Thursday, December 31, 2020

10 Challenges Facing the Middle East in 2021: Can the Biden Administration Make a Difference?

Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia in 2011
The Middle East remains the most conflicted region in the world today.  Under the Trump administration, US foreign policy in the MENA region has echoed the president’s chaotic domestic policy.  While there are positives in relations being established between the UAE, other Gulf Arab states, Morocco and Israel, these ties had already existed de facto prior to their formalization.  Trump’s imposition of sanctions on Iran could be viewed as curtailing a disruptive state in the region, but was offset by US withdrawal from the JCPOA.

As the Biden administration takes office next month, how should it approach these problems?  Can the US make a positive contribution to ending or at least minimizing conflict in the Middle East?  Or will the myriad domestic problems Biden inherits from the Trump administration, such as the Covid-19 epidemic and widespread economic dislocation, curtail US efforts in the region?

If the US is to have a positive impact, the following is a list of “hot button” issues  which the Biden administration will have to address the MENA region’s crises.  While I have chosen 10 critical areas of focus  which should be on everyone’s list, any number of other issues could be added to the region’s problems which need attention.

Nuclear weapons and the possibility of regional war. 

As recent months have demonstrated, tensions between the US and Iran have greatly increased.  The killing of IRGC commander, Qassem Suleimani, last January and Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhirzadeh, last month, have poured more oil on the fire.  The sale of highly sophisticated US fighter aircraft to the UAE, a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Saudi capital, Riyad, and threats of a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities have further ramped up tensions.

The first and second priorities of the Biden administration must be lowering tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf neighbors and preventing the outbreak of a regional war.  The best way to begin that process is to engage the European Union and the United Nations so that the approach the US adopts towards Iran doesn’t replicate the unilateral and disastrous “America First” foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Lifting the current sanctions imposed on the Tehran regime must involve Iran’s ending its uranium enrichment program beyond what was allowed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by Iran, the US and other states in 2015.  Iran should also agree to withdraw active fighting forces from Syria and dissolve its proxy militias in Iraq which effectively control the country politically and economically.

Will Iran agree to these conditions?  The odds are that it will because regime survival is the highest priority among the Tehran mullahs.  Should it refuse to agree to come in line with the JCPOA and reduce its military, political and economic footprint in Syria and Iraq, the sanctions will continue and the Iranian economy will continue its free fall.  Facing an already highly discontent populace, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ailing, and contestation between moderates and radical in the state apparatus on the rise, it make sense for Iran to choose a road which will allow it to avoid further economic and political instability which could threaten its future viability.

Regional war and the spread of terrorism

A second area of concern is the spread of regional wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya.  Left unattended, these conflict could further metastasize as they have done so already.  The Syrian civil war has impacted all its neighbors, the Yemen War has intensified the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia and threatens the Horn of Africa while  the Libya conflict has become another are of conflict among regional states.  In all 3 conflicts, terrorist organizations have been the beneficiaries.

In the short term, none of these conflicts can be solved in any definitive manner.  However, the US can work with international a regional partners to stabilize each one by working to end violence and set the stage for future negotiations to bring the conflicts to an end.

The Syrian civil war requires the international community’s attention, not the “hands off”. approach of the Trump administration.  While the conflict is infinitely complex, allowing it to continue poses threats to all its neighbors and provides fertile soil for the spread of terrorist groups.  The Islamic State may have lost its “Caliphate” – namely the large amount of territory it once held – but it remains a clear threat as ongoing attacks in eastern Syria and north central Iraq make clear.

The US should begin by reestablishing its support for the Kurds of northeast Syria who were instrumental in helping the international community defeat the Islamic State.  The Syrian Democratic Forces should be supported by additional US forces who can serve in a training capacity and arms.  Turkish President Erdogan should be informed in no uncertain terms that the US will not allow attacks by his proxies, some of which are hardened radical Islamists, against the Rojava Kurds.

Not only will supporting the Rojava Kurds work to prevent the IDS from reestablishing its base of operations in eastern Syria but it will likewise prevent the regime of Bashar al-Asad from gaining control of the area.  In the past, the Asad regime has treated the Kurds in a brutal manner.  Also, the international community should make sure the regime doesn’t regain access to the oil reserves located in eastern Syria.

Russia continues to support the Asad regime and its genocidal policies towards its own citizens.  Erdogan will continue to support Islamist forces in Syria.  Units of Iran’s IRGC are stationed in Syria. In other words, forcing the Asad regime to change its policies an come to the negotiating table is not possible in the current context.

Nevertheless, the US, working with the European Union, should increase sanctions on the Asad regime.  Bashar al-Asad has made it abundantly clear that his regime will make no concessions and that his only policy is the use of force.  In this context, regime change is the only manner in which the Syrian civil war will eventually be brought to an end. Cutting off regime access to international finance is the only tool which the US and its European allies have at the moment. The more intense these sanctions on the regime, the greater the probability that the regime will fall, either by economic collapse or an internal coup d’état.

The United nations has declared the Yemen War the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Biden administration should tell Saudi Arabia that its bombing of the country must stop immediately.  Because the UAE has already withdrawn its support for the war, the US can leverage the sale of advanced US fighter aircraft to entice the UAE to play a mediating role to have the Saudi regime likewise withdraw from the conflict.  In return, the Houthi forces  must commit to a ceasefire in anticipation of an internationally brokered peace conference organized under the auspices of the UN.

Libya is a failed state.  At the moment, there are few options available to end the conflict.  However, the US can urge the European Union, which has a strong interest in bringing a modicum of stability to Libya, to become more active in trying to establish a stable ceasefire among contending forces. Italy has historic ties to Libya as well as strong commercial interests through its hydrocarbon firm ENI.  Establishing a quota of distributing oil revenues could become the basis for creating a stable ceasefire, thereby setting the stage for future negotiations over the status of a federated nation-state.

Reigning in human rights abusers in the Middle East

The MENA region is, unfortunately, known for regimes which engage in massive human rights abuses.  Syria and Iran are beyond US and international influence.  Assuming Biden’s declarations are serious, his administration will be able to assert a human rights agenda in the Middle East among 3 of the most egregious offenders, Saudi ruler Muhammad Bin Salman, Egyptian president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, and Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdogan.

First, publicizing its displeasure, through a reorganized and more robust US Department of State, the Biden administration can highlight its discontent with human rights abuses.  For example, the imprisonment, including solitary confinement, torture, and sexual harassment of Lujain Halhoul, a Saudi female dissident whose only “crime” was driving an automobile from the UAE to Riyad, and accusing her of threatening Saudi Arabia’s “national security,” is an affront to international norms of human rights and the rule of law.

In Egypt, the imprisonment of thousands of human rights activists is likewise unacceptable for a nation-state which seeks to remain a close ally of the United States.  The failure of the al-Sisi regime to pursue the horrific torture, burning and killing in Cairo of Giulio Regeni, a 28 year old Italian PH.D. student from Cambridge University, who was studying the Egyptian labor movement, is itself unacceptable and points to what many Egyptians have experienced at the hands of his regime. Such behavior cannot be treated as “business as usual” under a Biden administration.

In Turkey, President Erdogan continues to imprison anyone who challenges his authority. Indeed, Turkey has one of the highest rates of imprisonment for journalists in the world. As freedom of expression continues to be suppressed in Turkey, resulting in the dismissal of university faculty and teachers who are not considered loyal to the Erdogan regime, human rights continue to be abused. Critics of the regime continue to be deprived of the rule of law. Sanctioning Turkey if such repressive conditions continue should be an option taken under consideration by the incoming Biden administration. Because Turkey’s economy is weak, the threat of withholding future financial aid can also be used to force Erdogan to back down from his repressive policies.

Fighting the spread of terrorism

Preventing the spread of terrorism in the Middle East presents a huge challenge.  While the IUS was defeated in Syria and Iraq, it still uses “sleeper” cells to mount attacks in these 2 countries and to organize terrorist attacks outside the Middle East in Europe and elsewhere.  It has spawned affiliates in central Africa, Afghanistan and many other countries.  In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a “branch” of the IS continues to mount attacks against tourists and Egyptian security forces.

A new approach is needed if terrorism is to be controlled and eventually defeated in the MENA region.  This policy must offer youth who are attracted to terrorist groups alternatives to becoming part of extremist violence. While I will address this issue in a future post, based on my current research for an ongoing book project, the Biden administration should convene an international conference on the problem of terrorism with the aim to creating new international entities which will seek to find solutions.  Let me just note that, if youth eschewed joining terrorist organizations, they would lose their raison d’étre and “die on the vine.” 

Gender empowerment

One of the most disturbing aspects of MENA region countries is the degree to which women have failed to attain positions of power and influence in the public sphere.  The conflict which rages in many parts of the Middle East has only further curtailed women’s ability to make important societal contributions apart from the family and the private sphere.  Violence has forced women to marry earlier and forego higher education in an effort to assure their protection and rape and sexual harassment have been a by-product of civil strife.

Only among the Rojava Kurds do we find a society in the Middle East where women have assumed somewhat of a parity with men in the public sphere.  The UAE has appointed women to ministerial posts but it is still unclear whether they enjoy any independent power in decision-making.

MENA region societies suffer because women often are unable to transfer the skills they learn in university education into a career.  In many of the region’s universities, women comprise 60-70% of the student body.  However, only a small percentage are able to convert their degree into meaningful employment.  As numerous studies have shown, this has led to the loss of billions of dollars in GNP due to the lack of effective use of female human resources. 

Women’s status in the MENA region is also apparent in the persistence of so-called “honor crimes” and female genital mutilation (FGM) which occurs in certain countries of the region. Sadly, many honor crimes “blame the victim,” e.g., in incidents where a woman is raped and then killed by her family to eliminate the “shame” brought on it.  As indicated by Egypt’s “Harass Map,” sexual harassment is a daily hurdle which confronts all too many Egyptian women. 

Protecting democratization

Although the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and after failed to bring about the desired transition to democracy in most of the states in which demonstrations occurred, Tunisia was the exception to the rule.  Since 2011,. Tunisia has experienced 3 election cycles and power has been transferred across party lines and ideologies.  Nevertheless, large numbers of Tunisian youth remain unemployed and are increasingly disillusioned with democracy as a form of governance.

In the Sudan, a joint-civilian military council exists which is tasked with implementing a transition from military rule to democracy within the next 3 years.  Like Tunisia, Sudan is experiencing economic challenges which could be used as an excuse to abort the transition. in both cases, the US should diligently pursue aid packages to provide economic relief.  

One way to help both societies is to provide funds for youth social entrepreneurship (discussed in more detail below).  Already, the Tunisian government has created conditions designed to make it easier for youth to establish social entrepreneurial ventures, e.g., by allowing social entrepreneurs to open foreign currency accounts. In both cases, the Biden administration needs to make clear to the powers that be that economic assistance is contingent on maintaining democracy in Tunisia and the transition to democracy in the Sudan.

Iraq has held national parliamentary elections and parliamentary elections in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).  Provincial elections have also been held.  On the whole, these elections have been deemed to be fair and free.  The problem in Iraq is not so much the electoral process, but that elections are controlled by a small set of highly corrupt political coalitions.  Iraq is currently suffering from the drop in global oil prices caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  

To reign in its massive corruption, the US should press the current Iraqi government of Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Khadhimi, to ensure that the early parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2021 are fair and free, and that they allow new political parties to participate in them. Any US support for international financial aid requested by Iraq’s government should be tied to the holding of open elections next year.

Youth and civic engagement

Youth constoitue a large percentage of the population in many nation-states in the MENA region.  Unfor tately, they have suffered from the prevalence of authoritarian rule in the Middle East.  This is particularly evident in the state-run education systems which forbid critical thinking.  Not only does this squash creative energy which could be used for national social and economic development but it curtails civic consciousness and engagement as well.  Indeed, the concept of citizenship is rarely discussed.  When it is defined, the definition is one of the citizen maintaining absolute loyalty to those who rule the nation-state.

One goal of the Biden administration should be to work with responsive countries in the Middle East which are willing to provide more resources for youth, thereby giving a feeling of hope in the future.

In few countries in the MENSA region has the state made youth a priority.  The UAE is one exception although political participation dissent are not allowed.  While the Biden administration cannot  inject itself int the domestic politics in countries of the region, it can offer scholarships to MENA region youth to participate in leadership programs under the auspices of the US Department of State. In these short-term programs, youth can learn civic leadership skills which can translate onto positive developments once they return to their home countries.

Because these programs would affect a limited number of youth, the US should consider how to help less fortunate youth.  One way would be to provide seed money through the USAID and other agencies to development youth centers in poor urban neighborhoods.   Such centers already exist in poor areas of Cairo, Egypt where they are provided by private NGOs, e.g.. You Think Green – Egypt.  Sports, mentoring and a focus on inculcating moderate understandings of Islam.  Such centers could be replicated in many MENA region countries.  Indeed, youth have already taken it on themselves to create them, not in Egypt, but in Iraq and elsewhere.

However, the most effective strategy to help youth would entail the Biden administration mobilizing US foundations and corporations, and their corresponding institutions in European countries known for their foreign policy largesse. such as Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, to promote youth social entrepreneurship.  

At Rutgers University, I direct the Youth, Social Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Development project which works to promote youth social entrepreneurial ventures in the MENA region and Pakistan.  Almost all MENA region economies require diversification, especially those which still are dominated by state-run public sector firms.  Social entrepreneurship offers youth the opportunity to be creative, promotes civic engagement and offers youth an income over the long term if their ventures are successful.  This is a topic which I will discuss in greater detail in a subsequent post.

Combating radical Islamism

The United States has failed to effectively use one of its most powerful resources.  This resource is its large and vibrant Muslim community.  To date, the US has not asked Muslim clerics and their followers to serve in a cultural outreach capacity to demonstrate that there is no Western plot, contrary to terrorist claims, to “destroy Islam.”  Many of my Muslim friends and colleagues argue that there is more freedom to worship and express their religious views in the United States than in their heritage countries.

In resorting to this form of “public diplomacy,” the US needs to actively involve not only clerics and older Muslims, but Muslim youth.  Competitions should be organized to offer these youth the opportunity to develop their own satellite television programs and creatively use social media to spread the message that the US is not an “anti-Muslim” society.  Yes, anti-Muslim sentiments exist, and such (minority) sentiments were used by Donald Trump for political purposes through his infamous “Muslim ban,” but the US is generally a country where religious freedom is taken very seriously by its citizens.

Water resources and climate change

This is the most dangerous challenge facing the MENA region and many other areas of the Global South.  With unchecked global warming, water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource.  Conflict in the future between states will increasingly be dictated by climate change and its devastating effects.  However, we barely hear a murmur about this developing crisis facing the Middle East.

Already, Egypt has threatened Ethiopia for constructing its Grand Renaissance Dam along the Nile River.  Egypt knows that the Nile provides the lifeblood for its people. With reduced waters from the Nile, Egypt would find it even more difficult to feed its population and sustain itself as a viable nation-state.  While calmer heads have prevailed at the moment, the possibility of conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia – with Sudan caught between the two adversaries – presents a very frightening scenario not just for the Nile Valley, but other areas of the Middle East.

Recently, Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with Turkish President Erdogan to discuss the release of water behind dams in Turkey on the Euphrates River.  Iraq is facing dwindling water supplies in addition to facing the prospect of running out of funds to pay government salaries and pensions due to the drop in world oil prices.  Iran is also cutting into Iraq's water supplies from the East which means that less water will flow through the Zab River into the Tigris and magnify this problem.

Iraq, Struggling to Pay Debts and Salaries, Plunges into Economic Crisis

Jordan and the Palestine National Authority are is finding their access to aquifers problematic as the water supply in these reservoirs drops. Yemen is running out of water.  Meanwhile, desalinization, which is used by Saudi Arabia but especially the Arab Gulf states creates pollution problems, including polluting the Persian (Arab) Gulf.  In other words, water shortages plague almost all states in the MENA region

For centuries, Venice had a Water Magistrate who was a very powerful official who managed the city's water supply and the water resources in the Venetian Lagoon. The Biden Administration should work with the United Nations to create a MENA Region Water Authority which will be able to mediate water disputes in the future before they potentially lead to inter-state conflict.

Obviously, the agenda just outlined is a broad one.  What it suggests that the issues can only de confronted by an international effort, beginning witMENA region nation-states which work with the UN, the United States, the European Union and other international partners.  Rather than viewing such cooperation as "Western interference," all parties should see water resources as a global problem which is being exacerbated by rapid climate change. Thus, the international community needs to stop viewing the global playing filed in "zero-sum" terns but rather as a "cooperative sum" game in which all parties benefit

Sunday, November 29, 2020

A New Biden Foreign Policy in Iraq: Towards What End سياسة خارجية جديدة لبايدن في العراق: إلى أي نهاية؟

Then US Vice President Biden meets Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki
Having won the 2020 presidential elections, President-Elect Joe Biden has been quick to declare to the world that “America is back.”  Biden’s promise to end the Trump administration’s “America First” policy – in reality a hodgepodge of unstructured, contradictory and often reckless decisions – has pleased the US’s traditional allies, particularly those in Western Europe.  But what exactly does it mean to say that “America is back”?  And what are the implications for US foreign policy in Iraq? 

The MENA region is facing a number of dangerous crises, all of which directly or indirectly affect Iraq.  The most dangerous problem is the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons. If “America is back” means the US will return to the Obama administration policies, the phrase has no meaning.  The MENA region has changed significantly in the last 4 years and the Biden administration needs to stake out new policies which reflect these changes.  To help Iraq, the most pressing issue facing the US is developing a new policy towards Iran. 


The idea that Iran will develop operational nuclear weapons anytime in the near future is highly unlikely.  Clearly, the United States and Israel have demonstrated the capability to impede that development.  However, Iran is engaged in enriching weapons grade uranium. Cyberattacks and assassinations of Iran’s nuclear program do not constitute a long-term strategy for thwarting Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.  


As long as Iran continues to pursue a policy what could eventually allow it to acquire nuclear weapons, the MENA region faces the possibility of a nuclear arms race.  As one of the world’s most unstable regions, this prospect should cause us all to take pause.  Saudi Arabia and Turkey, 2 other candidates for developing nuclear weapons, would not allow Iran to possess a nuclear capability without developing them as well.  A Saudi-Egypt-UAE consortium could begin its own program, combining the technical skills and funding needed to make it a potential success.  Turkey would face more difficulties to fund a nuclear program but could probably develop a bomb.  


Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, even if its delivery capacity is lacking, Israel would no doubt be tempted to mount a preemptive strike.  Thus, the Biden administration has multiple incentives to reactivate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action adopted in October 2015. (JCPOA).  Neither the United States, the European Union or the United Nations can allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons which put the Middle East on a dangerous path leading a to regional war.  


If the Biden administration seeks to revive the JCPOA, it will encounter strong pushback from conservative Republicans in the US Senate and foreign policy hawks, like John Bolton, who argue military action is the only policy option towards the Islamic Republic.  In this context, the US should make clear to Iran that part of any deal which removes international sanctions is a commitment by Iran not only to end steps towards developing nuclear weapons but commit to a number of other policies.   


At the top of that list should be Iran’s commitment to dissolve its proxy militias in Iraq. Iran’s economic and political influence extends into almost all aspects of Iraqi society.  One of the main incentives for Iran’s efforts to control Iraq is economic.  Iraq provides an important market for many Iranian goods and vehicle for circumventing some of the sanctions it currently faces.  


Iraq also constitutes an important conduit for weapons and Iranian troops which support the genocidal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad. The current Iraqi government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is in no position to interdict funds and supplies that flow across its borders.  On the evening of his assassination by a US drone this past January 3rd, Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC)  commander, Qassem Suleimani, had just flown from Tehran to Damascus and was on a stopover in Baghdad on his return to Iran to consult with Abu Mahdi Muhandis, the leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (al-hashad al-sha’bi), who died in the drone attack as well.  The ease with which Suleimani was able to travel, dictate military orders, and make sure Iran’s wishes were being followed in Syria and Iraq underscores Tehran’s control of the two nation-states. 


One of the unintended outcomes of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was not the containment of one of the three so-called “Axis of Evil” powers, but rather to have installed Iran as the major power in Iraq.  After the Obama administration failed to support Ayad Allawi, who won Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, and allowed Nuri al-Maliki to begin a second term as prime minister, al-Maliki’s intensely sectarian policies completely alienated much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab population.  As I detail elsewhere, these policies were directly responsible for Mosul’s fall to the Da’ish in June 2014.

The Political Obstacles to the Defeat of the (so-called) Islamic State 


That Iran has been able to create a state within and state in Iraq is thus an outcomes of 2 fatal US decisions – Bush’s appointment of al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister in 2006, over the objections of his advisors, and Obama failure to push Iraq to follow the dictates of its voters in 2010 by allowing Ayad Allawi to become the country’s leader – and the establishment of the Popular Mobilizations Units following the collapse of the Iraqi Army in Mosul in June 2014. 


Joe Biden has a problematic reputation in Iraq.  On social media, it was clear in the runup to this month’s US presidential election that many Iraqis were worried that Biden might still adhere to his earlier position that Iraq should be divided along ethnic and confessional lines, a position which most Iraqis, including many Kurds in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), vigorously oppose.  Biden’s earlier position was strongly influenced by former US ambassador, Peter Galbraith, who, together with his wife, maintained financial ties to a Norwegian oil company, DNO, for which he served as a lobbyist.  Galbraith saw an independent Kurdistan as beneficial to the company’s ability to exploit the KRG’s oil wealth as well as promote his family’s financial interests. 

Ex-Diplomat Who Advised the Kurds Gets Millions in Oil Deal


To offset the doubts Iraqis have about Biden, one policy he could immediately put into effect is to provide Iraq’s beleaguered health care system with medicine and physicians.  Once a vaccine is available, the Biden administration should offer to provide it to Iraq as well. To assure that any medical assistance does not fall into the hands of the corrupt elements linked to Muqtada Sadr’s political party, which controls the Ministry of Health, the US should offer to build temporary hospitals on Iraqi military bases which are controlled by Iraq's Counter Terrorism Forces, commanded by Lt. General ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sa’adi, who is known for his honesty and patriotism. 


The US is fortunate in that there is widespread rejection among Iraqis - Arabs and Kurds - of Iran’s interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs and that its proxy militias are above the law and only answer to Tehran.  That many peaceful youth protestors, who have been active in the October revolution (Thawrat Tishreen) since October 2019, have been wounded, killed and kidnapped by members of these militias, as well as members of the Ministry of Interior’s security forces which are likewise loyal to Iran, has only added to the anger of Iraq’s populace. 

The Killing of Qassem Suleimani and Iraq's October Revolution: What Western Press Analysts Aren't Telling You but What You Need to Know


Thus, an effort to conclude a deal in which Iran receives sanctions relief in return for adhering to the JCPOA and dissolving its militias in Iraq would reduce the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the MENA region. It would also allow Iraq to begin the process of diversifying its economy which at present is highly dependent on oil sales which account for 90% of its foreign revenues.  A new consortium of Western financial agencies has committed to helping Iraq engage in the diversification process which will be facilitated by reducing militia control of much of Iraq’s national economy. 


While a US deal with Iran as just outlined would still allow many corrupt political actors, such as Nuri al-Maliki, to retain considerable power, these sectarian entrepreneurs would find their economic and political power reduced because financial support from the Tehran regime would sharply decline.  Further, if Iran can achieve relief from the crippling international sanctions, then its incentive to continue supporting the PMUs, and risk further antagonizing the Iraqi populace, would be reduced. Already, many Iraqis boycott imported goods from Iran. 


Apart from pressuring Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto authoritarian ruler, to end the imprisonment of Saudi political dissidents, the Biden administration should actively encourage more investment by the Kingdom in Iraq.  Having formed the Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council’s Economic, Trade, Investment and Relief Committee, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi has made clear his desire for increased trade and Saudi investment.  Assisting Iraq’s agricultural sector makes economic sense since it offers Saudi Arabia with an additional source of food imports.  The recent opening of the Arar border crossing with Saudi Arabia is an important step in developing closer economic ties. 


As for the argument that Iran will work to prevent Saudi investments in Iraq, especially in al-Muthanna, its poorest province in the country's south, the US-Iran deal on reducing sanctions should require Iran to commit to not impeding such investments.  Indeed, a stronger Iraqi economy will offer Iran increased opportunities to sell its food, industrial and other products in Iraq. 


The Trump administration has reduced the number of US troops in Iraq and Northeast Syria to train local forces to fight a resurgent Da’ish.  Rather than simply send more troops, the Biden administration should seek to establish a truly international military training force in Iraq whose mission is to help Iraq defeat the Da’ish terrorist group.   


The US should be only one of many partners, thus lessening its footprint in training and logistical support for Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Forces.  The force could be organized by NATO and include Arab partners, such as Jordan. A joint command structure would ensure that the Iraqi military is involved in all decisions, whether training or operational. 


Finally, the US should offer fellowships to Iraqi students to conduct graduate study in the US.  One of Nuri al-Maliki’s few positive contributions while Prime Minister was to offer 10,000 fellowships for Iraqi students to study abroad.  Rutgers University, where I teach, is proud to have graduated more than 125 Iraqi Ph.Ds. in a wide variety of disciplines who are now teaching in prominent universities throughout Iraq. 


“America is back” is important if it means that the United States will once again take its international role seriously.  However, the Biden administration won’t be successful unless it adopts new policies which are in line with local partners such as Iraq.  The probability of success will depend on the extent to which US officials listen to leaders of the nation-states it seeks to help.  The time for a “top-down” and “one size fits all” approach to US foreign policy is long past.  Respect and mutual understanding should be the “buzz words” which should inform the US relations with its international partners. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Cultural Resistance - The Art of the October Revolution Protests -المقاومة الثقافية - فن احتجاجات ثورة أكتوبر

Guest Contributor Zeinab Shukur is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Riverside.  Her research focuses on the political economy of the MENA region, with special reference to Iraq's past and present. 

In October 2019, large groups of Iraqis - mostly, but not limited to, students and unemployed youth - marched, in one of the most massive protests in the modern Iraqi state, to city centers across the country demanding social, economic, and political change.  Their protests have become known as the October Revolution (Thawrat Tishreen).

These protests were the results of the Iraqi population’s frustration with an increasingly corrupt political system; frustration with the increasing levels of poverty in this oil-rich country; frustration with the neglect cities and their residents have experienced since and before 2003; and frustration with the greed of Islamist political parties which have turned the country into their personal gold mine. 

With increasing levels of corruption, state and resource mismanagement, and a bloated public sector, youth and recent university graduates - Iraqi youth under 30 make up around 70 percent of the population -  faced high levels of unemployment; in 2019, youth unemployment reached as much as  17% among men, and 27% among women. 

Unemployed Iraqis wait for daily employment opportunities

According to a 2019 Borgen Report, the quality of Iraq’s critical infrastructure, such as access to water and sanitation, has deteriorated to the point that only 9% of the poor and 13% of the non-poor have access to a stable supply of water, with poverty rates reaching an overall rate of 18.9% in the country. These dire economic, social, and political conditions have mobilized people, many of whom had no previous interest or history of social and political protest, to take to the streets. The Borgen Report - Poverty in Iraq

Political activism, and a thriving civil society, are not new to Iraq. During the 1940s and the 1950s, the country saw waves of protests among youth and the working class - mostly organized by the left - against colonial influence, as well as political and economic injustices.  

During al-Wathba (the Great Leap) of 1948, scores of students and workers filled the streets of Baghdad to protest against the Portsmouth Treaty, and were brutally suppressed and killed on a Baghdad bridge on the Tigris river -- later named Jisr al-Shuhada’ (Martyrs Bridge) -- in memory of the fallen.

Youth protestors on the Bridge of the Republic

In 2019, a new generation of Iraqis poured onto another bridge -- Jisr al-Jumhuriya (the Bridge of the Republic) - also to be met with live rounds of bullets but also skull-piercing tear gas grenades. And like 1948, the protesters relied on symbols, images, music, and different forms of artistic expression to express their economic and political anger and alienation, and the depth of their pain.  One of the most prominent examples was the elegy of the great Iraqi poet, Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, to his slain brother, Ja’far. 

Examining the art of the uprising is particularly important, since it provides us with an insight into the nature and the future of this powerful social movement, the October Revolution.  Art plays an important role in social movements, both as a tool of framing and as a tool of resource mobilization.  According to Edelman (1995:2): “Works of art generate the ideas about leadership, bravery, cowardice, altruism, dangers, authority, and fantasies about the future that people typically assume to be reflections of their own observations and reasoning.” Furthermore, social movements use artistic expression to facilitate internal communication, as well as communicate with the larger society. Thus, art is used to raise awareness and societal consciousness. 

Youth protest art inspired by Iraqi artist Jawad Salim

For example, songs and slogans recruit individuals through providing reassuring emotional messages, play on the spirituality of the general population, connect with important moments in the nation’s history, and create a sense of hope that change is possible. Once the movement starts, art allows its momentum to continue, by creating a feeling of solidarity, and group and collective unity. 

Chaffe (1993:30) argues that protest art in general under undemocratic governments plays the role of  “psychological warfare against the dominant culture and elite and reveals an emerging subterranean movement. This is threatening because it connotes a prelude to an organized opposition, or the existence of one...The act [of producing street art] symbolizes a culture of resistance exists that dictators pretend to ignore.”

Like most social movements, the 2019 uprising confronted a hostile and established political environment with very different interests vis-a-vis the protesters. And here is where the importance of the 2019 uprising lies in terms of what it tells us about the Iraqi society. While all anti-government movements face hostility from the established order, the 2019 protesters faced an added challenge that even their 1948 counterparts failed to experience in the same way - the challenge of a long undermined and weak civil society and sense of public space. 

Politically, the country has witnessed years of  authoritarian political practices. Saddam Husayn virtually monopolized power within the country for 30 years, eliminating most forms of political expression which were outside his control. Following its toppling in 2003, the autocratic Ba’thist state was followed by a political vacuum composed of competing factions and religious-political parties with an invested interest in maintaining an oppressive political structure based on a network of loyalties and patronage. 

Political oppression, combined with years of war and economic hardship, left the Iraqi population alienated from the political process with little faith in political parties or political promises. In different interviews with activists in Iraq in 2016 and 2017, almost everyone I spoke to expressed their rejection, and often hostility, when I mentioned the need for a formal political party to organize the population against the well-funded and well-organized religious-political parties which dominate politics and the economy.

Iraqi youth protestors on the Turkish Restaurant in Baghdad's Liberation Square

Furthermore, the 2019 uprising came on the heel of over a decade of protests across the country demanding political and economic change. These protests were met with varying degrees of brutality and oppression from the political elites, including but not limited to the kidnapping and murder of activists, journalists, and organizers. 

Since 2003, the danger of the Islamist political parties running the country is not limited to their ability to mobilize resources, weapons, and men to brutally oppress all who threaten their political hegemony.  The larger danger is that these groups have formed a state within a state. Their political and financial power has enabled them to weaponize sectarian and tribal identities, and claim religious imagery to their advantage. 

In political science and sociological research, scholars have long established that leaders cannot rely purely on the use of force to maintain their power.  It is necessary that political elites acquire at least some modicum of  legitimacy if they are to sustain their rule. And the different competing religious-political parties in the country have not only relied on the use of force but have also attempted to create a hegemonic system of ideas, images, and thoughts to protect their interests through promoting a disingenuous Islamist ideology. 

Against this backdrop, the largely peaceful October 2019 uprising arrived on the Iraqi political scene.  Protesters realized that, if their demands were to be heard, they must frame their movement’s goals successfully.  Snow and Benford (1988:198) argue that social movements “actively engaged in the production of meaning for participants, antagonists, and observers...They frame, or assign meaning to and interpret, relevant events and conditions in ways that are intended to mobilize potential adherents and constituents, to garner bystander support, and to demobilize antagonists”

Art is central to the October Revolution's struggle 

Thus, protesters did not simply frame their grievances against an unjust political and economic system, but also framed their movement against the political elites’ hegemonic project, the same project which dominated Iraqi society for generations. One of the most powerful “devices” the protesters used was to reclaim religious identities, based in tolerance and pluralism of belief, and separate religion from politics, thus demonstrating the political elites' hypocrisy. As indicated earlier, contemporary Iraqi political elites rely heavily on utilizing religious imagery and language to legitimize their control of the state. 

Protesters have countered the political elites with slogans like “Bism al-din, bakona al-haramiya” or, “In the name of religion, the thieves have robbed us.” This slogan has been one of the most utilized and effective in the protests. First, it created a separation between religion as an institution, onto itself, and its use by political cliques who seek to manipulate it.  Second, the protests’ slogans have demystified the political elites, by calling them thieves, who often legitimize their right to rule by blending it with their supposed religious authority. 

Youth protestors stand before a painting of Imam 'Ali

Furthermore, the October Revolution is not an attack on religion, which would have alienated a large portion of the Iraqi population which views religion as an important moral code.  Rather, it is a reclaiming of religious identity and taking away the most significant source of legitimacy from the current political elite.  The protests’ methods signify another form of reclaiming religious identities and national historical memory. The large number of protesters, mostly youth, took their peaceful resistance to religious spaces during Shi’a religious ceremonies and rituals.  

The Arbaeen celebration, one of the most significant symbolic religious moments in the Shi’a ethos, and the largest peaceful gathering in the world, commemorates the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.  In Shi’a belief, Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, is a symbol of revolutions and protest against oppressive rulers.  Since 2003, Shi’a political elites have invested funds in these commemorations to cement their legitimacy and to mobilize voter support for elections.  

But art serves another purpose beyond the reclaiming of religious identities. On the walls of the 15-store shell structures of Baghdad’s Turkish Restaurant, self-declared stronghold of the anti-government protesters, the walls and the first five floors became the official art venue and gallery of the October Revolution. Tahrir Square was another creative hub in Baghdad, where art covered the underpasses, the green space behind it, and the streets leading into it. 

The political art covering the streets depicts the faces of women and men of the uprising and the violence they faced at the hands of the security forces.  More than 600 protesters have been killed and thousands injured.  One of those was Safaa al-Sarai, a human rights activist, poet, painter, and one of the first killed in the protests at the hands of security forces. His face was painted on the walls of the city, in a fashion similar to those iconic images of Che Guevara.  Individualized portraits of those killed are a common subject of the October Revolution. 

One of the October Revolution's first martyrs - Safaa al-Sarai

On other walls, one can see images of lions, a symbol of Iraq dating back to the Assyrian period. The walls were also painted with images of the alternative country the protesters envisioned - images of women empowerment, like Rosie the Riveter with an Iraqi flag on her check, images of economic commentary, like a red tuk tuk flying out of the roof. The tuk tuk became the protesters’ mascot, and the unofficial front line ambulance - a three-wheeled vehicle transporting the country’s working class as opposed to the tinted windows of the government officials’ high-end vehicles. 

The tuk tuk - the mascot of the October Revolution

Where the public space has often been dominated by men, the October uprising came to be a turning point for women who constitute an active part of the movement and its art. This moment brings back memories of another time where women played a significant role in Iraq’s public sphere. The memory of Bahija comes to mind, the brave woman who in 1948 marched against the Portsmouth Treaty, and later her death and that of her comrades prevented the treaty’s ratification.

Rosie the Riveter - according to the October Revolution

In a traditionally patriarchal society, especially with the rise of traditional forms of societal control in the form of tribal and religious values designed to enhance male control of women, women’s participation and leading role in the October Revolution signifies one of the most powerful forms of challenging the social, political and cultural structures created by the ruling political parties. Murals, often produced by women, sprung up across the capital, Baghdad, creating a collective community for women to reclaim their identity and reshape their marginalized position in society into one of empowerment. 
Iraqi women are active agents in the October Revolution

While the walls were covered with murals documenting the October Revolution, and connecting it to Iraq’s ancient history, there were few anti-American messages. Even after the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), by the United States, in January 2020, the outrage came from the supporters of the pro-Iran groups, rather than the protesters still occupying Iraq’s public spaces. 

A view most Iraqis share - Iran must end its political control of Iraq

Anti-Americanism has been a constant feature of pro-Iran religious-political parties’ public expression. For the October protesters to choose to separate themselves and their art from the anti-American messages does not necessarily indicate support of the United States or its policy in the country, but rather is a commentary against the dominant political players who refuse to address Iraq’s massive political corruption and pressing social needs.

The ancient Sumerian word "Amag'i" means freedom - the October Revolution's goal

Beyond art, Baghdad and other cities came to life with acts of civic engagement, such as  cleaning the city centers, food preparation, and fixing damaged streets.  Acts of reclaiming cities and homes that were deformed by concrete walls, barriers, and neglect have been seen in all cities in which youth demonstrations have occurred. In addition to visual art, theater, performing art, poetry, and songs have filled public spaces. 

Music as a framing device works on the emotional and cognitive levels.  Songs of the uprising combine traditional Iraqi music with current social and economic problems, such as the lack of services and lack of jobs.  Through artistic expression, protestors’ stories have reached thousands of Iraqis in their homes, inside and outside the country. For the first time in many years, Iraqi cities came alive with sounds and colors. 

In addition to framing, resource mobilization is another determining factor of the success of social movements. In the social movement literature, resource mobilization signifies the ability of the movement leaders to create a formal organizational structure, via a process of resource control, linkage with other groups, and obtaining external support. This formal organizational structure allows negotiation with political elites, representation in the political process, and future organization once the momentum of the initial uprising slows down.  

As indicated earlier, the protestors’ general mistrust of political parties, and the overall weakness of Iraq’s civil society, hindered the ability of protesters to formalize their uprising - a necessary step in most successful social movements.  This is one possible explanation for why the October Revolution was difficult to sustain once the initial wave of demonstrations slowed down. 

During the past year, many of the protestors’ grievances have yet to be addressed. However, that doesn’t mean that the protesters haven’t made important gains. The movement forced Prime Minister ‘Adel ‘Abd al-Mahdi to resign, and ultimately leading to the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new Prime Minister.  al-Kadhimi has shown a serious interest in addressing the protesters' demands and, since his appointment, has set June 6, 2021 as the date for early parliamentary elections. 

While one of the protestors’ major demands, a new election law which would allow for disrupting the traditional system of power, has not yet been achieved, the protests have at least started that political conversation. On October 25, 2020 protesters are expected to march again to the streets to celebrate the first anniversary of their uprising.

Iraqi youth celebrate the 1st anniversary of Thawrat Tishreen

Many factors will likely lead to a smaller showing this time around, such as Covid-19 restrictions, fragmentation among the protesters, and the continued violence used against the protesters and civic leaders. Yet, the October uprising represents a turning point in Iraq’s historical narrative. For the first time in a long time, a new Iraqi generation can see the possibility of a better future.