Victor Argo
Last updated: 4 August, 2015

Iraq’s Arab dream

"Why having Iraq go through an excruciating family therapy instead of helping it to get a clean divorce?" asks Victor Argo in the final installment of his trilogy on Iraq.

“The land you know as Iraq is history.” Falah Mustafa Bakir, the unofficial foreign minister of Kurdish Iraq, was very plain when he talked to a German journalist in May of 2005. “There will be no going back to a situation before the summer of 2014.” 

What had happened in Iraq in the summer of 2014 was the Islamic State (IS) taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. One year later, IS controls a territory that stretches from outside Damascus to the suburbs of Baghdad. Admittedly the land of IS is mostly desert, but so is Saudi Arabia. The land we know as Iraq is eaten up from inside and outside and the Islamic State is one of the scavengers.

After the devastating six days war of 1967 and the death of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Iraq was the Arab’s dream; a country that was supposed to be the new beacon of Arab prosperity and power. Egypt and Syria had been crushed and humiliated by Israel’s military might. Now all hopes laid on Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. 

“What did 1967 do to the Arab world?” I asked Bouchra Belguellil, a young researcher associated with l’Institut Prospective et Sécurité en Europe (IPSE) in Paris. 

“In 1967,” Belguellil said, “the military defeat against Israel was not only about material and territorial losses. It was also the defeat of a project that had intended to reunite the Arab world, to restructure their economic production base and to regain sovereignty over a region that had lived under an imperialistic yoke for a long time.” 

Israel’s triumph was a shock for the entire Arab world. It led to a widespread auto-flagellation, asking for the reasons for such a failure. “The result was an Arab mindset that was isolationist and increasingly confined around small ethnic, sectarian and tribal identities,” said Belguellil.

“Admittedly the land of IS is mostly desert, but so is Saudi Arabia”

Iraq tried hard and for some time it seemed to fulfill the hopes of the Arab world. Saddam Hussein believed in a revolution that mostly focused on development through education, investing in a health care system and strengthening the industrial capabilities. But after the Iraq–Iran war of the 1980s and the first Gulf war of 1991, his revolution was all but dead. 

“The State of Iraq was a failed construction from the beginning,” said Shakhawan, a doctor of Kurdish origin whom I had met to talk about Iraq. “The Kurds didn’t want to belong to Iraq and in the end, 18% of the population ruled over the other 82%. Such a state could never work.” 

On a day of positive thinking, one might be ready to concede that the Americans, through invading Iraq in 2003, tried to push the country towards becoming a modern democratic state. The reasons why the forced democratization of Iraq didn’t succeed are manifold. Firstly Iraq is a very complex country with a heavy historical baggage that prevents the establishment of a common national conception. Iraqis are not Iraqis but Arabs, Kurds, Muslim, Christian, Yazidis, and members of tribe A or clan B first. The loyalty to a central state is very low. 

The main conflict in Iraq, overshadowing all other conflicts, is the ages old enmity between the Sunni and the Shia. The Arab Sunnis are clearly a destabilizing factor for any political system in Iraq. They represent a minority in constant fear of being marginalized. Precisely for that reason the Sunnis of Iraq used an iron fist to rule over the majority Shia and the non-cooperative Kurds for a long time. 

As if sectarian or ethnic tensions were not enough, Iraq is also markedly fragmented by its tribal structure. To survive, tribes must follow rigorous rules and enforce a strict codex of values that leaves a central government far away in Baghdad irrelevant. 

These days Sunni tribes within the triangle Falluja – al Qaim – Mosul openly cooperate with the Islamic State. They have submitted themselves to the law of the strongest and act as the sword of IS when fighting the Iraqi army and the Shia militias. “The tribes carefully calculate their allegiances,” said Bouchra Belguellil, “measuring possible benefits and potential losses. They also take into account the material and financial gains when working with IS instead of Baghdad.” 

In principle, things in Iraq should be different. On October 15, 2005, Iraqis took a step forward and voted in favor of a new constitution. The constitution was crafted based on the idea of a ‘consensus democracy’; it’s a good paper, promoting a multi party system, a balance of power between legislation and the executive branch, and a two chamber configuration of the new Iraqi parliament to better represent the people and the different regions of Iraq.

Sign in the Green Zone, Baghdad 2004. Peter Rimar / Wikimedia Commons 

“Did the Iraqis know what it meant when they said yes to the new constitution?” I asked Shakhawan. “Did they understand that they were saying yes to pluralism and to the concept of an Iraqi state?” 

“In a society without a political culture, primarily based on tribalism, the result of any vote must be questioned,” he replied. “I’m not sure if the Iraqis understood the ideas behind this new constitution.” 

“However,” Shakhawan went on, “important parts of the new constitution haven’t been implemented until today. There is still no second chamber in parliament and there wasn’t a vote on the status of Kirkuk – Arab or Kurdish? – as it is written in the constitution. Iraq had needed a figure like Mandela, able to forgive and capable of unifying the country. Instead we got Maliki who definitely destroyed what hadn’t been destroyed before.” 

Iraq’s agony is a painful reality. So why not accept this reality and admit that the plan of an Iraq under one roof has failed? Why having Iraq go through an excruciating family therapy instead of helping it to get a clean divorce? 

“Holding on to the status quo is totally normal,” said Bouchra Belguellil. “The stakeholders of Iraq are in denial and are not ready to accept the collapse of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.” 

The Islamic State on the other hand is flourishing on Sykes-Picot and the line that had been arbitrarily drawn into the sand almost hundred years ago. IS thrives on this bi-locality that allows them to duplicate and to give the impression that they are many and omnipresent. “Outside of this borderland, IS cannot survive,” Belguellil told me.

“Iraq is markedly fragmented by its tribal structure”

Shakhawan saw other reasons why Iraq can’t split up. “What to do with Baghdad where most people live, Sunnis and Shia alike?” he asked. “What to do with the Sunni regions in central and Western Iraq which consist of 90% desert? These regions don’t have natural resources like the Kurds have and the Shia in the south of Iraq have. An independent Sunni state is just not viable.” 

Bouchra Belguellil didn’t entirely agree. “The Islamic State will not go away without the independence or at least the autonomy of the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq,” she said. “This will be the price for peace.” 

What is the Arab dream in 2015? Are there any dreams left at all between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf? Hardly. Young Arabs today don’t believe in the dreams of their parents anymore. The ideas of pan-Arabism and a proud Arab region are dead, identities are defined more and more in local terms; they have morphed into the petty notion of a local nationalism. 

The ‘Arab spring’ in 2011 was a last flash in the pan. Young people nowadays are disenchanted and their only dream is to live in peace and have a decent job. They don’t expect anything meaningful coming from ‘their’ state. 

“In this region there is an enormous confusion between the concept of state and bureaucracy,” said Bouchra Belguellil when we finished our conversation. “There were never real states, providing services and security as states are supposed to do, but very often stifling bureaucracies. People have given up on their capitals.” 

Shakhawan couldn’t offer a more optimistic outlook. “In Iraq there isn’t any trust, only mistrust among its population,” he said. The lack of trust between and within the different communities is indeed the biggest challenge for the future of Iraq. Today, the Kurds are fighting against the Islamic State and the Shia are doing the same. And tomorrow? “In the end, the Shia militias are a much bigger threat for the Kurds than the Islamic State,” said Shakhawan. 

“So is Iraq really history?” I asked him. 

“There needs to be a separation from religion and the state,” he concluded. “Only then, maybe, an Iraqi state could work. The Iraqis need enlightenment. Like in France before the revolution: the people didn’t know what were their rights and their duties. They didn’t know that‚ without you the king cannot rule and cannot be king. The Iraqis still need to learn this.” 

Maybe then an Arab dream could come true, after all.


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