From Dictatorship to Democracy

The real work of building a new Iraq begins today, and their strong sense of patriotism may be the force that helps Iraqis overcome their tragic recent past.

From Dictatorship to Democracy

The real work of building a new Iraq begins today, and their strong sense of patriotism may be the force that helps Iraqis overcome their tragic recent past.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

With the vanishing of regime, the real work begins. Since the Revolution of 1958, Iraq has been under increasingly brutal forms of dictatorship, culminating in that of Saddam Hussein since 1979. If what is happening now is to have any meaning at all, it is essential that the long-term goal of the "coalition of the willing" should be the construction of a functioning democratic system in Iraq which will meet the needs and aspirations of the country's long-suffering people.

However one views the present conflict, it has always been clear that the Iraqi people could not overthrow Saddam Hussein and his circle by themselves. So what will be the future of Iraq after Saddam? It seems likely that some "acceptable" figurehead - or figureheads - will be put in charge with the idea of forming a government of national unity. Alas, there is no Mandela to be released from jail. Some 60 per cent of all Iraqis have known no other regime than the monsters of Tikrit. Hence, one of the enormous problems we all face is the daunting task of embarking on a most colossal task of reconstruction involving a group of people, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, leftists and nationalists, who have little, and maybe no, name recognition.

Sadly, the opposition in exile has not been very successful in getting its act together - partly because, apart from the Kurds, the various participants are not very representative of anyone but themselves. It is perhaps unfortunate, to say the least, that some of the exiled opposition's leading luminaries should have won so many hearts and minds on the Potomac. While it is unfair to dismiss as self-seeking charlatans members of the Iraqi National Congress, the most active US-backed opposition coalition, is important to say that their names are barely known inside Iraq.

Yet democracy, like the nation-state, is a given today, a broad political structure that one is obliged to accept in the modern world. There was little democracy in pre-1945 Japan and in pre-1945 Germany it had been largely forgotten. It didn't form a large part of the political heritage of pre-1947 India. Nevertheless, nearly 60 years later, all three states can be described as more or less democratic. It will be the same in Iraq.

The political groupings that are present in Iraq today have developed, at least in part, out of the spectrum of political parties and groupings that inhabited Iraq between the two world wars. Despite concern about possible Iranian interference in a post-Saddam Iraq, it is doubtful that religious parties have ever had much appeal inside Iraq or that they would attract much support once Iraq is liberated. While a minority of Iraqi Shias may favour some aspects of recent developments in Iran, the Iranian regime itself is in a state of great turmoil and can scarcely present an attractive prospect to a people who have suffered more than 30 years of the most terrible dictatorship.

Nationalism, especially pan-Arab nationalism in the form of Ba'athism, has been a highly pernicious influence in the Middle East. It has been used as a crude battle cry by regimes whose legitimacy is based almost entirely on the fact that they claim to have inherited its mantle. Hence, as Saddam Hussein might say: "I make these pan-Arab nationalist noises, and that gives me legitimacy." But contrary to what is widely stated, Arab nationalists never had a large following in Iraq. Arab nationalism, as it manifested itself in Iraq and Syria, was not attractive either to Shia Arabs or to Kurds, who together comprised about 80 per cent of the population of Iraq. Hence there will be no role for the Ba'ath party in a post-Saddam Iraq.

With the fall of Saddam and his henchmen, an initial government of national unity will be essentially technocratic, trying to put a programme of reconstruction together. This will inevitably be expensive, although Iraq has the means to pay for a good deal of it. The task of national reconciliation is an extremely high priority. So many people have been killed, so many people brutalised into doing the killing - often, most probably, to save their own lives. To achieve this, we should encourage the growth not of nationalism, but of patriotism - the sense of Iraqis together attempting to create a new national loyalty, preferably a kind of federal united states of Iraq which would include an autonomous Kurdistan.

Strong states cohere because of the voluntary association of their citizens in a series of common purposes. Weak states are weak because they are held together by force rather than by consent. In this sense, therefore, we should think about the creation of a new kind of Iraqi nationalism, guided and strengthened by the restoration of democracy, civil liberty, and the rule of law.

Peter Sluglett, professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Utah and visiting research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, is co-author of Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship.

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