Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraq's Lessons for The Arab Spring

Arab countries embracing democracy should learn from the costly mistakes made in Iraq’s post-Saddam era.
By Abeer Mohammed

Abeer Mohammed

Abeer Mohammed
IWPR Senior Editor in Baghdad

On its road to democracy, Iraq may have sacrificed the most compared with other Arab countries currently throwing off the shackles of dictatorship.

Iraqis tasted democracy ahead of others, and paid a heavier price, terrorised by years of brutal sectarian warfare – in which tens of thousand died and hundreds of thousands uprooted.

Then there was the economic and political corruption and the meddling of foreign countries in our internal affairs.

The same problems that Iraqis faced and dealt with - and continue to deal with - should serve as lessons for the Middle East’s fledgling democracies, such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; and those hopefully on the cusp of freedom, like Syria and Yemen.

Iraqis share tribal, ethnic, sectarian and sometimes economic similarities with other Arab countries being swept by change. We are in a position to offer advice.

One of the first lessons Iraqis had to learn after the fall of Saddam was not only that political parties need to be created but that differences of opinion must be tolerated.

Getting used to free speech is crucial in a new democracy emerging from the shadow of dictatorship.

It was also crucial for Iraqis to work on bringing together a community based on tribal allegiances. Allowing one tribe to dominate government is recipe for disaster – a return to dictatorship. It is far better to encourage tribal leaders to recognise mutual interests, and bring their collective influence to bear on the population.

Being aware of this point may help overcome some of the tribal rivalry problems Libyan leaders might face in the near future – which, if not properly addressed, could lead to civil strife.

And a real danger is posed by sectarianism.

So many Iraqis were affected by the internecine fighting that raged across the country in 2006 and 2007. But afterwards, they had to sit down and start a reconciliation process. People had to forgive each other.

If and when the Syrian regime does fall, it would be a big mistake for the protest movement to go after ordinary people who backed the regime. All should be included in the new political process.

Equally, you cannot build a democracy if you hunt down former elements of the regime and kill them, as reports suggest happened to some supporters of Gaddafi whose bodies were found in Sirte with their hands tied behind their backs.

This could lead to retaliatory attacks from remnants of the regime, just as we witnessed in Iraq.

Another challenge is to counter radicalism and protect minorities.

Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood should be brought on board and steps taken to protect and prosecute those who attack Christian minorities.

One factor that will favour the likes of Egypt and Tunisia is that the majority of their people are moderate Muslims.
Unlike Iraq, they are far more liberal and have enjoyed more personal freedoms, even under dictatorships. Iraqis are only now beginning to see an accommodation between their Islamic identity and democratic governance.

It is also important to avoid foreign political meddling in internal affairs, something Iraq is still struggling with.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to Syria. If and when Syrians do create new political parties, they should work on representing their own people and their interests, rather than allow themselves to be influenced by foreign agendas.

Iraqis are slowly realising this after many wasted opportunities.

Iraq has also benefited from the development of a free media which, despite some continued problems, works towards making whoever holds power accountable for their actions.

Iraq now has a democratic leadership; the people participate in polls every four years to elect their own leaders; and we look forward to better standards of living, economic opportunities and overcoming sectarian differences – much of what the protesters of the Arab Spring are hoping for. 

Abeer Mohammed is a senior IWPR editor in Baghdad. 

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.