Friday, June 27, 2014

Authoritarianism's Damage to Iraq

Nuri al-Maliki and his general staff
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham’s successes in northern Iraq have been blamed on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian, autocratic and exclusionary rule.  However, Iraq’s problems go beyond the struggles in Baghdad’s corridors of power.  

Replacing Maliki without addressing two fundamental problems will do little to help Iraq confront terrorism and achieve political stability. Iraq’s leaders need to reverse Nuri al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule by establishing a political process based on power sharing and meaningful federalism that includes all Iraq’s ethnoconfessional groups.  
ISIS forces

Equally important, the new Iraqi government that will be formed this summer needs to create a political system that fosters opportunities for its citizens to participate in national reconciliation and building a stable and prosperous Iraq. 

Unfortunately, Nuri al-Maliki and his political allies have failed to harness the potential of Iraqi society, which is not only rich in oil wealth but in human capital as well.  Maliki has squandered the country’s most important resources for building a democratic and prosperous society, namely its educated middle classes, youth and women.  

Keen to take advantage of the personal freedoms and political, educational and economic opportunities available after the US toppled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in 2003, these segments of Iraqi society have become despondent as their hopes and aspirations have been quashed by Maliki’s authoritarian rule.
Transparency International corruption index

Absorbing 80% of Iraq’s budget, corruption has degraded public services. Workers in the bloated state bureaucracy are hired along party lines resulting in incompetent performance.  Professionals are marginalized by a social order based on patronage and political loyalties rather than merit.  Would be entrepreneurs are stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy and corruption.  Political discourse is increasingly stifled.  In 2010, Maliki created a Court of the Publishing and Media that can fine and imprison journalists, television commentators or authors considered to have “insulted” the government.

Maliki has refused to implement economic reforms.  This spring, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani criticized his state budget for its excessive dependence on oil revenues.  He asked why the budget failed to encourage investment and development of the private sector, especially when Iraqis are known for their entrepreneurial skills.

In addition to dysfunctional and corrupt governance, Maliki has sapped the enthusiasm and energy of Iraq’s youth, who constitute70% of the population under the age of 30.  Youth play a central role is Iraq’s 6000 officially registered civil society organizations.  Yet Maliki has circumscribed their activities, frustrating efforts of youth to promote a wide variety of national reconciliation projects.  An indicator of the untapped potential of Iraqi youth is their strong desire for education that has required doubling the number of Iraqi universities since 2003. 

In focus groups I conducted with 600 Arab and Kurdish Iraqi youth ages 12 to 30, their alienation was evident in 89% responding that they would never join a political party.  When asked about role models, not one respondent mentioned admiring an Iraqi political leader.
The Maliki government’s treatment of women reflects another impediment to Iraq’s development. Women constitute well over 60% of Iraq’s population due to the deaths of large numbers of males in the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars, the large 1991 uprising following the Gulf War, and the 2003-2008 sectarian violence.  

Women made significant gains in Iraq in the 1970s (they were a majority of Baghdad’s physicians when I first visited Iraq in 1980).  However, these gains were taken away by Saddam during the UN sanctions regime of the 1990s and women’s conditions have further deteriorated since 2003.  The only woman in Maliki’s cabinet is the Minister of Women’s Affairs, a ministry that receives almost no government funding.

Women protest the Ja'fari law: "We mourn Iraqi women on International Day of Women"
In early 2014, the Maliki government approved a law that would apply to Shiite women and nullify Iraq’s 1959 personal status law, one of the most supportive of women’s rights in the Arab world.  Intended to attract votes for Maliki in last April’s parliamentary elections from poor and uneducated Shiite males, the law allows child marriage as early as 9 years of age, legitimizes martial rape and eliminates a woman’s right to divorce and travel, making her the virtual property of her husband and male members of her family.  

As the UN Woman agency has noted, the status of women is a more significant predictor of stability in a society than its level of democratization or GDP.  Failure to provide women a meaningful role in post-Baathist Iraq has prevented 3/5 of Iraq’s population from contributing to its development. 

As an example of Iraq’s great potential for positive change, I recently attended two important conferences, one in the Arab south and the other in the Kurdish north.  Compared to my first trip to Iraq in 1980, two things were striking. In 1980, Iraqis borrowed banned books from my hotel room at great peril to themselves, underscoring the well-known saying that the Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read.  

In 2014, that same spirit of inquiry was alive at the Najaf conference on Religious Pluralism and Tolerance in the Dialogue of Civilizations, and at the Dohuk University conference on Education and Peace Building in Iraq.  The former conference is part of the University of Kufa’s competition for a UNESCO Chair in Religious Dialogue, while the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Dohuk University seeks to spread peace and conflict resolution curricula throughout Iraqi schools and universities. In 2014, as in 1980, Iraqis demonstrated why they are held in such high intellectual esteem throughout the Arab world.

At these conferences, Iraqi academics, peace and democracy activists, and clerics of all sects and ethnicities delivered insightful lectures and engaged in spirited and respectful debate.  The conferences highlighted that Iraqis reject sectarianism, one indicator of which is the high rate of Sunni-Shiite intermarriage. 
Iraqis of all ethnoconfessional groups and social classes view sectarian politics as a recipe for the same disaster that befell Iraq during the 1990s when Saddam sought to create ethnic and confessional divisions to prop up his rule, weakened after the 1991 Gulf War. 

Iraq faces a serious contradiction.  On the one hand, it possesses an educated and politically aware population, large segments of which yearn to build a free, democratic and prosperous society.  On the other hand, it is burdened by a political system in which elite actors pursue their personal interests rather than those of the country as a whole.

As Iraq requests assistance from the US, Western countries and NGOs in confronting ISIS terrorism and in selecting a new prime minster this summer, this assistance should be conditioned on fundamental reforms in Iraq’s political system that will make it more participatory, transparent and supportive of the rights of youth and women.  

If Iraq’s leaders would opt for a more inclusive politics, including confronting sectarianism and corruption, Iraq has the potential to become the South Korea or Taiwan of the Middle East

Iraqis have suffered under oppressive and authoritarian rule for far too long.  They deserve to have leaders who will allow them to unleash their potential to develop a society that benefits all its members.  

1 comment:

John Robertson said...

This post deserves a wider audience, Prof. Davis. Too little notice is paid these days to non-sectarian, moderate, progressive elements in Iraq and how much they're being reined in by corrupt system and traditional networks of power and patronage. We can only hope that it's not too late for reconciliation.