Friday, September 6, 2013

Will sectarianism destroy Iraq? Part 2: Iraq is not Syria

Iraqis protesting parliament salaries
Recently I wrote a post, "Will sectarianism destroy Iraq?"  Part 1: the counterattack by Iraqi youth."  I attempted to show that Iraqi youth not only reject sectarianism but have worked to create organizations and projects designed to fight it.  Because 70% of Iraq's population is under 30, this is a welcome sign for the future.

But are Iraqi youth the only countervailing force to the spread of sectarian identities in Iraq?  Are there other efforts and political trends that might prevent sectarianism from fragmenting Iraq?

With Iraq having been drawn into the civil war, there are those who would argue that Iraq will experience the same fate as Syria where sectarian identities have proliferated as the conflict has intensified.  But is Iraq really the same society as Syria?  Is it governed by the same political and  social dynamics?  I would argue that sectarianism certainly exists in Iraq, but that Iraq is much better situated to combat it than Syria.

Whatever one's assessment of the US invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Husayn dramatically restructured Iraqi politics. While security collapsed - in large measure due to the US decommissioning the Iraqi conscript army, the police and engaging in a counter-productive de-Ba'thification policy - Iraqis did acquire the ability to establish civil society organizations, publish news media (such as the excellent Niqash online journal), create political parties and vote in elections.

Parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010 were free and fair and characterized by minimum violence.  Arab provincial legislative elections and the Kurdish Regional Parliament elections in 2009 attracted new candidates and parties, including the new reformist Gorran (Change) movement in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).  The 2010 parliamentary elections were the embodiment of a truly free election - nobody knew the outcome before the voting took place.

Syria is very different.  It has been ruled since the 1960s by the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party - the same party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Husayn - and any efforts to challenge the regime have been brutally crushed.  The most notorious act of President Bashar al-Asad's father, Hafiz al-Asad, was his indiscriminate bombing of the city of Hama in 1982 to suppress an uprising by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in which 20,000 people were killed, many with no relation to the  Brotherhood.

It is true that Syria is ruled by the country's Alawite minority if we consider the upper echelons of the military, political elite and intelligence services.  However, many observers fail to mention that the Asad family has forged an alliance with the wealthy Damascene Sunni (and to a lesser Kurdish and Christian) business elite which still supports the regime (which also demonstrates how simplistic it is to view the conflict in Syria strictly in sectarian terms, i.e., Sunnis against Alawites).

In Iraq, power is much less concentrated and centralized than in Syria.  Iraq has many independent civil society organizations and there are multiple political parties.  Demonstrations occur on a regular basis, usually on Fridays and Saturdays,  While the Ministry of Interior refuses to issue permits for these demonstrations and often demonstrators are beaten by the police, demonstrations continue and demonstrators are not killed by the army as they were in the southern town of al-Dara'a when Syrians began their peaceful protests in 2011.

In Iraq, many political parties exist, almost all of which are hostile to the Maliki government.  Several major parties, Arab and Kurdish, came together  in 2012 to introduce a no-confidence vote in the parliament to bring down Nuri al-Maliki because of his efforts to impose a new authoritarian regime on Iraq.  This past summer, Maliki's decline in popularity led his own party to ask him not to run for a third term as prime minister.

Iraq's political institutions are largely dysfunctional.  Nevertheless, there is a rudimentary system of checks and balances.  The Council of Deputies (national parliament) is not known for its work ethic or efficiency in passing legislation to confront the country's myriad problems.  In fact, it usually does not have enough members to obtain a quorum.

Nevertheless, the parliament has not only tried to depose Maliki through a vote of no-confidence (which was not supported by Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, as required by the constitution), but it has also voted to impose term limits (2 terms) on the offices of the president, prime minister and vice-prime minister.  The parliament held televised hearings in 2009 by its Integrity Committee of the former Minister of Trade, 'Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, who was ultimately forced from office and convicted of corruption.

The impact of political institutions can be seen in other ways.  When current Speaker of the Council of Deputies, Usama al-Nujayfi, was head of the al-Hadba' Party in the north-west city of Mosul - traditionally a hotbed of Sunni Pan-Arabism -  he was known for his nasty sectarian comments about Iraq's Shi'a and especially its Kurdish population.

Once he arrived in Baghdad to assume the position of speaker, Nujayfi changed his tune.  Soon he began to ingratiate himself with Shi'i and Kurdish members of parliament and quickly became known as an adroit coalition builder, winning the support of many deputies.  Realizing that if he wanted to become a political leader on the national stage, he would need to develop support among all Iraq's ethnic groups, Nujayfi became a different type of political leader.  His example offers a good example of how institutions can dramatically change the behavior of political actors once they become part of them and are subject to the structural constraints they impose.

Iraq has a vibrant civil society.  One example is the recent campaign against the excessive salaries, pensions and benefits of parliamentary delegates which began through the use of social media.  The campaign constructed a Facebook page which attracted thousands of members soon after it appeared.   The focus of Iraqi ire was the inability of the state to provide even a modicum of social services and jobs, while members of parliament and higher government officials made huge salaries and received expensive benefits.

Iraqis were particularly infuriated by the lifetime salaries and pensions that former parliament members receive.  These funds, which are tax exempt, accompany special rights to land in Baghdad which has seen a rapid increase in value since 2003.  Many former parliament members have sold their land, which was intended to allow them to reside in Baghdad while in parliament, and made large amounts of money in the process.

As the Facebook page led to massive demonstrations in all parts of the country (see al-Hayat, August 31, September 1, 3), the Ministry of Interior tried to shut down the protests by refusing to issue permits and sending the police to intimidate and beat protesters.  However, the government's actions did not deter Iraqis who continue to fill the streets of major cities and towns, in Sunni and Shi'i areas, demanding that the parliament rescind the law giving parliamentarians and former parliamentarians huge salaries and benefits.  The average cost of salaries and benefits for each member of parliament totals $518,000 per year, about 40 times the salary of the average Iraqi.

Fearful of losing the 2014 parliamentary elections, after losing seats in the 2013 Arab legislative elections this past spring, the State of Law Coalition (whose main party is Maliki's Islamic Call Party - Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya), introduced a law to nullify the special  benefits reserved for former parliamentarians.  Most observers see this behavior as reflecting a fear of electoral defeat.

In what other Arab country can we observe these political dynamics?  Granted, much of the behavior of Iraq's political elite reflects cynical calculations of how to remain in power or obtain power.  Civic values are not one of the elite's strong points.  Nevertheless, there is  a system of checks and balances in Iraq that prevents any one group or political ideology from monopolizing power.

For this reason, Iraq will not degenerate into chaos in the same way as Syria.  If Maliki can be forced from office in 2014, there is no guarantee that a better national leader will take his place.  However, the fact that an Iraqi leader was foiled in his efforts to impose a new authoritarian regime will be a "shot in the arm" to those who still believe in the dream of a democratic Iraq,  In short, sectarian identities exist in Iraq but will not win out in the long run, the efforts of sectarian entrepreneurs who seek to manipulate them notwithstanding.


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