There is no region in the world more difficult to apply “off the shelf” Western notions than in the Middle East. The Middle East, the undoubted cradle of civilisation, has had its lands soiled with much blood. Nowhere are rivalries as bitter or animosities as historically entrenched and deep rooted.
With the rich heritage and millennia old civilisations comes a disparate patchwork of ethnicities and religions who often have claimed the cramped lands as their own at some historical juncture.
A prime example of age-old tensions, where the historical battle for land, supremacy and influence, compounded by an ethnic mosaic that has been stitched together in an artificial manner, is Iraq.
Judging the context
If democracy was going to be difficult to apply anywhere in the Middle East, Iraq would be high on the list. Six years since its liberation from tyranny, the “new” democratic Iraq, a perceived success on paper, struggles to plant real seeds of comfort and assurance of a future where its many communities and sects can truly flourish in one place.
However, as the US administration has realised – after thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars of expenditure, not forgetting a shattering of its foreign policy image in the process – democracy and western ideals are not something you can simply “hand-over”. Democracy is not like a modern piece of machinery you can hand to Iraqi farmers and workers, so that they can leave their previous ways for a new efficient and technologically advanced solution.
One must judge the context in which you intend to deploy a notion or initiative and carry out detailed feasibility studies. As the Bush administration discovered, Iraq as a harmonious unitary state, even in the face of the eradication of evil, is just a pipe dream. Temporary euphoria or gains can not bridge long-term socio-ethnic grievances.
Moreover, if all sides do not have the appetite to implement democratic notions and truly embrace each group within the greater Iraqi banner as “brothers” then no amount of US or foreign intervention or new diplomatic initiatives will ever truly matter.
A great example of some existing out-dated mentalities in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq is the infamous shoe-thrower and newfound “celebrity”, Muntazer al-Zaidi, whose antics as he launched his shoes and insults at US President George W. Bush last year, resulted in imprisonment: he was released early last week.
Although, the actions of al-Zaidi, who became an instant hero across the Middle East, may have summed up the sentiments of many Iraqis, such action by a professional Iraqi journalist in front of international cameras does the image of Iraq, and the perception of it been bogged down by old fashioned ideas, no good.
The US undoubtedly embarked on a number of costly blunders, especially in the first few years post-liberation. At times the US has done its image no favours, especially with Abu Ghraib prison scandals and the general perception of its military operations. However, the idea that Bush is the fulcrum of all evil in Iraq is naïve, short-sighted and thinly papers over the historical cracks that are commonplace in Iraq.
Is it because of the US that, in the six years since liberation, Sunni and Shiite sectarian hit squads have been at logger-heads? It is understandable that anti-US anger may see the US soldiers as direct targets for a large number of insurrections, but why should this mask the deadly civil war that took place for more than a year between them?
Iraq’s lack of political and economic progress is not the direct fault of the Americans and its leaders have been just as culpable in prolonging the Iraqi agony. Why can’t al-Zaidi have saved one of his shoes for his failing leaders? More importantly, one wonders why no one dared to take such actions against Saddam Hussein. It is due to the advent of such new freedoms in Iraq that one can even dare to take such action – perhaps America can take some solace from this fact.
Admittedly, many Iraqis disagreed with, and condemned the actions of, al-Zaidi. This further highlighted the sectarian influence behind such moves. Saddam may be long gone but his legacy lives on in Iraq. Ultimately, this is the fundamental bottleneck of the new Iraq: democracy will never be embraced while some groups still have one eye on the past.
Deep-rooted animosity in Iraq that runs for centuries is not the doing of the US. It is evident that Iraq is still plagued by a lack of common trust with different groups reluctant to succumb or compromise to other parties. Unity and sharing the rich Iraqi cake in a fair and equitable manner when there are such an array of opinions and factions is a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. Giving the current Iraqi political track record, at best a loose form of democracy can be implemented in Iraq.
Upcoming national elections
The path of democracy in Iraq is predictable due to its sectarian and ethnic grounding. Essentially, the national elections will become a national census rather than a real democratic contest. Kurds are highly likely to vote for Kurdish alliances, Shiites for Shiite groups and Sunnis for Sunni groups. The aim of each is to muster enough votes and parliamentary voice not be sidelined and to have a firm stake in proceedings.
Ironically, even when the votes are finally counted, the different groups will still not be happy. Iraqis are unwilling to take the voice and votes of the people as final.
The best gauge to determine national matters is the people itself. Ultimately, it is the people and not a handful of politicians that should dictate key matters.
This notion could not be more relevant than for article 140. Millions voted in favour of the Iraqi constitution which, among many other stipulations, outlined article 140 as a roadmap for dealing with disputed territories.
But now not only has article 140 become stalled, but other democratic steps have been changed in the disputed regions for the same fear – it may give an insight into the likely outcome of any referendum. Provincial elections were postponed in Kirkuk and now the national census scheduled for autumn has also been postponed. The national census will almost certainly have functioned as a defacto referendum, aiding the claims of rival groups.
The pretext that elections or democratic notions will fuel tensions is too obvious an excuse. In reality, it is the non implementation of democracy that may spark conflict. Moreover, when would be a good time to resolve a highly-contentious, emotive and deep-rooted dispute over land and masses amount of oil?
The answer is that even in 50 years, it will not be a “good” time to hold elections. However, democracy is democracy. It is not something that you can pick and choose as you see fit and democratic elections must be held regardless of any side fearing the outcome of its legal results.