Sunday, June 5, 2011

What does Iraq's political crisis tell us about the Arab Spring?

How is Iraq confronting its own Arab Spring? What does Iraq’s current political crisis tell us about the possibilities of success for the Arab Spring? Much of what happening in Iraq today has important ramifications for the best candidates for a transition to democracy, Egypt and Tunisia. While all 3 countries are very different, Iraq's experience points to one of the main problems that emerges after the overthrow of authoritarian regimes. That problem is the inability of competing factions within the political elite to develop cohesive policies and adopt a civic as opposed to personalistic approach to politics.

Iraq celebrated the holding of successful parliamentary elections in March 2010. Iraq’s Higher Elections Commission and foreign observers agreed that the elections were fair and violence was almost non-existent. Voter turnout was 62.5% nationwide and as high as 70% in Iraq’s 3 northern Kurdish provinces.

In a rejection of what voters perceived as the parliament’s inefficacy in fighting corruption, over 60% of the sitting members of the parliament elected in 2005 were turned out of office. Further, a national coalition, al-Iraqiya, which rejected sectarian politics won 91 seats, the largest number of any political grouping. The fact that al-Iraqiya was led by a Shiite, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, and received significant votes from all 3 of Iraq’s main ethnic groups created great optimism about the future direction of Iraqi politics.

However, these expectations did not materialize. Sitting prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki refused to cede any power to Allawi’s al-Iraqiya Coalition and instead worked to marginalize it by reaching out to the Iraqi National Alliance, which included the Sadrists and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and the Kurdish Alliance. This maneuvering angered Allawi and al-Iraqiyia, especially the Coalition’s rural Sunni Arab supporters who felt that Maliki was trying to exclude them along sectarian lines.

It took until November 2010, over 7 months, before al-Maliki was able to form a new government that largely excluded al-Iraqiya. The Kurds stepped as king makers by brokering a compromise that allocated the prime minister’s position to al-Maliki, the position of speaker of parliament to al-Iraqiya, and the president of the newly created National Strategic Council, that was supposedly intended to coordinate national defense and security policy to Allawi. But the actual powers of the newly formed council were never clearly defined and Allawi refused to accept the position.

At the same time, Maliki has had to fight out attacks by his erstwhile coalition partner Muqtada al-Sadr upon whose parliament members he depends. Sadr has pounded away at the need for all US forces to be out of Iraq by the agreed date of December 31, 2011 as agreed by upon Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) concluded between Iraq and the US in 2008.

While no one expects Sadr to actually be able to act on his threat to reactivate the Mahdi Army if US forces aren’t withdrawn, he recently organized a march of thousands of his supporters in Sadr City who were dressed in a quasi uniform (Shirts emblazoned with the Iraqi flag), as he keeps up relentless pressure on al-Maliki’s government.

Although nominally al-Maliki’s ally, Sadr continues to attack the government for the lack of and jobs and services, and for failing to fight corruption. Thus the Sadrists are trying to assume the mantle not only as the political force that will protect Iraq against Western domination, but also bring transparent government and one that delivers the type of social services that the populace craves.

If the inter-elite cleavages were not destructive enough of effective governance, increased tensions have developed between al-Maliki and local government, both provincial governors and provincial councils. Not a day seems to go by that the Iraqi and Arab press fail to report some form of conflict between the central government and the provinces. Invariably these problems are caused by decisions by taken by Baghdad that rides roughshod over local rights. These decisions include appointing and removing local officials, failing to provide the provinces with funds to which they’re entitled or making investment decisions that concern local oil and natural gas resources without consulting local officials (in violation of the constitution).

What Iraq points to is the legacy of authoritarian rule for democratic transitions in the Middle East. Saddam Husayn destroyed all political institutions and civil society during 35 years of Ba’thist rule. He also killed any members of the political elite who he thought might at some point challenge his rule, even his former childhood friend who he appointed as defense minister during the Iran-Iraq War, Adnan Khayrallah.

Most of the players in Iraq’s unstable political game fled the country and hence were expatriates during Ba’thist rule. None enjoy any significant level trust among the populace at large. Constant infighting - often over what appear to the Iraqi electorate as petty matters - has further undermined the elite's popularity. That was certainly evident from research I recently completed among Iraqi youth who consistently used pejorative terms to refer to Iraq’s political class.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Iraq is making economic progress. It plans to invest $150 billion in infrastructural development over the next 3 years, especially to rehabilitate oil and natural gas pipelines. Inflation rates have dropped from a high of over 20% in 2007 to an expected level of 6.2% in 2012. Oil export revenue has increased with the global rise in energy prices (Iraq earned about $7 billion in revenues from oil sales this past March). GDP growth is up from 1.5% in 2007 to a projected 10.9% in 2012.

But investing in the hydrocarbon sector does not produce many jobs. The revenues derived from the sale of oil and natural gas has not been translated into job creation or improved services. Indeed, 1 out of 6 Iraqis still lives below the poverty line on $2 per day, a situation that infuriates large segments of the populace.

Most analysts blame the recent uptick in violence in Iraq on the inability of the political elite in Baghdad to reach a national solution to the country’s political crisis. The lack of a political solution has recently seen an increase in attacks on prominent Iraqi political figures. There were unsuccessful assassination attempts on Atheel al-Nujayfi, the governor of Ninewa Province and an important figure in the Mosul-based al-Hadba' Party, and on al-Iraqiya's candidate for Defense Minister, Major-General Khalid al-Ubaydi.

The core component of a national solution to solving Iraq;s current crisis must center on giving all sectors of the elite a place at the political table. As long as al-Maliki refuses to do this, as evident in his continued reluctance to appoint al-Iraqiya members to the vacant positions of Defense and Interior ministers, resentment by those who feel excluded will persist and violence will be one of the results. How might such a national political solution come about? This is a topic to be explored in future postings.