With Peace, Iraqis May Also Get Liberty

<i> G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," has covered the Middle East for many years</i>

Democracy is busting out all over: The worldwide swing away from one-man rule has even caught up with that most authoritarian of authoritarian regimes--Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq. Three weeks ago the president announced to a meeting of lawyers that political prisoners and exiles, except those who collaborated with Iran during the Gulf War, would be granted amnesty, released and allowed to return home. Political parties will also be permitted, leading to a multiparty system.

Because the president’s Arab Baath Socialist Party has monopolized power in Iraq for the past 20 years, it is natural that there should be skeptical questioning: Does he mean it, and can it be done? Having slid easily down the slope from a sort of multiparty democracy to dictatorship, can Iraq claw its way back uphill?

There is already some evidence that political prisoners and exiles are returning home, but at a very slow pace. Nevertheless that part of the liberalization process has begun.

The sharing of power and of popular support implicit in a multiparty system is quite another matter, and much more difficult. The most persuasive reason why Hussein may push ahead with liberalization is that it would increase his power by adding to his popularity. During the war years the Iraqis who matter--the urban middle class, salaried workers, professional and business men--hundreds of thousands of whose members were conscripted into the army for long years to patriotically fight--and perhaps die--said they backed Hussein because he unified the war effort. But, they added, once peace came they would want something other and better than one-man rule and the Baathist monopoly. The president, with his multiple intelligence systems, apparently accepted their desires, knowing that liberalization would redound to his personal credit.


The Iraqis who matter want a multiparty system despite one factor and because of another. They want political pluralism despite the fact that the civilian pre-Baath parties--the Istiqlal (Independence) Party and the National Democrats--were a fairly feeble lot, bourgeois, poorly organized and without much popular following. Yet such as they were, they did give the electorate a choice.

And the Iraqis want a choice, partly because of the example of Egypt, where Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak have allowed, in however restricted fashion, a choice between distinctly different political tendencies. The Iraqis want at least as much. In recognition of the popular appeal of the multiparty system, the president claimed that the idea was accepted two years ago but was not announced then because it would have seemed merely an act in conformity with the current fashion of glasnost. Very few people here believe this, for what would have been wrong in following a good example? Clearly, political innovation had to wait for Iraq’s victory in the Gulf War.

Any cold calculation of the political profit to be gained from pluralism has to overcome Hussein’s ingrained tendency toward one-man rule, to having his own way, unfettered and unquestioned. Is he prepared, for instance, to accept that prerequisite of a democratic polity, the subordination of every citizen--including the leader--to the rule of law?

He will soon be put to the test. As an overindulgent father, the president conferred various offices in the realm of sports on his son Uday. Power went to the young man’s head and he became notorious as a high-living hooligan. There was much public approval for the president’s announcement last month that his son would be prosecuted for allegedly killing a family retainer in a drunken brawl. But this was soon followed by well-orchestrated “popular” pleas for mercy. If the president accepts them, it would indicate he still believes that he and his family are above the law.


The changeover from a monolithic one-party state to a pluralistic system will be a slow and difficult process, but it will be helped by the fact that 18 months ago Iraq’s state-controlled economy was brusquely liberalized and moved toward private enterprise under a laissez-faire government. This was an essential preliminary for political perestroika.

No one in Baghdad seems to have any clear idea as to how the new parties are to be brought into existence. In the first place, the moving spirits, if any, will have to be thoroughly assured that the whole project is not a trap, that there will not be a repetition of Mao Tse-tung’s “hundred flowers” tactic, when freethinkers were encouraged to bloom only to have their heads chopped off.

The trouble is that there is very little left of the pre-Baath party structures to serve as the foundations for any new parties. That rebuilding was possible in Egypt. The old Wafd Party was sufficiently popular and structured to re-emerge as the New Wafd; a moderate version of the old militant Muslim Brotherhood has served as a nucleus for the new religious groupings, and the reputation of Khaled Mohieddin, a colleague and friend of Nasser, preserved his Socialist Party. In Iraq, on the other hand, the Istiqlal was swallowed up by the Baath and the National Democrats withered.

There are one or two rather aged leaders of the National Democrats who may try to revive that ineffectual grouping. Otherwise, for lack of private political initiatives--and there are none in sight at present--the Baath itself may have to provide front men for supposedly new “parties.” Some such thing must be arranged if non-Baathist parties are to take part in a general election reportedly scheduled for next February or March.


One idea being bandied about is that the new parties may not be political but functional and corporate in character, as was the case in Benito Mussolini’s Italy. Thus, the intellectuals and professional men could form a “liberal” party, the businessmen an “enterprise” party and the trade unions one that could be called “labor.” The Iraqis are too sophisticated and politicized to accept this as the genuine thing (Egypt also provides examples of phony “parties”) but it would, at least, be a beginning that could grow into something more genuine. The all-too-confident Baathist loyalists claim that whatever the new parties stand for, they must all be within a Baathist frame. The Baathist basics are Arab nationalism, Arab unity, a nonaligned foreign policy and the new controlled but mixed economy. It should not be too hard for any Iraqi party to fit itself into this frame.

The test of real democracy will come when the Baathists have to resist the temptation to domineer and bully the fledgling parties. Here the example will have to be set at the top by Hussein, who will have to curb his impetuosity and impatience and his habit of going--and getting--his own way, often by threat or use of force. Otherwise he would resemble the U.S. Army officer in “The Teahouse of the August Moon” who threatened the Japanese under occupation that he would convert the islanders into a democratic society--even if he had to shoot every last one of them.