Civil Society, Civil Forces and the Crisis of Democracy in Iraq
The Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative
Paper prepared for ICSSI conference in Oslo – Norway – 2014
The political situation in Iraq has suffered from a kind of paralysis as it waits to see what will happen on the ground: after Mosul and most of the cities of Salahuddin and Anbar fell under the control of Daesh, the extremist organization has spread like a cancer in the body of Iraq and Syria. The petty conflicts that colored the nomination of ministers and other governmental positions (from the fall of Mosul at the beginning of June until Oct.18, when the government was completed) resembled those in which a group of people, in front of a burning house, discussed the role of each one in extinguishing the fire as the house burned, one room after another, — without ever reaching any agreement!
Today, Iraq’s new government is in a weak position at both the security and political level. It is an ally of the West and at the same time, it cannot escape the influence of Iran. It inherited the heavy legacy of the Al-Maliki regime and its associated problems with neighboring Arab countries and with Turkey, and finds it difficult to turn the page on those differences. It is the daughter of a “dysfunctional” sectarian quota system, although it is purportedly a government based on the principle of changing Al-Maliki approach. It finds it difficult to come up with solutions to the country’s long-standing problems, and difficult also to overcome the lack of confidence/trust between the political parties, each of which has a narrow vision for the future of Iraq which is confined to the sect or class it represents. Simply stated, Iraq suffers from the absence of a national project (plan, vision, identity). In the vacuum created by this lack there is an Iranian project which has dominated for many years, and now an American one has moved to the forefront, and is backed strongly by its allies.
This political instability is reflected on the security situation, and the hope that Iraq will regain its regions occupied by Daesh. The troops fighting on the ground now are incredibly varied, they include peshmerga, clans, militias and the popular crowd as well as the Iraqi army and police. The new government’s plan to reorganize the army and to establish local forces in each province, to be known as the National Guard, is drastically underdeveloped, and will need years to be achieved on the ground. And even if such forces were created, what is the guarantee that the National Guard will not boomerang and itself become an internal problem, as we saw with the Awakenings, the Mahdi Army, Hamas of Iraq and Alasaib and Badr and other armed groups witnessed by Iraq during the past decade.
Iraqi civil society remains weak as a result of the constraints put on it by the Al-Maliki government. And today, given the current crisis, it is almost entirely preoccupied with relief work and support for displaced persons. Civil forces (NGO’s, social networks, groups that support a secular state) in Iraq live in the midst of a kind of double distress: they are pawned between repressive and militaristic government forces on the one hand, and a community that has returned to being dominated by conservative forces, clans and the clergy on the other
This reality, which was present under the Saddam regime, became even more entrenched with the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, and the emergence of the “Greater Middle East” which was promoted by US administration in the era of George W. Bush. This term embodied a new perception of the political and social reality in our region, based on drawing the map of the region according to religion and ethnicity. The US attempted to normalize the domination of these divided conservative powers in society. This would guarantee that such a division would be popular and ensure a majority, and thus could be described as a democratic change. Unfortunately, the “Greater Middle East” project started in Iraq. The country was redrawn according to sectarian and ethnic divisions through the Governing Council and the governments that followed.
At the same time, religious parties and political and sectarian-based groups tried to reshape the deteriorating social reality to their own private advantages. Promoting these narrow interests served to promote ‘the Greater Middle East’, but damage the true interests of a united Iraq. These sectarian groups are similar to each other, even if they differ in appearance. None of them believes in democracy, for they are all mired in sectarianism. They fight each other in a struggle for more power, and blame each other for the problems Iraq faces. Each is convinced that it is on the side of right and truth. The sociologist Ali Al-wardi describes them as crows, each one saying to the other “your face is black”.
Here, it is worth pausing for a moment to analyze the idea of democracy as it has been imposed on Iraq, or rather, the concept of ethnic majority.
Ethnic Majority vs. Political Majority:
The model that was imposed on Iraq after the occupation in 2003 is a model of ethnic majority: this means that the majority was represented by the race or ethnicity, rather than a popular political program. So you see, for example, the elections produced alliances that were built on the basis of ethnicity sect and religion: Shia coalition, Sunni coalition, Kurd coalition. Thus the results of Iraqi elections are closer to the demographic census conducted every four years! That’s why it is not surprising that the results of Iraq’s elections have not changed in their essence. This generates a feeling of frustration, and the sense that some ethnic minorities will never have a voice in government.
The same ethnic majority approach created an intense competition between groups which went from the national down to the local level, and extended even to individual cities and villages. The need to preserve a group’s majority status in the territory, made the ground fertile for those recent racist practices which led to displacement, mass murder, and new bondage. This explains the number of crimes committed — with impunity! — by political forces and militias against minorities over the past years. Today Daesh has come to represent the latest and the most hideous example of this type of crime.
This ethnic majority also explains the call for three regions, Shia, Sunni and Kurd, and the idea of having a National Guard: an army for the Sunni, the peshmerga for the Kurds, and the national army mostly dominated by Shia.
This grim reality has not been devoid of attempts at reform, especially by Iraqi civil movements,
Iraqi Civil Movements and the Current Status
From my point of view, the most important civic milestone seen in Iraq is found in the ‘day of rage’ (February 2011). Sit-ins and demonstrations swept Iraq from north to south calling for civil freedoms and political reform. In Basra, the movement overthrew the Governor, and in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah this movement made significant, immediate changes and opened the way for reform. In Baghdad, both young men and women participated. Gradually, activists and field leaders who weren’t defined by any doctrine or sect emerged. In Baghdad, these protests took place in Al-Tahrir Square, a symbol linked to modern, secular Iraq. The government then cracked down and arrested some of the activists. Some were assassinated. For example, the journalist and human rights defender – Hadi Al-Mahdi- was assassinated after the protests and became an icon of these events and the change they represented. Additionally, one can find the image of Hana Edwar protesting in front of Al-Maliki during the national conference for human rights, held in Baghdad with participation of UN mission.
The suppression of the ‘day of rage’ was followed by a serious setback: as a result of the suppression, the civil forces withdrew. But in the following year the protests were taken up in cities outside Baghdad, and were led by religious sectarian and tribal forces. This paved the way for what happened today in Mosul.
There are still now important, but very limited initiatives led by civil forces. Their continuation depends largely on a political transformation that supports them an cultivates their growth. I mean initiatives such as “I am Iraqi I read” or the festivals of “World Peace Day” or the “Iraqi Social Forum”. These are youth gatherings that disregard sect. They are held periodically in Baghdad and reach thousands of young people. The important aspect of these experiments is that all of them are independent and self- organized initiative. They have a large impact on the youth and their social networks. But of course, with the growth of violence and with the government’s tendency towards repression and militarization, these movements weaken. Still they can regain strength. Civilian spirit in Iraq (democratic, secular, national and rights based beliefs) is not extinguished, but unfortunately it cannot yet enlighten all of Iraq, at least at this stage!
The Contribution of International Organizations in the Democratic Transformation Required in Iraq
Iraqis still have a lot of distrust and suspicion about any role played within Iraq by certain countries, especially the United States, Britain, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is due to the damaging roles these countries played over the past decade.
The perception that sending ground troops to Iraq might help to solve problems is utterly misguided: any foreign military presence in Iraq is unwanted, Iraqis feel they have suffered quite enough from the occupation. However, because Iraq lacks an effective air defense system, we cannot deny that air strikes led by the US in Iraq now are seen as needed in eyes of the majority of Iraqis. But this is only a reaction to the immediate and dire crisis within the country.
The experiment confirms that an aerial bombardment might be effective in the desert or non-populated areas, while in cities, where only civilians pay the price, this kind of intervention does not solve any problems. Therefore, any military mission to Iraq must be built upon a basis of broad national, regional and local understanding. Additionally, it must be limited in time and clear in its goal, which itself should be determined through a UN Security Council resolution. The primary task then is to train and equip Iraqi forces through an integrated program adopted by all involved parties with the credibility provided by backing from the UN or the European Union.
At the same time common opinion in the country still reflects confidence in the UN and the European Union, which makes for a great opportunity for these entities to build a partnership with Iraq, in particular, at the level of civil society. But these organizations should go beyond the goal of building a “strong government”: past experience proves that a myopic focus on strengthening the executive branch and the military will only brings us back to some variation of the fascist state. Al-Maliki and his government are the best example of this. He passed many of his sectarian policies with the support of international organizations because they thought that it was what was needed to form a “strong government”
Cooperation is required specifically in developing freedoms and supporting and promoting human rights and achieving lasting political reform. This includes the application of new procedures of transitional justice to deal with all Iraqi victims on an equal basis, establishing a plan for national reconciliation, and resolution of the outstanding problems between the central government and both Kurdistan and the provinces of the north and west.
International solidarity is an important window that provides fresh air for the youth in Iraq. While governments are preoccupied with wars and militarization, international activists should think about alternatives to this kind of futile violence, and offer their solidarity to the Iraqis who want real change and to the emerging civil movements that support such change. Solidarity visits to Iraq are crucial. The last solidarity visit was in 2013 when 17 international activists contributed in the Iraqi Social Forum in Baghdad. Iraqi civil society has been isolated for decades. While profitability companies are racing in droves to work in Iraq, from north to south, international solidarity organizations that support civil society’s work in or for Iraq can be counted on one hand.
The real danger is not only the continuation of the existence of Daash, but lies even more in failing to learn the lesson that emerge from what happened to us over the past decade and continue to neglect the real reforms needed in the political system, and be complacent in merely cursing terrorism and its crimes.
Also a very real and pressing danger lies in the neglect of our youth: they cannot lose hope in the possibility of real change in building a unified democratic Iraq that respects human rights.