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Parallel politics in Iraq

Yahia Said Mary Kaldor
22 March 2005

Iraq has had elections but does not yet have a governing coalition. Since 30 January, politicians in Baghdad have been haggling over who should control Kirkuk and its oil and the place of religion in the constitution.

But are they having the right argument? Over a recent March weekend, twenty Iraqi activists, academics and intellectuals met in Cairo to discuss Iraq’s future. The issues in Cairo were the same as Baghdad, but the language and the perspective could not have been more different. In Baghdad politicians argue over whether religion should be a source or the source of the constitution. If the first, politicians will have the last say on matters of law; if the second, it will be the clerics.

For more dialogue and analysis on Iraq’s political and military conflicts, see openDemocracy’s debates “Iraqi voices” and “Iraq: understanding the handover”

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In Cairo the question was how to reconcile Iraq’s Islamic identity with democracy and women’s rights. In Baghdad they were looking for a formula that would bring in those Sunnis who boycotted the political process. In Cairo they were discussing the political, social and economic issues that have disenfranchised and alienated large parts of Iraqi society, including the Sunnis, and exploring the optimal federal arrangement that would protect Kurds' and other groups’ rights while maintaining national unity. In Cairo people talked of national identity, state-building, public interest and unifying principles – words rarely heard these days in the corridors of power in Baghdad.

One of us (Yahia Said) visited Baghdad in December 2004 to explore interest in a meeting which would bring together Iraqis from different perspectives to discuss the future of the political process and issues of participation. Then, many of the people who today are bargaining over militias, oil revenues and government portfolios were eager to participate. During the election campaign, the idea of dialogue was in vogue, and the politicians wanted to be seen to support it. At the time, we were concerned that “opposition” figures might avoid a meeting that would legitimise what they saw as a flawed electoral process.

In the end everyone came to Cairo except the victors in the election. Iraqi political elites evidently feel there is more to gain by negotiating amongst themselves and with external actors than by reaching out to a wide cross-section of the society they aspire to lead.

Perhaps such short-termism is a hallmark of establishment politics anywhere. Politicians are customarily derided for pettiness and particularism. But Iraq is not anywhere. The millions who defied death to vote, including those who died for the privilege deserve more from their chosen political leaders.

The group that came to Cairo included Sunni clerics and ex-Ba’athists sympathetic to the insurgency, leading women’s activists, budding secular intellectuals, a Kurdish neo-conservative, three national newspaper editors and a representative of a party which holds five ministries but did not win a single seat in the elections. They were a diverse group but remarkably they largely agreed over what had gone wrong in the past two years. Saddam’s legacy and other “historical baggage”, occupying forces, meddling neighbours, exiled politicians, resistance fighters and terrorists all were partly to blame.

Even those Iraqis sympathetic to the insurgency did not single out either the occupation or the terrorists as the main source of Iraq’s current woes and cared as much about democratic construction as ending the occupation. There was, though, a link between the two: the occupation is an obstacle to the building of legitimate public institutions which in turn is a precondition for independence. As one participant put it, nation-building requires “moral autonomy”.

But how to end the occupation? A few favoured immediate withdrawal, but most were concerned that it should not end before there is a legitimate Iraqi authority with unified security forces.

On openDemocracy, Mary Kaldor and Yahia Said of the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance analyse insurgency and civic activism in Iraq:

Mary Kaldor & Yahia Said, “Return to Iraq” (May 2004)

Yahia Said, “An Iraqi’s impressions” (May 2004)

Mary Kaldor, “How to free hostages: war, negotiation, or law-enforcement?” (September 2004)

Yahia Said, “Iraq’s tightrope walk” (November 2004)

The meeting revealed the size of the gap between Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world. In Egypt, the United States invasion is compared to the Mongol/Tartar rout of Baghdad in 1258 that ended the Arab golden age; Iraqis, despite everything, view the fall of Saddam’s regime on 9 April 2003 as a beginning not an end. This suggests that the Arabs see the key priority as ending the occupation while the Iraqis see it as building democracy. Can these goals be combined?

There is a similar gap in the western debate. The peace movement wants to end the occupation and argues that the elections were manipulated by the US. George W Bush and Tony Blair claim the elections vindicated the war. In fact, the elections were a victory for the Iraqis’ independence and democracy: it was the Iraqis who called for the elections and went out to vote.

But if democracy is to flourish it needs statesmen and stateswomen who can rise above narrowly defined ethnic, sectarian and party political interests and show a genuine concern for the public good. The meeting resolved to establish a civic forum to bring together people with no ambitions for political power to discuss such issues as the constitution or the management of oil from the perspective of the wider public interest. Such a body would hold politicians to account but would also offer them new creative ideas for solving Iraq’s myriad problems. If the peace movement as well as civil society in neighbouring states were ready to get behind this initiative, then the quest for Iraqi democracy could be freed from the baggage of the rest of the world’s geopolitical obsessions.

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