|Qasim asleep in his Ministry of Defense office Jan. 1963|
Qasim was an Iraqi general who acquired his fame for the effective manner in which he fought Zionist forces in Palestine during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as an officer in the Iraqi army. A latecomer to the Iraqi Free Officers movement - which emulated its counterpart organization in Egypt under Muhammad Najib (Neguib) and Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser) - Qasim was chosen to become the titular head of the uprising that overthrew the Hashimite monarchy on July 14, 1958.
Subsequent to taking control of the July 14 Revolution, Qasim refused to join Egypt and Syria as part of the United Arab Republic. Infuriating a large segment of the Free Officers who were Pan-Arabists, Qasim now became known as "traitor" to Iraq's "Pan-Arab destiny" and a "Shu'ubi."
The latter insult meant that, due to his mixed Shiite and Sunni parentage, Qasim was really supportive of those who were loyal to neighboring (Shiite) Iran, namely Iraq's Shiite majority population. In this narrative, Qasim was the modern embodiment of the so-called "Shu'ubiya" movement that had purportedly been responsible for the Abbasid Empire's fall to the Mongols in 1258 CE and the subsequent destruction of Iraq (even though there is no historical evidence whatsoever to support this argument).
This post is less concerned with the ensuing struggle that developed after July 1958 between Pan-Arabist forces and Qasim (discussed in detail in my Memories of State: Politics, History and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq), than with the impact of his legacy for contemporary efforts not only to build democracy in Iraq but throughout the Arab world. For all his good deeds, Qasim was a dictator - a benign dictator, but a dictator nonetheless.
|An Iraqi carrying an image of 'Abd al-Karim Qasim during a recent commemoration of the July 1958 Revolution|
In fact, what the Ba'th discovered was that Qasim donated the monies he received from his 3 salaries - as a retired army office, as prime minister, and as defense minister - to the poor. While he had a government residence, he was known to be a workaholic who spent most of time in a simple apartment in the defense ministry which had a desk, couch and some small tables. He owned no civilian clothing, only his military uniforms.
Qasim had a significant impact on Iraqi society through obtaining higher royalty payments from foreign companies for Iraqi oil though nationalizing the oil industry, implementing land reform, dramatically expanding the education system, and providing housing for the urban poor of Baghdad (i.e., building Revolution City - Madinat al-Thawra). Qasim was the first Iraqi leader to treat the Kurds with political respect when he announced at the beginning of the revolution that Arabs and Kurds in Iraq were "partners" (shuruka').
Qasim's regime was one of the first in the region to promote women's rights. It promugated a very progressive personal status law in 1959, and appointed the first woman minister to a cabinet post in Iraq, Nuziha al-Dulaymi, as Minister of Municipalities.
Nevertheless, Qasim closed newspapers, banned political parties and refused to allow democratic elections. He adopted the title of "supreme leader" (al-za'im al-awhad), and promoted the fiction that he was politically neutral (fawq al-tayyarat al-siyasiya). The result of his actions was the degradation of political discourse. Politics was reduced to binaries of good versus evil, revolutionaries versus reactionaries, nationalist heroes versus the agents of imperialism.
Qasim, like Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir in Egypt, the Ba'thists in Syria, the National Liberation Front in Algeria, Libya under Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libyan Peoples' Jamahiriya, Sudan under Ja'far al-Numayri, Tunisia under Zin al-Din Bin Ali, and Yemen under Abdallah al-Sallal and later Ali Abdallah Salih, came to power with the intention of improving the lives of the less fortunate citizens in their respective countries. However, all these leaders and parties forced an "authoritarian bargain" on their citizen-subjects: give up your individual freedoms and right of political dissent in return for state subsidies of food and education and the promise of government employment.
Clearly, the authoritarian bargain did not lead to a happy outcome. Saddam Husayn was a disaster for Iraq, as was Qaddafi for Libya, and Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad for Syria. Sudan and Algeria continue to ruled by corrupt, one-party dictatorial regimes. In Egypt, after presidential and parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood control appears headed in a more authoritarian direction. Only in Tunisia and Yemen, and to a much lesser extent in Iraq, do we see any progress towards implementing a meaningful democratic transition.
What I call "corporatism" in my article on 'Abd al-Karim Qasim connotes the use of a dangerous organic metaphor - the idea of the nation as a "body politic" - and one that has fascist overtones. Once the nation is understood as an analogue to the human body, any dissent can be seen as threatening its health, and thus inherently destructive and hence treasonous. Corporatism is an idea that under-girds authoritarian rule and represses critical thinking.
This type of thinking is found in much Islamist thinking today, which is also grounded in a corporatist unity that suppresses cultural and political pluralism and the norms of tolerance and dissent. In this sense, the secular nationalism of the Arab one-party state has much in common with its Islamist successors. In both instances, the state tries to create a restrictive realm of discourse that precludes democratic alternatives.
Qasim stands apart from the political leaders of the other Arab countries mentioned above. He was not bloodthirsty, he truly cared for the Iraq people, and he implemented many reforms, even if they were not fully implemented while he was still alive. His sincerity, honesty, and devotion to improving the quality of life for ordinary Iraqis has created much nostalgia for his rule. While I was discussing Qasim and showing his photograph during a recent power point presentation at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, an American official, who had just returned from Iraq, called out: "So that's who that is - I saw his picture all over southern Iraq!"
Still, in recognizing Qasim's continued popularity and in our rush to remember his positive contributions, we should also remember the dark side of his rule. Immediately after the July 1958 coup d'etat , Iraq's democratic politicians and parties were willing to work with him to hold democratic elections and create a polity based on parliamentary rule. Instead, Qasim decided to exclude them and keep all political power for himself.
Qasim's failure to use the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy to build a truly pluralistic, democratic political system has to be recognized not only as an important turning point in the history of modern Iraq, but as a great opportunity lost. What is needed in the Middle East (as in all countries) is a state that provides social justice for its citizens while vigorously defending individual liberty, human rights and the rule of law. Promoting one without the other is a recipe for national instability and conflict