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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - March 5, 2013

by Roula Khalaf

A decade ago American neoconservatives billed the invasion of Iraq as a trigger for a democratic transformation across the autocratic Arab world. “A beacon of democracy” was how George W. Bush described the future of the country as he prepared to dispatch his troops.

Yet, countries in which people took it upon themselves to force regime change several years later would do well to draw lessons from Iraq’s predicament 10 years on, and avoid what many Iraqis see as an abuse of democratic freedom by a succession of irresponsible governments.

Iraq now enjoys many aspects of a democracy, with dozens of political parties, a free (but often partisan) media, and regular elections. As its foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told me recently, Iraq has had several changes of prime minister “and all of them are alive – none are dead”. Security also has considerably improved, after years of horrific violence during the civil war, even though bomb blasts are still a regular occurrence in Baghdad.

For ordinary Iraqis, though, the benefits of this democracy are still elusive. They live in an unstable country run by a sectarian-driven and often corrupt political elite that puts its own narrow interests above those of society. As they mark the 10th anniversary of the change later this month, Iraqis are wondering whether they are doomed to exist in a dysfunctional state, which still fails to provide either security or basic services.

True, their hopes for a more stable and prosperous future were quickly dashed by an ill-planned American occupation that tore down the foundations of the state without a clear idea of what to replace it with. But few blame only the Americans for the state of Iraq today. Much of their frustration focuses on their own political class.

Since the Americans departed in December 2011, Iraq has had its own version of the Arab Awakening, with sit-ins and demonstrations by the Sunni minority protesting against discrimination and marginalisation now entering their third month.

Long simmering tensions between Arabs and Kurds have been on the rise again in recent months: the federal government and the Kurdistan regional government both sent troops to the disputed city of Kirkuk at the end of last year. Perhaps most depressing to many Iraqis is the sense of a creeping new authoritarianism, as their prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, concentrates executive powers and stands accused of using the judicial system to get rid of political enemies. His opponents in parliament, however, also share part of the blame; their energies are often deployed for one purpose only: to make him fail.

Tragically, some Iraqis hark back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s state, which they say offered at least security, even if it was viciously repressive. Many others, however, particularly among the Shia and Kurds who bore the brunt of the oppression, have no regrets about regime change; they are, however, profoundly disappointed.

It is true that there can be no straightforward comparison between Iraq and Arab neighbours undergoing a democratic transition. Change was imposed in Iraq, even if it was desired by large sections of the population, and it was followed by civil war as Sunni and Shia militias turned their guns against each other, and against the American occupier. Iraqi officials, moreover, are right to point out that any chance for reconstruction, and rebuilding of the state, had to wait only to 2009, when levels of violence started to decline.

But Iraq’s experience, and its failure to build faith in its democracy, should be taken as a warning to others. Iraq tells us that compromise and inclusion of minorities is what makes for a stable democracy; it shows us that corruption can thrive even in a democratic environment; and it suggests that in the middle of instability and insecurity, of a lack of unity and of deep political mistrust, authoritarianism can at least attempt to make a comeback.

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