A Painful Guide To Arab Decay…and Rebirth

The situation in Iraq is the most agonizing because it captures the tragic and combined failures of successive regimes that transformed what should have been a showcase of modern Arab development.

Of all the Arab countries today that suffer violence or enjoy a superficial calm on the surface, Iraq is the saddest in my view, because of what it has not become in the last decade since the downfall of the hard and vicious Baathist regime. But first some context, because the agony of Iraq mirrors a wider Arab pattern of state mismanagement and mediocrity. Recent decades leave no doubt that the major modern Arab political problem is that entire countries are managed like private clubs by individual families; such privatized and personalized states do not function efficiently or serve their people well, which ultimately leads to their fragmentation or total collapse.

This frightening, decades-old pattern continues to this day. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria, Palestine, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, and Bahrain have all suffered debilitating civil conflicts, often coupled with fragmentation or collapse. The oil-rich Gulf states have avoided major political violence mainly because they have avoided anything that looks like political rights and activity among their citizens.

The situation in Iraq is the most agonizing because it captures the tragic and combined failures of successive regimes that transformed what should have been a showcase of modern Arab development into a poster child for dictatorship, corruption, sectarianism, violence, mismanagement, and likely break-up, as the Kurdish northern region steadily spins off to de facto independence. Iraq particularly mishandled the opportunity after the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 to start to redefine itself on the basis of a home-grown national consensus, especially after 2008-09 when a semblance of stability reigned and the foreign invaders were on their way home.

It is painful but necessary to read about the failures of contemporary Iraq if we are ever to come to grips with the reasons why we have watched one Arab country after another self-destruct into self-inflicted national incoherence and chaos. The latest miserable consequence of this pattern is the opening it provides for radical Islamist thugs and killers to move in, as they have done in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and other hapless lands.

I recommend highly for anyone interested in grasping this painful modern Arab state narrative a new book by a talented young Iraqi lawyer and constitutional expert, Zaid al-Ali, entitled The Struggle for Iraq’a Future: How corruption, incompetence and sectarianism have undermined democracy (Yale University Press, 2014). The title encapsulates the main indigenous forces that have left Iraq in such disarray today, even though Iraqis should have taken charge of their own destiny, as foreign troops departed in recent years and several local and national elections have been held. The seeds of failure, however, were largely planted during the American-led transition in 2003-2007.

The author, who lives in Cairo and works on Arab constitutional and electoral issues for an international NGO, spent five years in Baghdad as of 2005 as a UN adviser during the period when the nascent institutions of governance should have been taking root. He documents why constitutional democracy has not happened in Iraq, with plenty of detailed examples as well as concise historical reviews, showing that Iraq’s current lack of citizen-based equitable and participatory governance replays similar deficiencies during the previous Baathist and monarchist decades, and the brief American-managed occupation.

The most damning accounts of recent deficiencies are those of the incompetence of the combined work of the American-dominated transitional authority that ruled Iraq for a few years from 2003 along with the exiled Iraqi elite — both pro-Western and pro-Iranian — who returned to the country then and assumed political power. Al-Ali describes in a very readable manner the major deficiencies in the new Iraqi constitution, which set the stage for the last decade of sectarian-anchored incompetence in governance, and in turn, promoted violence, corruption and widespread misery for tens of millions of ordinary Iraqis.

He touches on still chaotic issues that matter to all Iraqis, like employment, security, basic services, and environmental degradation. His nifty summary suggests what must happen for Iraq to transition from its current state of distressed failure to a semblance of stability, democracy and development.

His five points apply universally to all Arab countries that suffer national degeneration, disappointment and decay. The are:

• a defined and acceptable role for the armed forces;
• the growth of credible political parties;
• applying an effective anti-corruption framework;
• using income from natural resources to fund pro-poor development policies;
• and applying an effective system of decentralized governance.

The newly “elected” leaders in Egypt, Syria and Algeria, among other Arab rulers, would do well to read this book when they have a break from fighting off the millions of their citizens who now agitate for the dignity, democracy and basic decency in the exercise of power that they have never enjoyed—whether at the hands of indigenous or foreign rulers.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global