IRAQ: Iraq not ready for democracy
Alon Ben-Meir

The United States has not yet come to grips with a fundamental problem endemic to most of the Arab and Muslim world – the lack of political maturity necessary to engender and sustain pluralism.

The Iraqi Governing Council’s initial failure to sign a temporary constitution can be largely traced to the absence of both mature political institutions and a culture that supports democratic forms of government.

No constitution engineered by the US that aims to meet its timetable can result in a peaceful transition to free elections or lead to a permanent constitution that all Iraqis will accept.

The conditions that are essential to such an outcome simply do not exist in Iraq, nor will they come about through a hastily assembled constitution.

Washington’s efforts have been heavily influenced by domestic political considerations. The focus by US President George W. Bush on the upcoming American elections has sidetracked any serious attempts to deal with the complexity of Iraq.

The reality is three-sided at least, comprised of the Kurds, Shia, and Sunni populations, each with their own agenda, power base, hopes, and fears.

The Kurds have enjoyed autonomy for nearly 15 years. They simply do not trust that if free elections result in a Shia-controlled government, their rights will continue to be respected. Since the Shia constitute some 60 percent of the population, such fears seem justified.

The need to safeguard their autonomy, then, explains the Kurdish demand that if two-thirds of the voters in at least three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the new constitution, it should be withdrawn.

In contrast to the Kurds, the Shia, though they make up the majority of the population, have never enjoyed power since Iraq’s inception in 1922.

The Shia have also suffered tremendously under the rule of the Sunni minority, especially that of Saddam Hussein.

Now poised and eager to assume power, and confident that free elections will grant them their cherished dreams, they are ready to resist any efforts that may deprive them of what they perceive to be their long overdue rights.

As for the Sunnis, they have held onto power throughout Iraq’s existence and have maintained their traditional animosity toward the Shia, and they have not, as yet, had their last word.

Notwithstanding their acquiescence to the temporary constitution, they will reject any permanent constitution that does not provide them with the measure of power they deem compatible with their historic position.

Behind all the political maneuvering, escalating discontent, and continuing sectarian violence that has left hundreds dead – including 180, mostly Shia, in recent days in Baghdad and Karbala – lies the lack of a culture of freedom and a respect for human rights.

Of course, despite the current instability, the rights of each Iraqi citizen must eventually be enshrined constitutionally.

But given Iraq’s demographic makeup and the historical social and political schisms, it is simply not ready for democracy. The people must first develop their own home-grown democratic institutions cushioned by a more liberal culture and with Islam providing moral tenets that encourage human rights to flourish and political parties to develop in freedom.

Thus, the interim constitution should have been limited to the issues that promote democratic principles, such as advice and consent, the art of compromise, and the development of democratic institutions. Among these are a free and fair judiciary, a free press, government accountability, a market economy, freedom of expression and assembly, religious tolerance, freedom of education, and safeguards that enable the formation of political parties.

Instead, the Bush administration pushed for a temporary constitution that contained the underpinnings of a permanent constitution and inadvertently prompted legitimate concerns about the power structure that would evolve, while including vague references to the role of Islam, a central and contentious issue.

There is no easy solution to the problem of forging a temporary constitution.

The United States started the process, encouraged on the one hand by exiled, so-called reform-minded Iraqis. These exiles had their own agenda but were out of touch with the real Iraq that has been traumatized for so long, especially under Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, neoconservative dreamers and advisors to the US president drew a rosy picture of a democratic Iraq, intoxicating Bush with the promise of a free Iraq spreading its message throughout the region.

This second group has apparently forgotten that a real democracy has to be built on a culture of freedom, something absent in Iraq from its inception.

The administration has decided to transfer power to the Governing Council by June 30, whatever the circumstances.

As the US military in Iraq becomes less visible, in order to reduce its casualties, the Iraqis will mostly be left on their own come July 1.

The coalition is in danger of squandering everything it made sacrifices for in Iraq, unless it can convince the expanded Iraqi Governing Council that its first priority is to build up democratic institutions.

Any permanent constitution must be a byproduct of this social and political evolutionary process that enfranchises all Iraqis.

This approach will not change the aspirations of each of the three main population groups to gain power or secure self-rule under a federal-type political system – which may well be the ultimate outcome. But it will allow them to heal some of the wounds of the past, create trust, develop greater consensus about Iraq’s future, and find common ground on the role of Islam in a free and democratic Iraq.

In the end, constitutions don’t create freedom, people do.

Alon Ben-Meir is the Middle East Project director at the World Policy Institute, New York, and a professor of International Relations at New York University