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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Iraqi Youth After the US Withdrawal

Iraqi youth feel increasingly frustrated as the prospects for democracy and national reconciliation narrow. In the following article in the Washington Post, Dan Zak discusses the results of his conversations with Iraqi youth during a recent stay in Iraq, His article also summarizes some of the research that I have conducted with Iraqi youth over the past year.

This research is part of a larger project I am conducting on Iraqi youth and youth elsewhere in the Arab world who are struggling to bring about democratic change. Youth constitute a large demographic in the Arab world and have been at the center of the Arab Spring. The outcome of the current struggles taking place in the Middle East will help determine whether these youth become cynical and withdraw from politics or whether they continue the struggle for meaningful political change. Such change must result in their becoming true citizens who enjoy individual rights, social justice and a political culture based in tolerance, cultural pluralism and national reconciliation.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Part 2)

(For a discussion of the overall goals and logic of these postings on the Arab Spring, see Part 1, Nov. 6, 2011)

Egypt is at the core of the Arab Spring. What happens there will be critical to the success or failure of the larger Arab democracy movement. As Egyptians go to the polls for what is the most free election since the 1952 military coup d'etat that overthrew the monarchy, what are the prospects for Egypt making a transition to democracy?

What many analysts have failed to mention is that Egypt has been under military rule since 1952. There were only been 3 presidents between 1952 and 2011 and the last two were vice presidents for their predecessors (Sadat for Nasser and Mubarak for Sadat). As Leonard Binder pointed out some time ago in his study, In a Moment of Enthusiasm: Political Power and the Second Stratum in Egypt, the Egyptian military has been a highly cohesive organization given its social base in what he termed a "rural middle class." While the military (known officially as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF) has evolved since Binder's 1978 study, it still demonstrates incredible cohesion at the upper echelons of the officer corps.

To speak about the military is to really speak about a military-industrial complex. Following the 1956 Tripartite invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel after Gamal Abd al-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, all major foreign enterprises were nationalized. This policy was followed in the early 1960s by a similar wave of nationalizations as domestic industry and financial institutions were taken over by the public sector. From that time forward, the "commanding heights" of the economy have been under state control.

While Anwar al-Sadat's famous "liberalization" of the economy (al-infitah) in the early 1970s suggested a step away from the public sector dominated economy of the Nasser years, this was not to be the case. The public sector actually grew after 1973, only now in partnership with foreign investors. In the process, corruption spread as did the spectacular growth of the nouveaux riches who were the engineers of the new economic order.

Why are these considerations important for understanding Egypt's efforts to shed authoritarian rule and move towards democratic governance? The military is above all the most powerful institution in Egypt. But it is much more than that. It is more conceptually accurate to speak of it as a "military-industrial complex" because the military has developed a parallel economy over time. This parallel economy not only gives the military a monopoly over the instruments of coercion but control of the national economy as well.

From an institutional perspective, the choice to develop a state controlled public sector in the late 1950s and early 1960s created a "path dependency" which is difficult to reverse. This development of this massive institution - the public sector in alliance with foreign capital - has created a huge set of material interests among the military-industrial-commercial elite. This political-economic elite views the demands by democracy activists for open and accountable governance as threatening the very core of its power. Thus it is not surprising that the military has tried to create a post-Mubarak political universe that parallels its economic universe, namely one in which it beyond the reach of civilian control.

The conclusion one can draw from the structural conditions of Egypt's military-industrial complex and the SCAF's behavior since the toppling of Mubarak is that it will not concede any meaningful power to civilian rule. The key question is not just whether Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood will acquire power in the Egyptian parliamentary elections but whether the military will be forced to transform itself into a different and accountable institution.

What might be some of the incentives that would lead the military to change course in the face of continued tenacious demonstrations throughout the country? The military claims that its efforts to restrain demonstrations are intended to prevent the country from slipping into complete disorder. Using the very potent Arabic term "fitna," the SCAF has tried to frighten non-activist Egyptians that they have everything to lose if they support pro-democracy forces and the country slips into chaos.

This argument might be more powerful if the ongoing demonstrations were indeed limited to Cairo's Tahrir Square. Both the military and its civilian supporters have been fond of stating that "Egypt is not Tahrir Square." However, this argument is belied by the spread of demonstrations throughout the country. In many cities and towns in Egypt's provinces, local security forces have been totally overwhelmed by demonstrators who have taken over local security offices and police stations (see, al-Hayat, Nov. 23).

The anger of the demonstrators that the military has "stolen" the revolution continues to energize large numbers of Egyptians, and not just youth. That the military refuses to place its budget under civilian control in the new constitution that is to be written after elections take place tells many Egyptians that unless they keep up the pressure, the SCAF will continue to rule much as did Husni Mubarak.

What concerns the military is what we might call the "Iran factor." During the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, troops refused orders to fire on demonstrators which hastened the Shah's downfall (as we have seen occur in Syria as well where troops have defected rather than kill civilian demonstrators). Continued demonstrations might undermine the willingness of the Egyptian army and security forces to suppress them. Were that to occur, the SCAF would lose its ability to control the street and hence its political power.

Where do the Islamists fit into this equation? The Islamist movement suffers from fragmentation and from not having demonstrated sufficient commitment to the pro-democracy revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood was very tentative about the anti-Mubarak demonstrations that developed last January and did not support renewed demonstrations this month against the military. The Brotherhood fears that demonstrations and the violence that invariably accompanies them will give the military the excuse to cancel elections. Because the Brotherhood is confident that it will do well in the elections, it does not want to alienate the military by pressuring it to make additional concessions.

The Brotherhood has alienated part of its base among youth who have come to view it as yet another Machiavellian political party whose real interest is to gain power rather than implement democratic governance and provide Egypt's citizenry with needed social services. To its right, as it were, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is being challenged by Salafists from the Party of Light (hizb al-nur), which is especially strong in Alexandria, and by more moderate Islamists and secularists to its left.

After 80 years of trying to win power, the Brotherhood may end up with limited political authority given the SCAF's unwillingness to cede any meaningful power. It may also engender hostility from Salafists, and Islamist and secular moderates, who see it as developing an accommodation with the SCAF and not challenging military authority given its desire to acquire political power.

Where does this leave Egypt's pro-democracy revolution? Demonstrations will continue and perhaps even become even more threatening in the provinces beyond Cairo's Tahrir Square. The military may decide that, from a cost-benefit analysis, it has more to lose by continued unrest, and the impact that such unrest will have on the Egyptian economy, than in trying to continue to suppress the demonstrations.

The SCAF's policy of trying to mobilize Egypt's so-called "silent majority" does not seem to have worked, although elections may temporarily take some of the wind out of the demonstrators' sails. However, what the SCAF does not realize is that many Egyptian, especially the young, have little hope in the future. There is every incentive for demonstrators to continue the struggle since there is little cost to them when compared to returning to a status quo ante which offers few possibilities for advancement.

Egypt's "stalled" transition to democracy could unfortunately continue for the indefinite future. In both Yemen and Syria, protests and conflict have not abated, despite the state's use of violence to suppress opposition forces. In Egypt, the negative economic (and political) consequences of this protracted conflict are now becoming clear.

The United States, the EU, and Turkey - to mention the external actors with the most influence among the SCAF - would do well to bring to its attention that democratic change is not all that is needed in Egypt. Changes in the privileges enjoyed by those who control Egypt's military-industrial complex are long overdue as well.

(The next post on Egypt will discuss the role of ideas in efforts to bring about democratic change and the uneasy alliance between Islamist and secular forces and between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Part 1)

This posting is the first in a series that examines the Arab Spring. Now that 3 autocrats have been deposed and free elections held in Tunisia, it makes sense to ask where the democracy movement in the Arab world is heading. Will the Arab Spring be successful? Does it represent a new "wave" of democratic change in a region that has not been known for democratic governance? What approaches best help us explain the origins and development of the movement?

The postings in this series take 3 forms. One focal point is to examine individual countries and try and ascertain whether they will be able to establish a stable democracy and, if so, when. The second focal point is to assess the extent to which existing theories of democratization, almost all of which have been developed by Western scholars, actually explain what is taking place in those Arab countries where citizens have opposed authoritarian rule. The final postings will tease out the implications for US foreign policy in what is shaping up to be a very different Arab world than the one many analysts have traditionally known.

It is appropriate to begin with Tunisia, where Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation in the town of Sidi Bouzid became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. In less than a month between December 2010 and January 2011, and in a non-violent manner, demonstrators enraged by government corruption and Bouazizi's death, toppled the regime of long-time dictator, Zine al-Din Bin Ali.

If we begin with the assumption that the first phase of the Arab Spring involves the removal of autocratic rule and replacing it via free and fair elections, we now have the results of the recent Tunisian elections. These results are, in many respects, very promising.

First, the elections were held without significant disruption. There were protests prior to the elections that the main Islamist party, Ennahda (Harakat al-Nahda) had behaved unfairly and "rigged" the elections by receiving large amounts of funds from conservative Arab Gulf states that wanted the the party to win. After the vote, there was some minimal violence in one one town (Sidi Bouzid - the origins of the Arab Spring) where Ennahda was accused of manipulating the vote. Aside from this incident, the elections occurred without any serious problems.

Ennahda won 89 of 217 seats in the new parliament (41%) which constitutes an impressive showing. Before jumping to the conclusion that this vote was somehow an indicator that Tunisia might become an Islamic republic, we need realize that the party reflects much more to its supporters than its Islamist credentials.

Ennahda has attracted many members of the urban lower middle classes, similar to the social base of Islamist movements in many other Arab countries (see my "Ideology, Social Class and Islamic Radicalism in Modern Egypt" for earlier data on the Muslim Brotherhood's social base in Egypt). The reason for this social support extends beyond religion.

For many Tunisians, secularism is synonymous with the country's Francophone elite, many of whom reject Islamic culture. There is certainly a social class element in the secular-Islamist divide because secularists are often more well off than those who are drawn to Islamic culture. Islamism acquires its strength both due to Ennahda's valorization of traditional culture and because it offers a voice for the have-nots, especially the urban lower middle classes. A vote for Ennahda is less about voting for religion in the formal sense of the term. Social class is partially disguised as "religion," meaning that many Tunisians expressed their dissatisfaction in the elections with the more prosperous members of society who are frequently Francophone, secular and generally Western in orientation.

What many observers have missed is that, what is often perceived as a "secular-Islamist" divide, actually represents a struggle between the haves and the have-nots. As with Islamist parties in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, many less fortunate Tunisians, especially those with aspirations for upward mobility, associate secularism with that social class which benefited under the regimes of secular autocrats, such as former dictator, Zine al-Din Bin Ali.

I would also underline that we should not separate social class from Islamist ideology. For many supporters of Islamism, the issues of economic sustenance and maintaining an authentic (asil) heritage reflect two sides of the same coin: social justice, on the one hand, and Tunisia's identity as a nation-state and who will define that identity, on the other. In other words, we cannot separate religion (understood as much as traditional culture as formal religion), social class and identity politics.

So what are the prospects for Tunisian democracy? One important indicator of the direction of political change in Tunisia can be seen in the defensive position adopted by Ennahda and other Islamist parties regarding the issue of women's rights, individual freedoms and a commitment to abide by electoral results. While some would argue that Ennahda merely used "progressive rhetoric" to win more votes, many observers believe that it will not try to impose Islamic law on Tunisian society. The party seems to realize that to do so would provoke a serious negative response among secularly minded youth and the educated middle classes.

Moving beyond the parliamentary elections, we need to examine larger historical-structural variables when assessing Tunisia's prospects for democratic change. Tunisia is considered by many to be the most progressive Arab state, if by progressive we mean politically tolerant and endowed with well developed human resources. For all his faults, former president Habib Bourguiba (1956-1987) promoted education – including education for women - literacy and universal health care, birth control and family planning, and a moderate form of Islam.

Gender equality is all too often ignored when analyzing democratic transitions. Unlike many Middle Eastern states, women were highly educated in Tunisia under Bourguiba’s rule. Prior to the 2011 Revolution, women held 23% of the seats in the Tunisian Parliament (a higher percentage than in the US). Tunisia has a strong civil society as evidenced by a robust trade union movement, women’s organizations and extensive use of social media. Over 3.5 million Tunisians are regular internet users, 1.6 million are Facebook users and there are hundreds of internet cafes, known as “publinet.”

Unlike Syria and Libya, where the "father leaders" destroyed all meaningful elements of civil society and repressed all efforts at autonomous political and social behavior, Tunisia under Bourguiba was more tolerant. As his rule demonstrates, not all autocrats are cut from the same political cloth. A certain amount of institution building occurred under authoritarian rule that can provide support for Tunisia's nascent democracy.

The prospects for a consolidation of democracy are strengthened by the fact that Tunisia does not suffer from significant social cleavages. It does not have ethnic differences (such as Iraq and Syria), confessional differences (such as Egypt and Iraq), or tribal cleavages (such as Yemen and Libya). It also benefits from a relatively large middle class. Indeed, per capita income in Tunisia is has been relatively high (currently at $4,070), despite its being a relatively resource poor country.

My prediction is that Tunisia will develop a government based on a stable parliamentary coalition. Tunisia will most likely approximate the Turkish model where there is an uneasy but stable coexistence between Islamist and secularists. Indeed, the October parliamentary elections in which neither the Islamists not secular forces were able to dominate suggests such as outcome. Because Ennahda did not win a majority of the votes in the elections, it will be forced to form a collation with a set of secular center-left parties. We can call this new form of governance, a contested coalitional democracy.

In a broader analytic sense, how do we assess Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution? What factors facilitated the overthrow of authoritarian rule? Clearly, economic variables represent a key "tipping point" in the Arab Spring. Mohammed Bouazzizi engaged in self-immolation. Like many other politically conscious Tunisian youth, he experienced tremendous frustration working as a street pedlar and not being able to make a living and provide for his extended family.

After having been forced off the street by the police for many years because he didn't have the necessary money to bribe them, he was already highly frustrated and angry. The final straw came when he was forced to stop selling his vegetables yet again by a government inspector who took the scales from his cart when she discovered that he had no license. After being unable to retrieve them at the town's municipal offices, he poured gasoline on his body and set himself on fire.

Why wasn't the state able to suppress the demonstrations engendered by Bouazizi's death? One key factor was the refusal of the military to crush the demonstrators and its withdrawal from the political sphere after the flight of former president, Zine al-Din Bin Ali. Hence the coercive apparatus in Tunisia should be viewed as more professional than patrimonial. Unlike Egypt, the military is not involved in day to day politics which bodes well for Tunisia’s short term future.

Many theorists of democratization avoid comparative historical analysis. If we consider Turkey, we see that the nation-state spent many years under the rule of what was euphemistically referred to in the early post-colonial period of the late 1940s and 1950s as "guided democracy."

Despite periodic elections, Ataturk's Republican Peoples' Party controlled the Turkish polity until the elections of 2002 which brought the AKP to power. Prior to 2002, the army had removed any regime that it considered threatening to the secular principles of Kemalism and its own corporate interests. Neverthless, many of Ataturk's policies resulted in important institutional development that paved the way for the current consolidation of democracy.

In terms of institutions, during his years as president, Bourguiba promoted limited development of an incipient civil society. More importantly, he stressed the importance of education, including the education of women. In the 1960s, his regime pursued family planning. These policies created a strong presence for women in Tunisian society. Women even were able to form some civil society organizations which established a degree of semi-autonomy from state control.

In other words, the institutional legacy of quasi-authoritarian regimes can be an important factor in establishing the groundwork for the transition to democracy. In the recent Tunisian elections, 50% of the candidates were women. This is not only remarkable for the Middle East, where limited number of women occupy public office, but remarkable for advanced industrialized democracies where women do not constitute such a high percentage of candidates.

The economic development literature constitutes a popular approach to the study of democratic transitions. This literature traces its intellectual pedigree to the late Seymour Martin Lipset and his seminal 1959 essay, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," and to the 1966 study by Barrington Moore, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Unlike the writing of many current theorists, such as Adam Przeworski, Fernando Limongi and their colleagues, Carles Boix and Susan Stokes, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and Christian Houle (who will be discussed in later posts), their models are, in certain respects, much less sophisticated than those of Lipset and Moore.

A political sociologist, Lipset was not burdened by the rational choice (rational actor) theory (RAT) that informs much of the current economic development and democracy literature. Rather than create the somewhat artificial binary of authoritarian elites and oppositional mass publics, Lipset cast a much broader conceptual net.

Instead of focusing on economic development in the narrow sense of per capital income/GDP, Lipset included such variables as literary and media access, urbanization, the size of the middle class in relation to other social classes, and the structure of income distribution. Lipset offers a multivariate approach contra the more unidimensional approach followed by many current theorists of economic development and democracy. Unlike Lipset, Moore's analysis opted for a comparative historical approach that was based on several countries whose development he studied over time. Above all, Moore emphasized the need for a strong (entrepreneurial) middle class and a resolution of what he called the "peasant problem," namely integrating the peasant population into the process of economic modernization.

Turning to Tunisia, we see that both Lipset and Moore offer many analytic insights that help explain its transition to democracy. Literacy rates and urbanization are high as is media consumption. Salaries are also relatively high. Tunisia's Gini Index is actually better than the US, having improved between 1995 and 2005. Tunisia has a large and politically sophisticated middle class and a diversified economy.

As Dankwart Rustow pointed out in a famous 1971 article, "Transitions to Democracy: Towards a Dynamic Model," the conditions that bring about the fall of authoritarianism are not the same as those than sustain democratic governance. While the economic development literature may be able to help us understand why democracies are able to consolidate themselves, it cannot easily explain the dynamics of the key "tipping points" that have led to the coalescing of the popular uprisings that challenged authoritarian rule in the Arab world.

To situate Tunisia's transition to democracy in a still broader context, we need to return to the education policies of the Bourguiba regime and the demographics of Tunisian society. Even though it does not suffer the "youth bulge" that characterizes many other Middle Eastern nation-states, it still needs to provide employment for the large cohort of educated youth that are the product of the education system introduced by the Bourguiba regime.

The social requisites and historical institutional analysis that have been used to explain Tunisia's move towards democracy can also benefit from demographic analysis. The work of Stimson Center demographer Richard Cincotta is important here in that he points to the significance for political stability of the maturing of the Tunisian population, which now has a median age of 29. Cincotta demonstrates a correlation between authoritarian rule and a large youth demographic between the ages of 15 and 29. The decline of the youth bulge tends to support political stability and democratic governance.

Still, we need to better understand the dynamics of the processes suggested by demographic analysis. If rational choice or rational actor theory (RAT) has told us nothing else, it is the need to focus on individual preferences and choices. While Mohammed Bouazzi was not the selfish utility maximizer that characterizes human actors in RAT (he was known for giving some of his produce to poor families), he was interested in bettering his economic condition as well as that of his family, as seen by his support for his family and paying the university tuition for one of his sisters. Ultimately, it was his choice to burn himself to death that provided the spark for the much larger conflagration that became the Arab Spring.

Looking to the future, the Achilles heel of Tunisian political development is and will continue to be the political economy. The state has few resources at its disposal and tourism - a major source of external funds – has been severely compromised by the recent political instability. The return of many Tunisians who were working in Libya has reduced foreign remittances as has the slowing of the economies of southern Europe where many expatriate Tunisians live and work.

If the current unemployment rate of 15% persists, it may not bode well for continued support for democracy, especially among those Tunisian youth who do not have much hope in the future. A key variable will be exogenous in nature, i.e., whether the EU, US, Turkey and neighboring Libya provide investment capital for the Tunisian economy.

A stagnant economy will most likely place more strains on the political coalition that is currently in the process of formation. Ennahda supporters may call for greater efforts to regulate the economy and even for the appropriation of the wealth of the upper classes. Such actions would certainly undermine foreign investment and dampen European Union support for the Tunisian government.

If Tunisia's democracy is not to become a "spectator sport" for the US, EU, and Turkey - the main stakeholders in the success of its fledgeling democracy - they would all do well to move as quickly as possible to prop up its economy. Mobilizing an international coalition to achieve this end makes the most sense. While Tunisia is a small country in the larger Arab world, the demonstration effect of its becoming a successful democracy should not be underestimated.

Monday, October 31, 2011

(Elite driven) sectarianism is alive and well in Iraq

Despite public opinion polls and my recent focus groups with Iraqi youth that show a rejection of sectarianism, the behavior of Iraq's political elite threatens to undermine the gains that have made in the effort to implement a democratic transition. Sectarianism continues to manifest itself at the highest level as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refuses to budge on his unwillingness to come to terms with Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya Coalition which received the largest number of seats in the March 2010 parliamentary elections.
When the conflict between al-Iraqiya and Maliki's al-Da'wa Party first flared after the elections, the two Kurdish parties that dominate the KRG welcomed the split. Their reasoning was simple. If the Arabs fight it out in Baghdad, they'll have less time to devote to us. A power struggle in Baghdad would preclude a unified Arab front which would to try and block Kurdish interests.

Along the lines of the adage, "be careful of what you wish for," the Kurds have discovered that a dysfunctional government in Baghdad is actually not in their interest. Sectarian leaders often discover that, when you play with fire, you often get burned. The Kurds increasing unease with the stalemate in Baghad was evident in the Central Committee meeting of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that was recently held in Sulaimaniya (ses al-Hayat, Oct. 21). PUK leader and Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, expressed serious concern with the "uncertainty" surrounding a solution to the crisis pitting al-Iraqiya against Maliki's political alliance which seems to have no end in sight.

Even the Kurds, who seek a weak central government in Baghdad, realize the danger that exists if the present stalemate between Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi persists. Iraq's ability to defend itself, to develop its hydrocarbon wealth - oil and natural gas- and to create the necessary feelings of trust that will allow all of Iraq's regional and ethnoconfessional groups to work together to get the country moving forward are increasingly jeopardized.

Clearly, the fault here is not the Iraqi people but their ineffectual and narrowly partisan leaders. Whether as a result of pressure from Iran, or fears of being outflanked by populist elements such as the Sadrist movement, Maliki refuses to come to terms with Allawi and the members of his al-Iraqiya Coalition. Because al-Iraqiya won the majority of votes, it needs to be given a say in the daily functioning of the Iraqi government. As a primarily Sunni Arab coaltion, Maliki's unwillingnessl to bring al-Iraqiya into his government smacks of sectarianism among much of Iraq's populace.

By refusing to ceded any power to Allawi and al-Iraqiya, Maliki is stoking the fires of sectarianism. If he were a true statesman, he would put the interests of Iraq and the Iraqi people above his own sectarian partisanship.

A second indicator of the seriousness of sectarianism is the "struggle of the flags." Since the downfall of Saddam Husayn's Ba'th Party, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has refused to fly the Iraqi flag. It is nowhere in sight when one crosses the border from Turkey into Iraq, nor does it fly elsewhere in the KRG. Because the flag still invokes memories of Ba'thist Pan-Arabism, and inscription "God is great" (Allahu akbar) was added by Saddam Husayn just before the Gulf War of 1991 to attract support from Muslim majority countries, the KRG has been loath to have the flag flying in its Kurdish majority provinces.

However, the Kurds have used the symbol of the flag for their sectarian purposes. When Iraq won a Cinderellaesque victory in the 2007 Asia Cup beating Saudi Arabia, many Kurds raised the Iraqi flag to celebrate the vicotry, especially since Iraqi Kurds play on the national team. Nevertheless, those Kurds who had raised the Iraqi flag were threatened with imprisonment if they did not immediately remove the flag from their homes.

In 1996, during the height of the Kurdish civil war that pitted the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) against its arch-rival, the PUK, Masoud Bazzani, the current KRG president, asked Saddam Husayn to send tanks into the Kurdish region to help him stave off a military defeat by PUK forces. As the tanks of the Iraqi army proceeded north into the KRG, Iraqi flags adorned the roads. This was the same Iraqi army that had been involved in the infamous ANFAL campaign between 1986 and 1989 in which Saddam's forces leveled 175 Kurdish villages, destroyed the Kurdish agrarian sector and killed thousands of Kurds in the process.

The most recent crisis is the order that the Kurdish flag be removed from government buildings in the city of Khanaqin, a Kurdish majority town in Diyala Province, not far from Iraq's northwest border with Iran. The town suffered under Saddam's Arabization policies as many Kurds were killed and their homes taken over by Arabs. However, during the the 1940s, and 1950s, Arabs and Kurds in the Khanaqin region enjoyed good relations and many shared membership in local labor unions, particularly oil unions since the area has important oil fields.

Whether Maliki ordered the KRG's flag removed, or the order came from an official in the Ministry of Interior, the issue has become intertwined with Maliki's introduction of a oil and natural gas bill into the parliament that apparently caught the Kurdish bloc in the Council of Deputies (national parliament) off guard (al-Hayat, Oc. 17). The order to remove the flag led to demonstrations in Khanaqin by its Kurdish community and the formation of a Kurdish delegation to go to Baghdad to demand that the order be rescinded.

The Kurdish suggestion for a new Iraqi flag that would resemble if not replicate the flag used under the rule of General 'Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958-1963), which used the ancient Mesopotamian star of Isis, is not unreasonable and is supported by many Iraqis. However, the "struggle of the flags" is really not about symbols but rather part of a larger power struggle between the Maliki government and the KRG. The winner's prize will be Iraq's vast hydrocarbon wealth (oil and natural gas).

Yet another example of the corrosive effect of sectarianism in Iraq is the decision of the Maliki government to dismiss 145 Iraqi professors at Tikrit University in Salah al-Din province, a province comprised primarily of Sunni Arabs. After the fall of Tripoli, former Libyan National Transitional Council prime minister Mahmud Jibril flew unexpectedly to Baghdad to inform Maliki that the NRTC had discovered that the Qaddafi regime was involved a plot with former Ba'thists to overthrow the Iraqi government.

It is unclear how serious the plot was since no documents have been released. Nevertheless, Maliki quickly moved to arrest many former Ba'thists. Because the party recruited a disproportionate number of Sunni Arabs, the arrests have strong sectarian overtones. The firing of professors at Tikrit University was particularly egregious because it is difficult to imagine that such a large number of academics at one particular university could have all been involved in a plot against the government. University professors are not know for their skills in organizing coups d'etat against the state.

Since almost everyone under Saddam was forced to join the Ba'th Party, the Iraqi parliament passed a law in 2008 amending the de-Ba'thification process to include only those who occupied positions that harmed other Iraqis. Clearly, the faculty members who lost their positions at Tikrit University were not in this category. The firings of the professors only enhanced the idea that Maliki was using the news of a plot to marginalize Sunni Arabs.

Aside from Ayad Allawi, who deos seem to want to create a government with a broad social base were he to become prime minister, most members of Iraq' s political elite suffer from sectarianism tendencies and promote policies that undermine inter-ethnic and inter-c0nfessional trust. Their behavior is motivated by their desire to increase their polticial power and enhance their economic wealth. Although Maliki himself has not been associatedwith economic corruption, he has done little to try and eradicate it.

As for Maliki, "the fish rots from the head down," as the adage goes. Not only is he failing to provide strong, civic leadership that could promote national reconcilaition - a key component of building the necessary trust to enhance security, political cohesion and economic development - but he is promoting policies that further inflame sectarian tensions.

Under these conditions, the ability of Iraq's political institutions to develop is severely curtailed. Prospects for implementing a democratic transition require effective eladership and a political culture of tolerance and political pluralism. Such a political culture represent the prerequisite for rebuilding the necessary trust that Saddam Husayn and his Ba'thist henchmen worked so hard to destroy in Iraq.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What can the US learn from Turkey in the Middle East?

During the 1990s, Turkey was a relatively unstable country. The Islamist government of Necmitten Erbakan was removed by the military in 1997 following a longstanding pattern of Turkish generals removing any prime minister who threatened their prerogatives. Efforts to gain membership in the European Union were going nowhere and ethnic conflict between Turks and Kurds was growing as seen in the spread of support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

By the beginning of this century, Turkey was experiencing solid economic growth. EU membership was no longer a top priority, Turkish-Kurdish relations within Turkey were beginning to be addressed, and the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was behind bars. Gradually, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has won two parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2011 following its initial victory in 2002, has been able to eliminate the power of the army to intervene in the political process. While there have been attempts to manipulate the constitution and the judiciary, most Turks seem quite content with AKP rule.

Perhaps Turkey's most impressive achievement, beyond its economic growth, has been its ability to become one of the dominant powers in the Middle East. It has skillfully deployed "soft power" to inject itself into a number of volatile conflicts that threaten the region's stability.

By concluding important economic agreements with the Iranian government, particularly in the energy field, Turkey has pacified Iran, its historic enemy. In championing the Palestinian cause, and backing away from its traditional close ties to Israel, Turkey has ingratiated itself with the Arab countries of the region, the core provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. It has also situated itself as a possible intermediary given its ties to both Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians and the Arab states, on the other.

While its foray into Lebanese politics in early 2011, where it sought to bring together the country contentious ethnoconfessional groups, was unsuccessful, Turkey is now a major player in efforts to force the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad to cede to the demands of democracy activists who fill the streets of many Syrian cities demanding the end of authoritarian rule. Turkish army maneuvers along the border with Syria have sent a strong message to Syria's Ba'thist regime that the wanton killing of its citizenry who are calling for democratic reforms cannot continue indefinitely.

Turkey's rather spectacular rise in power is paralleled by a decline in US power in the region. With the Tunisian and Egyptian autocrats, Zine al-Din Bin Ali and Husni Mubarak, no longer in power, and authoritarian rulers such as Ali Abdallah Salih in Yemen and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, who formerly cooperated with US anti-terrorism initiatives, likewise gone from power, the US has now to deal with governments that lack the stability and coherence of the autocratic regimes which have been deposed.

In Iraq, the US faces the ironic outcome that its removal of Saddam Husayn and his Ba'thist regime has led to much greater influence of its arch-enemy, Iran. The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki seems determined to demonstrate that it is not an American puppet as it seeks to placate Iran. Maliki's tilt toward Iran is most evident in his unwillingness to commit to allowing any significant number of US troops to remain in Iraq after the end of the Status of Forces Agreement on December 31 of this year (read my analysis, "US Foreign Policy in Post-SOFA Iraq" by clicking here).

In the energy field, not only has Turkey signed energy contracts with Iran, but it is at the center of the 7.9 billion Euro Nabucco Pipeline Project that will channel natural gas from Central Asia, and Iraq through Turkey to an energy hungry Europe, allowing Europe to become less dependent on Russian energy supplies and those of Russia's surrogates.

What can the US learn from Turkey's almost meteoric rise to a regional power in the Middle East? How can it develop policies based on mutually beneficial interests that align US foreign policy in the Middle East with that of Turkey? How can the US work with Turkey to offset its declining options in the Middle East?

To answer these questions requires greater scrutiny of the Turkish success. First, Turkey is exercising its economic muscle in the Middle East based on impressive GDP growth rates over the past 5 years. While economic growth was minimal in 2008 and even dropped in 2009, in 2010, real GDP growth reached 8.2%. Turkey has used its investments in Syria but especially in Iraq to influence domestic policy in both countries. While this policy has not prevented Bashar al-Asad's regime from brutally suppressing pro-democracy demonstrators, it has weakened the Syrian economy. Many analysts argue that if the Syrian economy continues to decline, the business elites of Damascus and Aleppo, a core component of the regime's political base, will turn against the regime, possibly bringing it down in the process.

In Iraq, Turkey has invested heavily in the Iraqi economy to the tune of more than $6 billion. Its investments are still largely concentrated in Iraq's 3 majority Kurdish population provinces that comprise the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). While investments in the KRG have not led to an end of PKK attacks on Turkish forces that originate in Iraq's
mountainous Kurdish region, it has developed a greater inventive on the part of the KRG to reign in the PKK and prevent it from attacking Turkey.

Clearly, Turkish economic might has played and will continue to play a central role in its effort to become the regional hegemon. A key question here is whether the US is following Turkey's lead. Obviously it is not. On strategy might be for US firms to seek to form joint ventures with Turkish firms, such as the energy giants, Enerco Energy and BOTAS, to explore the region's undiscovered oil and natural gas resources

In Iraq, US-Turkish cooperation could not only benefit US firms and hence American overseas investment, but lighten its political footprint in a country that is still very sensitive to the charges by many political groups that the US' goal is to dominate Iraqi politics as a means to control its extensive hydrocarbon wealth (both oil and natural gas).

Turkey's foreign policy success is based on the fact that it treats other Middle Eastern states with respect and promotes a strong democratic agenda. Although it sent out ambiguous signals at first, evoking much anger among anti-Qaddafi forces, Turkey soon joined the chorus of states calling upon Muammar al-Qaddafi to step down from power. Its support for Mubarak's ouster in Egypt and its campaign against the Asad regime in Syria have strengthened its democratic credentials in the Arab world.

The US has not been as forceful as Turkey in supporting popular protest movements of the "Arab Spring." Continued public declarations of support for democratization in the Middle East would serve US interests, much as Turkey's support for democratic change has endeared it to Arab populations throughout the region. The mild Islamism of the AKP underscores the need to develop a model of democracy in the Middle East that reflects local cultural preferences. Here the US needs to recognize that a "one size fits all" definition of democracy can be counterproductive.

In comparing the foreign policies of the US and Turkey, we need realize that the government of President Recip Tayyip Erdogan faces few domestic constraints in exercising its foreign policy preferences. The US Congress has placed many roadblocks in the Obama administration's efforts to pursue American foreign policy objectives in the Middle East. Efforts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians to the negotiating table have been labelled as "anti-Israeli" and "undermining our closest Middle East ally," as a number of Tea Party Republicans have declared. And Congress has yet to confirm the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who has been using visits to areas where pro-democracy demonstrations have taken place as a means to put pressure on the Asad regime to end the killing of demonstrators.

What the US needs to learn from Turkey is that investment strategies which are multilateral in nature, such as the Nabucco Pipeline project, can not only have important economic multiplier effects, but can exercise enormous political influence. More active engagement of Turkey in bi-lateral meetings where the US seeks to forge ties around policies, both economic and political, that both countries are pursuing in the region, can become a "win-win" situation for both countries.

This is not to argue that the US should forgo its traditional foreign policy goals in the Middle East simply to placate Turkey. Nevertheless, both Turkey and the US seek to prevent Iran from undermining regional stability. Turkey is as horrified at the prospect of an Iranian-Israeli military conflict as is the US. Turkey, like the US, realizes that economic development and democratization are the keys to the region's stability, especially to meeting the aspirations of the region's large youth demographic, which is often referred to as the "youth bulge."

Turkey still faces a major problem in enacting national reconciliation with its own restive Kurdish population which is growing at a faster rate than the indigenous Turkish population. Here the US can create greater good will by trying to help the Turkish government develop policies that will promote such reconciliation. If the US can become more involved behind the scenes in helping Turkey tackle what is clearly its most significant domestic problem, then it will ingratiate itself with the Erdogan government. Helping Turkey's Kurds meet their demands for economic, cultural and political reforms will undermine support for the militant wing of the PKK which advocates the use of violence to achieve those goals, rather than through the use of peaceful means.

What Turkey demonstrates most clearly is that a bold, forceful and consistent foreign policy is, at the end of the day, one that is most effective in the Middle East. It has also shown that it can learn from its mistakes, as it did in Libya. Greater attention to the manner in which Turkey has been able to develop such an effective regional foreign policy policy could teach the US how to increase its own success in the Middle East as well.