A Democratic Iraq?

Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been involved in numerous democracy-building projects in Eastern Europe since 1989.

The belief that after Saddam Hussein, Iraq may become a more-or-less democratic society -- let alone a democratic beacon for other Arab nations -- is a dangerous illusion.

As experience in Eastern Europe has shown, democracy doesn’t mean simply holding elections. First, you need a democratic culture, or what is usually called a civil society -- a tradition of voluntary associations, a tolerance for nonconformism and pluralism, a shared belief in the dignity of the individual, an autonomous sphere of economic activity, separation of political power from religious authority and a belief in the legitimacy of dissent. These values, norms and institutions are not easily exportable. It took Western societies centuries to develop them, with many notable lapses -- slavery and racial discrimination in the United States, and fascism in continental Europe, are just two -- along the way.

In countries where democracy established itself -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic -- civil society existed in one form or another, even during communism. In countries where it didn’t exist, the transition to a truly free, open, democratic society has been, to say the least, bumpy. Russia is a prime example. After the tumultuous years of President Boris Yeltsin, Russia under Vladimir Putin has experienced some stabilization and consolidation. But it is the stability of an authoritarianism “with a friendly face.” Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian republics are still years away from even a semblance of democracy.


The prevailing political culture of the Arab Middle East offers another reason to be pessimistic about democracy in Iraq. Despite enormous differences in size, wealth, population density and history, no Arab country is a democracy, is on the road to democracy or has a viable democratic opposition similar to Poland’s Solidarity or the Czech movement Charter 77. Nor has there appeared an Arab Gorbachev. Reasons for the lack of democracy in any Arab country are complex but have little to do with Islam. Political progress in Turkey, Indonesia, even Pakistan and Iran, suggest Islam is not a hindrance to democratic development.

It is quixotic, then, to imagine that Iraq, after more than two decades of a brutal, repressive dictatorship and having been militarily defeated and occupied by the United States, will be the first Arab society to develop the means to become a democracy. In the 1990s, similar hopes were voiced for the Palestinians, then emerging from Israeli occupation. What developed instead was the politics of suicide bombing, an act that enjoys near-universal acceptance in Palestinian society.

Believers in Iraq’s potential as a democracy frequently cite its large, educated middle class as a reason for hope. But this too is misguided. Pre-Nazi Germany prided itself on possessing one of the most educated and sophisticated middle classes in Europe. It is not the existence of a middle class that counts but its values, norms and conduct. The absence of any meaningful dissent in Iraq in the last 24 years, even under Hussein’s torturous regime, doesn’t inspire faith in the Iraqi middle class as a fount of democrats. Nor does Iraq possess a pre-Hussein democratic tradition that would help legitimize democracy. The contending groups of Iraqi exiles do not have impressive democratic credentials.

Last, and not least, demographics conspire against the birth of democracy in Iraq. The wars in the former Yugoslavia showed how difficult it is to institute a post-totalitarian pluralistic democracy in a country riven by ethnic and religious divides.

Iraq is a patchwork of a country, weaved by British imperialists from remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Not only is there a sizable Kurdish minority in the north, but Iraqi Arabs are also split between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. It is fine -- and right -- to condemn Hussein’s regime as a Sunni dictatorship over Shiites and Kurds. But democracy in Iraq would mean that the Shiite majority would be entitled to considerable political power. With Shiite Iran next door, this would raise the possibility of a Tehran-type Shiite fundamentalism in Iraq.

Furthermore, a sudden move toward majority rule, without checks and balances, might produce a clash, as in Algeria, between fundamentalist Islamists and secularists.


The antidote for Iraq’s ethnic and religious schisms is often said to be “federalism.” But federalism works best in societies where democratic values are deeply ingrained, as in the United States, Canada and Switzerland; even post-1945 Germany could build on pre-Nazi democratic traditions, feeble as they were. Federalist ideas haven’t solved religious and ethnic problems in societies struggling to become democracies. The Dayton accords tried to create a viable multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina based on federal principles, but the result has been an utter failure. Similarly, a recent U.N.-backed proposal to solve the Cyprus problem through federalism is stillborn. The bloody breakup of Yugoslavia is further evidence that federalism is not an answer for societies like Iraq’s.

So, for what can we hope? For one, that the Pentagon’s Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance doesn’t set its sights too high. Its immediate tasks are obvious and relatively easy to accomplish: humanitarian aid; rebuilding the infrastructure; modernizing Iraq’s oil industry so its oil revenue can partly offset the cost of reconstruction.

But when it comes to the longer-term goal of political reform, postwar West Germany or Japan are not relevant examples. In both cases, democratization would not have occurred without a long military occupation, something coalition forces want to avoid. Furthermore, fear of communism in postwar West Germany and Japan certainly helped cast the West as an ally, a perception totally absent in Iraq.

On the other hand, if the people working to rebuild Iraq look around, they might see other, more realistic political alternatives. Iraqis would be lucky if something like Egypt’s mild authoritarianism were established in their country; they would be less lucky if they had to settle for something like Syria’s not-so-mild, though pragmatic, authoritarian government -- but that’s far preferable to the one they have suffered through for 24 years.

Disappointing? Perhaps. Sobering? Yes. But anything else would be a dangerous utopian illusion, bound to backfire.