Thinking Through Liberation

Thinking Through Liberation

Mini Teaser: For the past year a four-letter word has emerged as the key to the future of the Middle East.

by Author(s): Amir Taheri

For the past year a four-letter word has emerged as the key to the future of the Middle East. This word--Iraq--is being presented in some Western media outlets as a code word for chaos and "another Vietnam", but it has a different resonance in the region itself.

To Arab and Iranian despots, Iraq is a code word for reforms that could end their monopoly on power. To radical Islamists fighting for power in a dozen Muslim countries, Iraq is seen as the "the final battleground" between Islam and democracy. And to the people of the region, Iraq is a code word for change.

The conventional wisdom in the West is that democratization in Iraq is a forlorn outcome. Self-styled experts in London and Washington are urging Tony Blair and George W. Bush to settle for a "possible", as opposed to an "ideal", Iraq. Translated into practical terms it means the instauration of a "lite" version of a despotic Arab regime in Baghdad followed by a quiet retreat by the U.S.-led coalition. Call it a policy of "cut and stroll away while whistling", if you like.

The arguments why Iraq could not, indeed should not, become a democracy are well known: Arabs have no experience with democracy; Iraqis are too divided by ethnic and religious differences to think of the common good; there is no popular base for democratic politics in the newly liberated country.

While these claims are easily refutable, I fear that those who advance them are unlikely to allow their minds to be changed. The Iraq debate is becoming a bit like trench warfare on the Western Front in the stalemate years of World War I.

Between 1925 and 1958 Iraq was a fairly open society with a Westminster-style parliamentary system and a constitutional monarchy. It had several political parties, from the communist to the conservative, a relatively free press and a robust civil society. For much of that time there were no political prisoners, and no one was ever executed for his political beliefs. The 1958 military coup, inspired by pan-Arabism and backed by Moscow, ended all that. But the memory of the "good old days" remains, and many Iraqis believe that they can resume their nation's quest for democracy.

As for Iraq's ethnic and religious diversity, rather than regarding it as a barrier to democratization, one could see it as an incentive. Iraqis of whatever ethnic or religious background know that only through democracy can they manage their differences. "For us, democracy is a necessity, not a luxury", says Muhammad Bahr Al-Olum, a prominent Shi'a cleric and member of the Iraq Governing Council. "The alternatives are dictatorship and civil war."

The claim that there is no popular base for democracy in Iraq is absurd. This is a country with 32 political parties, representing all shades of the ideological spectrum. Within three months of liberation, the Iraqis launched over 200 newspapers and magazines, the freest in the Arab world. Visitors to Iraq are impressed by the numerous political and social clubs that have mushroomed everywhere.

That Iraqis want and can practice democracy has also been proved on the ground. Since liberation, elections have been held for 37 municipalities. In every case, an alliance of democrats and secular politicians won easily. In most cases, Islamist radicals, the bogeyman of self-styled Iraq experts, finished last.

Today, the people of Iraq have an opportunity that other Arab nations suffering under despots only dream of. Within just a year, all the pillars of totalitarianism, erected over half a century of tyranny, have been razed. The "Supreme Leader" languishes in prison, waiting to be tried domestically for crimes committed against Iraqis and neighboring countries. The ruling party has disappeared. The army and the half-dozen paramilitary organizations that terrorized the nation have been disbanded, along with the dreaded security networks--the mukhabarat--without which no Arab regime can last more than a week. The command economy that provided the infrastructure of tyranny has collapsed. Most importantly, perhaps, the ideology of pan-Arabism that had dominated Arab political discourse for half a century has been discredited.

What is needed most of all is time: The peoples of Iraq need four or five years in which to develop and test solid democratic institutions. Here we come to the crux of the matter, for the building of democracy in Iraq is opposed by powerful forces inside and outside the country. Inside, one still has to cope with the remnants of the Ba'ath regime. In 2002, the party claimed a membership of 2.2 million, but it seems clear that no more than a few thousand were genuinely committed to its national-socialist ideology. Some of these have regrouped. In January they elected a new Central Committee to replace the one headed by Saddam Hussein. Their power base consists of thousands of former security agents and their families. They are joined by disgruntled military officers and civil servants who have lost their positions and social standing. But--with the exception of a few hundred diehards who understand only the language of violence--even the remnants of the Ba'ath could find a place in the broad tent of a democratic Iraq.

The same cannot be said of radical Islamists, whether they be linked with Al-Qaeda or backed by Iran, for they regard democracy as anathema and are prepared to kill and die to defeat it in Iraq. These are well-funded and well-organized groups that could fight for years, as was the case with their counterparts in Egypt and Algeria in the past two decades.

The new Iraq also faces a powerful coalition of foreign foes. Most Arab states fear a democratic Iraq, and some are actively campaigning behind the scenes to delay its advent. Egypt, under the septuagenarian dictator Hosni Mubarak, sees Iraq as a rival for the leadership of the Arabs. The Egyptians are trying to make things difficult for the new Iraq in two ways: by ostracizing the Iraqi leadership and by waging a campaign of rumors and disinformation against the U.S.-led coalition. (Earlier this year, for example, the Egyptian security services spread a rumor that Jews were buying land and oil wells in northern Iraq to dispossess the Arab tribes. The aim was to foment bloodshed between ethnic Arabs and Kurds.)

Saudi Arabia is also anxious to prevent the emergence of a democratic Iraq. It is rumored to be using its not negligible influence in Washington to persuade the Bush Administration that Iraq is not ready for democracy and that the United States should settle for a mild form of Arab authoritarianism. Riyadh is also financing a string of conservative figures and groups inside Iraq to oppose secularism.

Syria, Iraq's neighbor to the north-west, is even more active in efforts to sabotage Iraqi democratization. Terrorist groups, using safe-havens inside Syria, organize cross-border attacks into Iraq. The ruling Ba'ath in Damascus is funding the revival of its sister party across the border, and Syrian diplomacy has taken the lead in preventing Arab and other Muslim states from fully recognizing the Iraq Governing Council.

The united Arab Emirates, for its part, is funding a number of anti-democratic clubs and newspapers in Iraq while offering a safe-haven to fugitive Ba'ath military and political figures, among them the notorious information minister, Saeed Al-Sahhaf (alias Comical Ali), and several former generals of Saddam's Presidential Guard.

Qatar, although home to the largest U.S. military base in the region, is also doing its bit to undermine democratization in Iraq. This is largely done through the Al-Jazeera satellite television owned by the Emir, Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani. The channel has become a pulpit for former Saddam henchmen and radical Islamists who opposed the country's liberation. It has emerged as the principal mouthpiece of the maverick Shi'a strongman, Moqtada Sadr, as well as of the Fallujah insurgents.

But by far the most ardent opponents of democratization in Iraq are the mullahs of Tehran. Not only have they allowed Ansar Al-Islam, a Sunni terror group linked with Al-Qaeda, to operate several bases inside Iran, they are also funding other terror groups, including the Iraqi branch of Hizballah. It is now also certain that Moqtada Sadr received the bulk of his funding from Tehran.

Iran is doubly worried about the emergence of a democratic Iraq. In both countries Shi'a form a majority and the mullahs of Tehran regard the mullahs of Najaf, Iraq's main "holy" city, as potential rivals. In a word, democracy in Iraq could boost Iran's democratic movement.

The shock of Iraq has already forced a number of Arab countries and Iran to announce, and even implement, some democratic reforms. In most cases this is only cosmetic. But some of the smaller Arab states--notably Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan--have triggered changes that cannot be easily reversed. The shock of Iraq has also speeded up progress towards democratization in Algeria and Morocco, and strengthened the democratic forces in Yemen.

In some cases the shock of Iraq has persuaded the Arab regimes to seek new anchors. In June six Arab states--Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan--will sign partnership-for-peace style agreements with NATO. Libya, currently working a complete rethink of its foreign policy, has also expressed interest in "some form of cooperation" with the Atlantic Alliance. Preliminary talks are also planned by Oman, the united Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait to develop a NATO link.

Essay Types: Essay