assurances and support which gives the US a powerful bargaining card in domestic Kurdish affairs.

In this context, the US should use its clout with Arbil to strongly encourage it to implement democartic reforms, reign in corruption and distribute jobs and other economic resources according to need rather than via the KDP/PUK patronage network.  Ties to the political elite (al-wasta) should be replaced by a government that demonstrates a civic concern for the Kurdish populace as a whole.


Friday, July 13, 2012

A review of new publications on Iraqi politics

The following is a review which will appear in the International Journal of Contemporary Iraq Studies
Juan Romero, The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: A Revolutionary Quest for Unity and Security, Lanham, MD:  University Presses of America, 2011, pp. 241. Bibliography 221-223.

Hamid al-Bayati, From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, pp. 347.  Notes, pp. 315-321.

Ali Paya and John Esposito, eds., Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Arab World, New York: Routledge, 2011, pp. 220.

While preparing for my first research visit to Iraq in May and June of 1980, I was taken aback by the few studies of Iraqi politics and society that could guide my work.  Hanna Batatu’s massive study, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, has just been published by Princeton University Press in 1978, and there were the 3 volumes by Iraqi expatriate scholar Majid Khadduri, Independent Iraq, Republican Iraq, and Socialist Iraq.   

Beyond a few essays by Elie Kedouri, likewise an Iraq expatriate, and works by former British colonial officials, such as Gertrude Bell and Philip Ireland, there was little to help the non-Iraqi researcher unlock the complexities of Iraqi politics .

Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, the seizure of Kuwait in 1990, two wars which resulted from these attacks, the massive uprising (Intifada) which followed the Gulf War of January 1991, the severe UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq between 1991 and 2003, and the US toppling of Saddam Husayn’s Ba’thist regime in 2003 has produced a deluge of writings on Iraq.  The key question is what have we learned from this outpouring of studies?

Three recently published studies offer insights into our understanding of Iraq.  Treating them chronologically, Juan Romero’s study, The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: A Revolutionary Quest for Unity and Security, is one of the first works to focus specifically on the  Revolution, especially the causal factors leading up to it.   

Hamid al-Bayati’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam, is exactly what the title implies, a detailed account of an important political actor who exercised significant influence in Iraqi politics both before and after the overthrow of Saddam Husayn’s regime.   

Finally, we have Ali Paya and John Esposito’s edited volume, Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, which includes a number of important essays on the democratization process in Iraq after 2003.

Professor Romero’s study, which is based on a rich database of Arabic and archival resources, begins with an excellent theoretical discussion which poses the following question.  Did the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy in July 1958 constitute a true revolution?  The author’s answer is an emphatic yes.  He uses six criteria to make his argument, including popular participation in the Revolution, its extensive impact on Iraqi society, the subsequent expanded role of the state in the economy, a dramatic transformation of Iraq’s foreign policy, important changes in the form of government, and, finally, a fundamental shift in the social psychology of Iraqi society.

Despite the conceptual and theoretical sophistication of the author’s introduction, the study fails to consider a number of counter-arguments which belie his arguments,  Unlike the Bolshevik or Chinese revolutions, for example, the large landowning class and its political influence was not affected in any significant fashion by the Qasim regime’s policies, as Professor Romero himself notes (208).   Further, the author fails to acknowledge that many of the Revolution‘s accomplishments were undone by the brutal Ba’thist regime which overthrew ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim in February 1963, a period which Hanna Batatu refers to as “the bitterest of years.”

One of the volume’s most serious shortcomings is the author’s failure to address the argument that the Revolution actually paved the way for dictatorship as seen in the Ba’thist regime which came to power in 1968.  The 1958 Revolution was part of a political struggle which extends back to the early years of the 20th century and which continues until today, namely the ideological struggle over Iraqi identity.  This struggle pitted al-wataniya al-mahaliya or “local nationalism” (or what I have referred to elsewhere as Iraqist nationalism), which viewed Iraq as a multi-ethnic and confessional society, against a much smaller group of Pan-Arabists who wanted to make Iraq part of a larger Pan-Arab nation-state.   

This tension, I would argue, was the main driver of the political and social cleavages which developed after the Revolution.  These cleavages pitted Qasim and his allies in the powerful Iraqi Community Party (ICP) against Colonel ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif and the Pan-Arabists in the officer corps, namely those who either supported the Ba’th Party or Egypt’s Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasir.

Qasim was never, as the author asserts, a Pan-Arabist.  While it is true that he was chosen to lead the Revolution due to his outstanding military performance in Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he was of the opinion that Iraq faced too many domestic problems to add to them by becoming involved in Pan-Arab politics.   Qasim also feared Iraq’s becoming subordinated to al-Nasir if it chose to join the United Arab Republic.

Instead, Qasim’s promoted of a new inclusive political identity which referenced ancient Mesopotamia, the Kurds and Pan-Arabism.  These themes can be seen is his creation of a new national flag centered on the star of Ishtar, which referenced the Kurds through its yellow sun, and included the black, white, green and red colors of Pan-Arabism.  The many parades in Baghdad during Qasim’s rule, which included floats portraying themes from ancient Iraq, as well as his emphasis on the shared folklore of all Iraq’s ethnoconfessional groups which he saw as a means of overcoming Iraq’s political and social cleavages, demonstrated a new and sophisticated way of addressing Iraq’s complex identity politics.

Professor Romero fails to address in a meaningful way the negative side of the Revolution.  Despite his commitment to the interests of the Iraqi people, especially the less fortunate members of society by whom he was much beloved, Qasim was a dictator.  He systematically dismantled civil society, including Iraq’s powerful labor movement, banned political, parties, and largely muzzled the press.  These actions facilitated the rise of Ba’thist dictatorship and one party rule a decade after Qasim and the Free Officers seized power.  In this sense, the Revolution left a very negative legacy, one which the author fails to recognize.

Despite some of these shortcomings, Professor Romero’s study provides a detailed analysis of the politics that led up to the Revolution.  One of the most important themes is the extensive discussion of the impact of the international politics on the Hashimite monarchy and on the mobilizing the Iraqi populace against the Iraqi strongman of the period, Nuri al-Sa’id.

Dr. Hamid al-Bayati, currently Iraq’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, has written an important memoir about his experiences while in opposition to Saddam Husayn’s regime.  Dr. al-Bayati, who has already published a number of important studies in Arabic on modern Iraq, was closely associated with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which later changed its name to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SCCI).   This factor influenced opposition politics as the US felt uncomfortable with SCIRI which had been formed in Iran in 1982 and led by Iranian Revolutionary Guards for the first two years of its existence.

This is a very different study from much of what has been published on Iraq since 2003.  Rather than dwell on the negative, the author emphasizes the strides which the Iraqi people have made since the Ba’thist regime’s downfall.  Rightfully, he cites the positive outcomes of the elections in 2005, 2009 and 2010 and the enthusiasm with which Iraqis have generally embraced democratic politics.

As a central figure in the Iraqi opposition movement that developed during the 1990s, the author had meetings with many important American officials and other Iraqi opposition figures.  We learn about the inner dynamics of the Clinton administration’s policies towards Iraq.  For example, unlike the Bush administration, it was loathe to support Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Conference (INC) over other opposition groups, preferring to engage the opposition movement as a whole (90).  Although he does not go into detail, it is also clear that Iraq’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, played a critical role in fashioning US policy towards Iraq during the 1990s (93).

While the Iraqi opposition could do little to influence Saddam’s regime militarily, it did influence international public opinion, often making it difficult for regime officials to travel outside the country.  ‘Izzat al-Duri, Barzan al-Tikriti and Tariq ‘Aziz all found their ability to travel hampered the effective INDICT Internet campaign which highlighted the regime’s human rights abuses and filed charges against Ba’thist officials once they travelled abroad (110).

The Clinton’s administration cautious approach to toppling Saddam – too timid in the view of many – contrasts sharply with that of the  Bush administration.  Here the author holds no punches in criticizing the Bush administration for ineffective planning and not taking advantage of assistance by the Iraqis who would have helped the US after Saddam was toppled.  Dr. al-Bayati asked why the US forces only secured the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Defense in Saddam’s Republican Palace once they arrived ion Baghdad.   He never could find an answer (189).

It is odd that Dr. al-Bayati fails to analyze in any detail the sectarian dimensions of Iraqi politics in any comprehensive manner both prior to and following the overthrow of Saddam’s regime.  He discusses the anger of the Shi’a towards Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) leader, Masoud Barzani, for accepting military assistance from Saddam’s army in 1996 when his forces were about to be defeated by those of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).  Because they defended the KDP, Barzani allowed Saddam’s forces to seize Shi’a opposition figures in Arbil. 
While the author remarks that the Kurds and Shi’a have historically had good relations, despite the anger that the killings caused, he fails to note that the KDP and Saddam cooperated extensively to smuggle oil out of Iraq under the UN sanctions regime (137).  This cooperation is all the more remarkable given the notorious Anfal Campaign that Saddam directed against the Kurds during the late 1980s, including the bombing with chemical weapons of the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 with massive deaths and injuries to the populace.  

These shortcomings notwithstanding, From Dictatorship to Democracy is must reading for anyone interested in the inner workings of the Iraqi opposition prior to the US invasion of Iraq. How that opposition interacted with the American occupation, especially during the period between 2003 and 2004, and the highly flawed US policy towards Iraq, tells us much about why Iraq developed such political and social instability following the American invasion. 
Ali Paya and John Esposito’s Iraq, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World, suffers from the problem of many edited volumes, namely thematic coherence.  The chapters in the volume do not fit entirely comfortably under the three rubrics which divide the book: “Iraq,” “Democracy,” and “the Muslim World,” nor do the three rubrics themselves provide a coherent structure to the volume.
Nevertheless, the volume contains a number of excellent essays.  In reviewing them, I will focus on those which deal explicitly with Iraq.   

Abbas Kadhim’s elegantly titled essay, “Forging a Third Way: Sistani’s marja’iyya between quietism and wilayat al-faqih,” draws attention to one of the greatest ongoing threats to the development of Iraqi democracy.  If the Iranian regime, which recently appointed Iraqi born Ayatollah Mahmud Hashimi al-Shahroudi ostensibly to oversee the interests of Iranian pilgrims, is able to influence the successor to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, then the efforts of the Iraqi marja’iyya to prevent the politicization of Shiism – a process that is already evident among the so-called Sadrist Trend – could introduce a serious “fifth column” into Iraqi politics.

Dr. Kadhim’s essay offers many insights into Ayatollah Sistani’s socialization.  More importantly, it examines the origins of the so-called “quietism” of the marja’iyya, a process which began when the British arrested and deported Shi’i clerics who participated in the 1920 Revolution.  However, it was the brutality of Saddam’s dictatorship which cemented the “extreme measures of self-restraint” followed by the Shi’i clergy between 1974 and 2003 (68).

The chapter ends with a discussion of Ali al-Sistani’s role in promoting tolerance, non-violence and democracy in Iraq, a topic which has still not been adequately analyzed.  al-Sistani has been instrumental in expanding suffrage for women, reducing violence, and forcing the Iraqi government to follow the Constitution, as he did in cooperation with Grand Mufti Ahmad ‘Abd al-Ghaffur al-Samara’i, during the March 2010 elections.

The role of the Kurds in democratization has likewise not been given enough attention, particularly the positive impact of the Gorran (Change) Movement which made its appearance on the political stage in the 2009 Kurdish Regional Parliament elections.  Salah Aziz’s essay, “Kurdistan: democracy and the future,” covers a broad range of issues which treat the Kurds response to the development of democracy in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), both before and after 2003.
Human rights issues, violence against women, civil society organizations, federalism, 
the conflict over oil, and accountability and transparency in governance provide a comprehensive overview of Kurdish politics in the first decade of this century. It is also helpful to have voting data for the Kurdish region drawn from the 2005 parliamentary elections.

Laith Kubba’s “Lessons from Iraq” offers an excellent thumbnail sketch of the problems which plagued the American occupation of Iraq after 2003.  He details the lack of knowledge possessed by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator, L. Paul Bremer, and makes clear that a more planned and hence more effective US occupation policy could have prevented many of the problems Iraq subsequently experienced.  The marginalization of the Sunni community and reliance on “carpetbaggers” (to use a phrase of Tariq and Jacqueline Ismael) argues that many of the key players in the post-Saddam period were expatriates who used their ties to the US to promote selfish and narrowly construed agendas, rather than help rebuild Iraqi society. 

The author spares no criticism of the so-called Islamist movements which sprang up with the insurgency that developed in late 2003 and 2004.  al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and Ba’thist supported militias which adopted Islamic names made little headway among the largely pragmatic Iraqi people.  Indeed, they eventually provoked tribesmen in al-Anbar to develop the “Awakening Movement (al-Sahwa) which quickly marginalized these insurgent groups.

Faleh A. Jabar’s excellent chapter, “Religion, sect, ethnicity and tribe: the uncertainties of identity politics in the new society,” presents a nuanced and analytically sophisticated overview of the dynamics of change in Iraqi communal identity politics, especially after 2003.  Dr. Jabar sums up the dynamics succinctly when he states “The Kurdish catchword was federalism, that of the Shi’is was demography was democracy (the Shi’is being a majority of the nation), and that of the Sunnis was restoration.” (21)

The author’s analysis is crisp and to the point.  His commentary on the impact on the middle classes of the post-Saddam era is one missing from most discussions of post-Ba’thist politics.  The general tenor of Dr. Jabar is that efforts to subsume Iraqis politics under rigid social and political categories grounded in religion, sect, ethnicity and tribe – especially after the damage wrought on Iraqi society by the 1990s sanctions regime which upended much of the social order, is doomed to analytic failure.  As such, the author calls for a new conceptual framework for Iraqi politics based in political sociology.  In this sense, this chapter is analytically very provocative.

All three of these studies teach us much about the dynamics of pre- and post-Ba’thist Iraq.  They point to the failure and the potential of Iraqi politics since 1958.  If nothing else, they offer a cautionary tale.  Politically, Iraq is still very unsettled, and making hard and fast assertions about the nature of its political life should be done with a concern for the dynamics of change, one that avoids a focus on the statics of sectarianism and communal identities.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Making Sense of the the Arab Spring 8: a Judicial coup in Egypt?

This posting is part of an ongoing series of commentaries on developments in the Arab Spring.

The understandable celebration over the election of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Dr. Muhammad Mursi, is now being tempered by the realization that the struggle to wrest power from Egypt's military, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), will be a long struggle indeed.

The role of the courts in protecting the military's interests raises important political as well as analytical issues.  What role will Egypt's judiciary play in the attempt to implement a transition to democracy?  Who among the judges is willing to stand up to SCAF pressure?  Will the judiciary become another political pole in Egypt's power structure? Will we see a triangular power relationship pitting President Mursi against not only the SCAF but Egypt's judicial system?  In terms of democratic transitions theory, what role do/can institutions which are holdovers from authoritarian regimes play in newly established democracies?

The modern Egyptian judiciary has a long and distinguished pedigree, extending back to the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha at the beginning of the 19th century.  Egyptian law represents an amalgam of  several legal traditions, drawing upon the Napoleonic Code and British and Italian law for civil and criminal law, and Islamic, Christian and secular traditions for family and personal status law.

Egypt's judiciary holds an especially important position in the political system because it is delegated the power to supervise and certify national elections.  Well developed as an institution prior to the July 1952 Revolution, the judiciary fell under the control of Emergency Law 162 in 1958, which was reimposed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and then again in 1981 when Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated.  While the judiciary acquired formal independence from the state in 1971, its role in Egyptian society was severely circumscribed by the government imposed state of emergency that continued, except for an 18 month period in 1980-81.

The judiciary was increasingly subordinated to the state after the July 22, 1952 Revolution.  However, this did not occur through eliminating the court system but rather in a manner characteristic of many authoritarian Arab states.  I was struck when I first visited Iraq in 1980 and Iraqi colleagues informed me that the civil and criminal court system functioned much as it did before the Ba'thist coup of 1968.  As long as civil or criminal case had no political overtones, they were largely treated according to due process.

Gamal Abdel Nasser (Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir) left the judicial system in place much as did Saddam Husayn.  Both established a set of "Revolutionary Courts" to which important cases were remanded to assure that the decisions desired by the state were implemented.  The first such courts, the "Peoples" Courts"  (Mahakim al-Sha'b) were established by Egypt's military regime in 1954.

As an institution, Egypt's' judiciary in the modern era has a checkered history when it comes to upholding individual rights and promoting democracy.  The legal system acquired much greater importance when Anwar al-Sadat decided to implement his "Open Door" policy (al-Infitah)following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War.  Realizing that the Egyptian economy could not advance without foreign capital, and aware that the rapid rise in oil prices during the 1970s left Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf producers flush  with surplus funds to invest abroad, Sadat saw the time as ripe for his new economic model.  This model would allow foreign investment, but mainly in conjunction with existing public sector firms.

The Open Door policy faced a problem.  How could the Egyptian government, which had nationalized foreign industry after the 1956 Tripartite invasion by Britain, France and Israel, and domestic industry between 1961 and 1964, assure foreign capital that its investments would be  secure?  By establishing the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) in 1979, Sadat hoped to both reassure foreign investors and play down Egypt's "socialist" heritage emphasized by the Nasser regime.

The members of the SSC have always been nominated by the Egyptian government and then appointed by the judiciary.  The court became very active during the 1980s and early 1990s, to the extent that the Mubarak regime became alarmed at its independence and its willingness to challenge regime prerogatives.

In 1995, the Mubarak regime began to "stack the deck" by restructuring the court's membership.  With the appointment of Fathi Najib in 1995, a judge with decidedly authoritarian proclivities,the court made a radical turn away from upholding human rights, defending citizen property rights and playing a central role in exposing regime efforts to control electoral outcomes.

With the arrival of the Arab Spring, the courts took on a new role in Egyptian politics. The SCAF wanted to have it both ways.  It wanted to appear as if it supported a transition to democracy but was not about to lose control of its political power and its vast economic interests.

Using the playbook of the Mubarak regime, the SCAF has manipulated numerous court decisions to circumscribe the power of democracy activists, such as abrogating the duly elected Egyptian parliament and banning several popular candidates from running for the office of president.

Now the courts are playing a central role in the writing of the new Egyptian constitution. As Judge Tahani al-Gebali, SCC Deputy President, told the New York Times on July 4, the actions of the court in dissolving the Egyptian parliament were intended to assure that democratic institutions are grounded in proper constitutional principles and protect civil liberties, especially those of secularists, minorities and women, against Islamists who do not respect such principles.

In other words, Islamists cannot be trusted to build a democratic political system, since they fail to accept the norms of tolerance and pluralism.  The SCC thus becomes the institution designed to "defend" individual liberties in Egypt.  Of course, Judge al-Gebali never references the military's actual status as a "military-industrial complex," the real reason behind the SCAF's unwillingness to hand over any meaningful political authority to civilian rule.  

Even though President Mursi quieted the fears of Egypts' Coptic community by visiting with top clerics in the Church and assuring them that "Egypt's Muslim and Christians are equal citizens in relation to laws and civic responsibilities " (muwattinin mutassawiyin fi-l-huquq wa-l-wajibat) (see al-Hayat, June 28), he did himself no favors by calling for the release of Shaykh Umar 'Abd al-Rahman who is serving a life sentence in the US for his complicity in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center.

Mursi's expressions of doubts about who really was responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, likewise point to a highly ideological political leader and one who is defensive when it comes to issues which have overtones of criticism of the Islamic religion.  Even if Mursi is trying to energize his base and "out radical" Egypt's Salafi movement, such statements play right into the hands of those judges who seek to curtail democratic freedoms and curtail a transition to meaningful democracy.  They acquire added legitimacy in defending "personal freedoms" and the "rule of law."

Mursi has popular opinion on his side as many Egyptians - both Islamists and secularists - are furious with the SCC's efforts to counter the people's will.  He needs to act in a statesmen-like manner and bring constant pressure on the courts to interpret the law in such a manner that Egypt does not become like many 20th century Latin American states where elected presidents were only titular leaders, namely front men for the military where real power resided..

The assertion that courts can play an important role in the democratic transition process needs to be assessed on  a case by case basis.  In Egypt, the jury is still out.  Will those judges supportive of democratization, and Islamist and secular political forces, have the power to force the higher court to confront the SCAF's continued control over political power and much of the Egyptian economy?  It is one thing to have a democratic election for president.  It is quite another to dislodge a determined political elite which is adamantly opposed to ceding any of its economic and political power.

Since the Egyptian Revoltuion, Egypt's judiciary

Law 142/2006 the Independent Judicial Authority Law