Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Libya is not Iraq

It is unfortunate that many Western commentators are making comparisons between Iraq after the US invasion of March 2003 and the overthrow of Mu'ammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya. What does tie Iraq and Libya together is the lessons that US foreign policy makers have learned from the mistakes of the Bush administration in Iraq. Eschewing a "top down" approach, the Obama administration has allowed the Libyan National Transitional Council(NTC)to take the lead in setting the agenda for the campaign to rid Libya of Qaddafi's rule and to map out the broad outlines of the post-Qaddafi era.

One of the main differences between the overthrew of Saddam in 2003 and the end of the Qaddafi regime was the manner in which the US approached the two countries. Both pre-invasion and post-Saddam policy in Iraq involved limited consultation with a small number of Iraqis. Even the main political actors that dominated Iraqi politics in 2003 and 2004 were handpicked by the Department of Defense and the White House.

In Libya, the main political actors have emerged from the struggle against the Qaddafi regime. Some may be suspect for once having once been part of that regime. But we do not hear any talk of the functional equivalent of "de-Ba'thification" in Libya, namely preventing anyone associated with the Qaddafi regime from participating in post-Qaddafi politics. Only those who were at the core of the ancien regime will have to face trials.

Another major difference between Iraq and Libya is that the Qaddafi regime has been overthrown by the Libyan people. True, NATO warplanes and logistical support have been crucial in that victory. Still, it has been the Libyan people, especially youth who make up 75% of the population under 30, who have made up the casualties in the struggle to rid Libya of its repressive dictator. Even if NATO had not been involved, it is highly likely that we would still have seen a protracted struggle such as that which is currently underway in Syria.

In Iraq, the US military that was completely responsible for ridding the country of the Ba'th. Iraqis had little or no sense of having contributed to the Ba'thist regime's downfall. The manner in which the Bush administration failed to control extensive looting in Baghdad in April 2003, including protecting the priceless artifacts of the Iraq Museum, created anger and distrust among Iraqis of US objectives in Iraq. It also undermined support for the Bush administration's professed goal of creating a democratic Iraq. Many Iraqis did not trust the Bush administration who they felt did not seem to have developed a well defined policy for post-Saddam Iraq.

In Libya, on the other hand, the US, NATO, the UN and the international community generally have used a light touch when dealing with rebel forces and their political arm, the NTC. Libyan rebels have been forced to make their own decisions and suffer the consequences when these decisions have not worked out, e.g., overstretching their supply lines when engaging Qaddafi's loyalist forces. They have not been able to blame anyone but themselves and in the process have undergone an important learning process.

As rebel forces have struggled to oust the Qaddafi regime, groups of fighters representing different regions, ideologies and tribes have had to cooperate and work together to develop joint military and political strategies. This is not to say that these differences have been overcome and won't reemerge in the new post-Qaddafi era. However, informal groups of rebel fighters have already been formed throughout the country and developed a certain level of trust as they have fought together against what were often better trained and equipped forces.

In Iraq, post-Saddam politics quickly fell under the control of exiles who had not lived in Iraq for many years, in some cases decades. These new leaders have been referred to by Tareq and Jacqueline Ismael as "carpetbaggers." Indeed, many Iraqis were highly suspicious of these politicians who came to Iraq in March and April, 2003 with US forces and who had not suffered under Saddam as had the populace at large.

Unlike the political leadership that developed in Iraq after Saddam was toppled, the NTC and military leaders in Libya are much closer to the Libyan citizenry. Yes, some of them were part of Qaddafi's regime, and at least one, the NTC's military commander, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes, was assassinated for having served Qaddafi. Yet the majority of the new leadership has not only shown great courage, especially in the beginning of the struggle when it was not at all clear that Qaddafi would be defeated, and in their measured approach to the struggle. What has been particularly impressive in the NTC's focus on national reconciliation, and their mantra that Libyans not engage in revenge killings and treat their captives with respect.

In short, the old adage that democracy is not a gift that one nation can give to another but must be created by the people through a process of struggle, has played itself out in Libya, as it has in Egypt, Tunisia which are also engaged in the "Arab Spring." All the doubts that Western commentators have expressed about Libya being a "tribal society" in which all the institutions of civil society were destroyed by Qaddafi are arguments of those who doubt that Libya (or any of the countries of the Arab Middle East) can become truly democratic nation-states.

Iraq has made impressive strides towards democracy, even with the many mistakes made by the US occupation administration in 2003 and 2004. It held free and fair parliamentary and provincial legislative elections in 2005, 2009 and 2010. In the March 2010 elections, a secular nationalist coalition led by a Shiite, Ayad Allawi, won a majority of seats and garnered electoral support from all of Iraq's major ethnoconfessional groups. All observers agreed that the elections were fair and free.

Iraq boasts over 6000 registered civil society organizations. The press plays a vigorous role in criticizing the government for not providing needed social services, while the heads of the Shiite and Sunni communities, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shaykh Ahmad Abd al-Ghaffur al-Samara'i respectively, constantly demand that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki eliminate extensive corruption and nepotism within its ranks.

In many ways, it can be argued that Iraq has had faced an even more difficult road than Libya in its efforts to implement a democratic transition. Not only did it experience extensive sectarian based violence after 2003, but it has suffered from a fragmented and dysfunctional political elite that spends more time focusing on infighting than trying to work for the interests of the Iraqi people.

Unlike Iraq, Libya will most likely be able to avoid regional, tribal or sectarian based conflict, e.g., Arab against Berber. Libya's political elite seems much more cohesive than its Iraqi counterpart and more closely linked to the populace at large. The NTC and its successor government may use Libya's oil wealth for corrupt ends as have Iraq's Arab and Kurdish political elites. But there are many indications that the NTC benefits from a "civic core" within its ranks that will work to prevent widespread abuses of power such as we saw under the Qaddafi regime

Many would argue that Iraqis have a stronger sense of national identity than do Libyans. This may be true. However, the fact that Iraq, Libya and most of the countries of the Middle East are experiencing a "youth bulge," where a large percentage of the population refuses to adhere to the shibboleths of the past, loses sight of the fact that we are witnessing not just an Arab Spring but the birth of a new generation of political leadership throughout the Middle East.

In Libya, the new generation does not find that tribalism offers them much in the way of improving their lives. Tribalism was more effective for leaders like Saddam and Qaddafi who used it to create social and political cleavages that were intended to "divide and conquer" the populace. However, in the process, Saddam and Qaddafi atomized tribes, often killing their leaders if they refused to follow their dictates. The result was that the tribal system in both countries was undermined and has lost much of its social and political legitimacy.

Observers, Western Arab and others, have every right to be concerned about the form of the new political system that will emerge in Libya now that the Qaddafi regime has been toppled. But we need to avoid the temptation to trot out the old and tired stereotypes about "Islam," "tribalism" and l"lack of national identity" preventing a transition to democracy in the Arab world, so as to not encourage a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, the Obama administration, NATO, Turkey, Qatar and other friends of Libya's NTC should continue their policy of patient, wise and non-obtrusive counseling, supplemented by whatever technical expertise they can offer the new Libyan government. The Arab Spring will enjoy a much greater probability of success if it can count on consistent and long-term support from its allies, both inside and outside the Middle East.

This type of support - namely providing support for the new Libyan government's needs as it defines them - is the best way to avoid the mistakes of Iraq. For those who want to see Libya become a functioning democracy, it is also the most appropriate way to honor all the Libyans who have died so their their countrymen could be free.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Soap operas, elite politics and security in Iraq

On August 13th, the Iraqi parliament voted to ban the showing of the soap opera, al-Hasan and al-Husayn on Iraqi television channels. In a video recording of the session, the parliament speaker declared that the film is causing sectarian conflict (al-fitna) in the Muslim world. The film is being shown throughout the Arab world during the holy month of Ramadan. al-Hasan and al-Husayn continues a recent tradition of showing films on topics important to Islam during Ramadan. Such films have drawn large audiences and al-Hasan and al-Husayn is no exception.

The banning of the soap opera shows not only the continued salience of sectarian identities in the Arab world but the lack of effort on the part of political elites to confront the problem of national reconciliation. The problems that led to the banning of al-Hasan and al-Husayn in Iraq are linked to the larger realm of Arab elite politics. This form of elite politics, which refuses to take national reconciliation seriously, threatens the security of Iraq (and that of other Middle Eastern countries where this type of politics is all too often replicated).

As we saw this week, Iraq experienced a devastating series of attacks throughout the country, all of which had sectarian overtones. The groups that organized these attacks need to find recruits to carry out their deadly attacks. Only when all sectors of society feel that they are part of the political process will the recruits for such attacks dry up.

In Iraq's banning the film al-Hasan and al-Husayn, what are the political dynamics of the relationship between culture, politics and national security? In other words, what do the dynamics of banning a soap opera tell us about the politics of national reconciliation in Iraq? And what impact does this form of politics have on Iraq's security situation?

The topic of the assassination of Hasan and Husayn is extremely sensitive since it encompasses the origins of the schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam. Even before it aired, the title of the program was changed from al-Hasan, al-Husayn and Mu'awiya, to al-Hasan and al-Husayn. The omission of Mua'wiya is indicative of the sensitivity of the film's topic. Not only did Mu'awiya organize the attack on Hasan and Husayn's father, the caliph Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was himself murdered in 661 CE, but he was seen as complicit in the deaths of Hasan and Husayn.

The film seeks to edify Muslims about an important event in the history of Islam. Ramadan has become a particularly appropriate time to air lengthy films about complex historical topics because television viewing increases substantially as Muslims fast and spend much of their daytime fast at home.

Taking 3 years to complete, and produced in several Arab countries, the film is comprised of 30 one hour segments. A large number of prominent clerics, religious scholars and historians served as consultants to the producer, Muhammad al-Anzi, of the Kuwaiti Al-Maha Productions company. As al-Anzi has pointed out in several interviews, he tried to present a balanced account of the lives of the two imams, Hasan and Husayn.

The film has elicited criticism throughout the Arab world, including from al-Azhar, the preeminent religious institution in Sunni Islam. The Azhar's calling for the film not be shown based on Sunni Islam's prohibition of showing human representations of Muslim religious figures was underscored by the opposition from the head of the Sunni Religious Endowments (al-Awqaf) in Iraq, Ahmad 'Abd al-Ghaffur al-Samarra'i and the his counterpart, the head of Shi'i religious endowments, Salih al-Haydari. Likewise, through a representative who delivered the Friday prayer in Karbala', Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani indicated his opposition as well, claiming that the film was filled with factual errors and constituted a deviation from Islam.

However, as a commentator to an article on the controversy noted, the film only became political in Iraq once the parliament voted to ban it from all Iraq's television channels. The problem then is the unwillingness of politicians to tackle head on the sectarian divide that still afflicts Iraq and other Arab countries. Rather than open the historical record to scrutiny, political elites instead prefer to repress efforts to examine the past.

While many viewers in the Arab world have been drawn to watch al-Hasan and al-Husayn given the controversy surrounding it, many others indicate their interest in it stems from their lack of knowledge of the historical events that are depicted in the film and their desire to know more about them. Once again, we see the divide between elite and mass politics. By not allowing a healthy discussion of what led to the schism between Sunni and Shi'i Islam, Arab countries are prevented from moving forward with the process of national reconciliation.

The lack of national reconciliation is a key factor that allows sectarian identities to persist. And the persistence of sectarianism is good news for Sunni Arab organizations like al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, and their Shi'i counterparts. As long as historical grievances are not confronted, such organizations can find recruits, especially when the government provides limited services and is characterized by extensive corruption.

For political elites, serious efforts at national reconciliation represent a threat to their power base. Indeed, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has dismissed calls for national reconciliation in the past, emphasizing instead that a focus on the rule of law and the constitution is more important (al-Nahar, May 25, 2009).

Once reconciliation becomes part of a meaningful political process, all parts of the political spectrum must be given access to political participation. Once the political process is opened up, the ability of elites to maintain vertical forms of social and political identity are undermined. The cohesion of their political base is threatened. To achieve their narrow personal goals, it is more effective to play the sectarian card rather than pursue a politics of national inclusion.

In Iraq, the al-Maliki government's sectarian based politics has led to the exclusion of important sectors of the population, such as the tribal groups of al-Anbar Province. Many Anbaris who participated in the Sons of Iraq movement (Sahwat al-'Iraq) are understandably resentful that al-Maliki has not kept his promise to integrate them into the army, security forces or state bureaucracy. al-Maliki would like to exclude the Kurds but needs them to offset challenges from the al-Iraqiya list that won the 2010 national parliament elections and is led by his nemesis, Ayad 'Allawi

The pursuit of a sectarian based politics is compounded by political discrimination based on social class. al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition shows very little concern or compassion for poor Shi'a in Iraq (much less the poor of other ethnoconfessional groups). The party is based largely in the prosperous Shi'i merchant and professional middle classes who see the Shi'a poor as aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadrist Trend and thus threatening to their interests. This neglect provides an opening for radical elements such as the Sadrists and other sectarian militias, such as the "League of the Righteous" (Asa'ib al-Haqq)to recruit among the Shi'a poor.

Further, the failure of the al-Maliki government and the Iraqi political elite to confront sectarianism through an emphasis on national reconciliation has had a negative effect on Iraq's security forces. It is well known that units in the army profess loyalty to individual political parties and leaders rather than to a unified army command.

The failure of members of Iraq's Arab political elite to come to terms with their Kurdish counterparts means that the Iraqi army and the Kurdish pesh merga remain separate military forces. If the two forces could cooperate on national rather than local security, Iraq would be better positioned to assert control over its national territory. While pesh merga units have helped repress terrorist cells in Baghdad in the past, little has been done to integrate these units into the larger Iraqi army.

What the film al-Hasan and al-Husayn indicates is the potential power of historical memory. The past can be used to bring Iraqis (and other peoples in the Middle East) together if done in an open and honest manner as the screen writer, director and producer have attempted to do in the film, al-Hasan and al-Husayn. The fact that the most recent Iraqi school textbooks have avoided all controversial topics and fail to confront the legacy of Saddam Husayn's brutality is indicative of the weak and ostrich-like approach of the political leadership in Iraq.

If the Iraqi government and the Obama administration think that Iraq's security problems can be solved through continued training of the Iraqi army and security forces alone, they need to rethink their assumptions. As the saying goes, "the fish rots from the head down." Structural changes are needed among Iraq's political elite if the horrific attacks of this week are to become a thing of the past and meaningful security for the Iraqi people is to be achieved.