A Discussion with Hamid Alkifaey, Author of ‘Failure of Democracy in Iraq’

Foreign Policy Concepts
4th June 2019

Interview with the author of ‘Failure of Democracy in Iraq’, Dr Hamid Alkifaey

 1- What led you to write your book? 

I explained in the introduction what led me to write the book. I opposed the dictatorship in Iraq since the mid-seventies and was engaged in exposing the regime’s dictatorial ways of ruling Iraq, wasting Iraqi wealth on weapons and foolish and brutal wars and the horrors it committed against the Iraqi people. When the regime fell in April 2003, I was part of the effort to establish democracy in Iraq. I was the spokesman of the Iraqi Governing Council (GC), which was the first post Saddam Iraqi institution that formed the first government which worked alongside the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority). I was party to the TAL (Transitional Administrative Law) which paved the way for the first free elections in Iraq’s recent history.

I run in the first democratic elections to the National Assembly and the first parliament, so I had first-hand account of what happened. I saw in my own eyes the violations of the electoral process and how those involved in the democratic process had their own different understandings of democracy that often undermined the very idea of democracy. I saw politicians who had always claimed to be pious, act in deceitful ways, lie and manufacture false stories about their political opponents, etc, etc.  I saw them break the law to achieve political gains. I saw anomalies I never thought I would ever see. This is what led me to study all patterns of democracy and find out whether the process in Iraq really conforms to real democracy.

 2-Iraqi democracy is still going on with frequent elections and new governments formed after every election since 2003. Why do you think it has failed?

Elections on their own are no testimony to the presence of real democracy. Elections are held everywhere in the world these days. Saddam Hussein used to hold elections, so did Robert Mugabe. Mahathir Muhammed got ‘elected’ at the age o 93! There are doubts whether those elections were true reflections of popular will. The Iraqi public had been very unhappy with the leaders, but the same leaders get elected again and again! So, it’s either they rig the elections or, the electorate are easily deceived. In either case, there is a real defect in the Iraqi democracy. Iraq simply has a defective democracy. Also, there is no independent and professional media to inform the people of the real issues so that they go to the ballot boxes with an informed opinion. In the first election, Shia voters were told by their religious leaders to vote for List 169. It was considered as a religious duty. Many people obeyed and voted. So they did not vote according to their own wishes or consciences, as individuals with different opinions. They voted according to their religious mentors’ wishes. The same happened in subsequent elections, albeit in more indirect ways, and I quoted one of the most influential preachers in Iraq, Sheikh Jaafar Al-Ibraahimi, who said he promoted religious parties which were unknown to the electorate and he did that on behalf of the religious establishment. Later on, those same parties held on to power ever since. One of the signs that democracy is working is when power transfers to the opposition at least twice. This has not happened once in Iraq. 

  3-Islamists are the main political forces and it seems logical that power will remain in their hands because they do represent the views and interests of the majority? Does this sound like a success for democracy, or a failure?

If you take the results of elections seriously, this seems to be the case, but in reality it’s not. People are unhappy with Islamist parties because of their corruption and failure and many of them voted against them but the electoral system was changed and manipulated by Islamists for their benefits. Islamists didn’t serve the interest of the people who voted for them. They served the interests of the leaders and their families. One of the reasons of the failure of democracy which I listed in the book was the failure of secular parties to form a united front and field strong and credible candidates in the elections. In the secular camp, there were many small parties which suffered from rivalries and infighting. The biggest was led by Ayad Allawi who was supported by the US but he was no astute politician nor a real democrat, so he ended up alienating even his closest allies. Yes, Islamists were able to ‘win’ elections by fair means and foul, staying in power despite their overt and widespread corruption and failures. They certainly do not represent the majority of the people nor do they have a real constituency that they seek to serve. They have so far served their leaders and their families and this is obvious to everyone in Iraq.

 4-As you point out in your book, the Iraqi society is divided. So, it’s natural that this division is reflected in the parliament and government. What are the key challenges here? 

Political divisions are normal in a democracy but what I pointed out in the book was the racial, regional and sectarian divisions. Islamist Shia parties, in particular, deepened the sectarian division among the people on purpose and exploited it to their advantage. They used sectarian rhetoric and they made up stories about Sunni or Shia dangers in order to frighten their electorate and push them into voting for them. Nationalist patriotic politicians and real democrats do not divide their people in order to stay in power and make financial gains. They should aim to strengthen the coherence of the people. Division, other than the political one, weakens the country and that’s why Iraq has been weakened by sectarianism and infighting. All political parties were fighting among each other over who gets a bigger share of the spoil that comes with political power; there is a deeper rift among Islamists themselves than between them and other parties, despite the fact that, in theory at least, there are no fundamental ideological differences among them. But they have managed to unite during elections in order to gain power and then divide the loot among themselves later on. In addition to sectarian and ethnic divisions, Iraq has a “stateness” problem because of the irredentist tendency among the Kurds in the north. No real democracy can be established in the presence of irredenta. The Kurdish issue must be settled once and for all before we can talk of a real democracy in Iraq. This is another significant challenge. There is also the rentier economy which is not conducive to creating a real democracy since it gives huge financial power to the incumbent and makes people totally dependent on the state for their livelihoods. The Sunni-Shia division is not deep in Iraq since both communities have a common ethnic, cultural and national identity. Islamist parties tried to deepen the Shia-Sunni divide, which benefited certain individuals from both sides, but the division doesn’t look solid nor permanent and it will disappear if secular parties become popular.    

 5-It’s difficult to get religion out of politics, as you seem to suggest in your book. Is there any middle ground to accommodate religious beliefs in an evolving democracy like that of Iraq? 

In a democracy, political parties have political and economic programmes, not religious programmes. Politics is about serving the people in this life, not the hereafter. So, religion should not really be relevant to politics, not in Iraq nor anywhere else. If an individual wishes to follow religious dictates, that is his/her legitimate choice that should relate only to his/her personal life, not turn into a way to govern the country or define that person’s role in public life. Individuals in power should be defined based on what they can offer the people in terms of services and jobs. In a democracy, people are free to practice their faith, but religion must not be exploited to gain political advantage as this encourages what I called in the book (political religiosity) which is fake and harmful. In Iraqi elections, most politicians have used religious rhetoric, even secular politicians. True religious people do not exploit the religious feelings of their fellow citizens for political gains. Under democracy, religions and religious practices are protected by law, so the people do not really need corrupt politicians to tell them about their religion. People know what to do and who to turn to if they need religious advice. They have their real religious leaders to turn to, not politicians who should be doing their duties as politicians.

 6-Do you think Iraq has the capacity to develop into a Western-style democracy? 

Yes, I think Iraq could become truly democratic but only if certain conditions are met. The first is the people of Iraq should insist on true democracy and they deserve it after having lived under a vicious dictatorship for so long. There is now a huge disappointment among Iraqis about democracy. If this trend continues, people’s commitment to democracy will further weaken, as happened in Egypt, and once this happens, undemocratic forces will exploit it and attempt to seize power. Second, the democratic world, especially the US and EU, should assist Iraq to improve the quality of democracy. Iraq does need the assistance of the US and EU in order to stay on track and develop its democracy. Iraqi democracy now exists in a hostile environment and it may not survive without political and economic support from western powers. Iraq is a medium-sized country with a population approaching 40 millions. Politicians should be competing on how to turn Iraq into a modern democratic viable state with a modern economy. Such a state can play a positive political and economic role in the region, and, as a democracy, it will be part of the democratic western world, just like Japan and South Korea in South East Asia. Democracy has so far failed but this failure is not permanent. It could succeed if the international community supports Iraq to stay independent and free of foreign influences. It’s not in the interest of the West nor the Middle East if democracy in Iraq fails.

 7-You blame the Americans for lack of commitment, but don’t you think this is unfair because the US sent its army to bring down a dictatorship and establish a democracy? What more should the US have done?

US brought down the dictatorship but didn’t really have any commitment to democracy. It wanted a democracy that serves its short-term objectives. It rushed the country into elections when there were no democratic institutions. Democracy needs civil society, economics society, political society, usable bureaucracy and a functioning judicial system. None of that existed in 2005 when the first elections were held. Iraq suffered from irredenta and the US didn’t attempt to sort this out even though the Kurds were and still are its allies. Iraq suffered from deteriorating services, deep poverty, lawlessness, and very powerful insurgency, thanks to the US inappropriate policies. Policies such as the dissolution of the Iraqi army and police, Deba’athification and declaring Iraq as an occupied state were instrumental in creating the chaos we saw after 2003. They strengthened the violent insurgency, armed groups and militias rather than the forces of democracy. On the top of the unemployment that already existed, the US made one million armed and trained Iraqi soldiers and one million Iraqi Ba’athists unemployed. Instead of finding solutions to the existing problems, the US created more problems and refused to invest money in Iraqi stability. Paul Bremer refused to reinstate former political prisoners and employees dismissed by the former regime under the pretext of following austere measures and trying to introduce market economy. US ended up paying half a trillion dollars to fight back insurgency which could have easily been avoided had sectarian forces been kept away. It was sectarian forces that did so much to agitate the insurgency. Instead of cooperating with the US-appointed Governing Council, Bremer constantly sought to undermine it and make it look weak before the Iraqi people. US mistreated Iraqi political forces and pushed them to seek alliance with Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states or carry arms against it. Even former US allies such as Ayad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi turned against it. It allowed militias and religious parties to operate when it could have easily prevented them. You cannot have a democracy under armed religious and separatist parties. This is obvious to everyone. The US is to blame for most of the problems.

 7-In all candor, do you believe that Iraq was ready for democracy as you claimed in your articles and speeches prior to the fall of the Saddam? Is it ready now?

Democracy is not the default mode of humanity as John Dunn eloquently said. It was never established over night in any country. It’s a process that needs a lot of work. As I mentioned earlier, there are several preconditions that must exist for democracy to be successful. All these didn’t exist in Iraq in 2003, but they could have been created in 5 years and that’s what the US could have done. Democracy needs sponsorship. It wouldn’t have succeeded in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Eastern Europe and Latin America if it wasn’t for US and EU’s steadfast support. Yes, I was perhaps enthusiastic in my support for democracy and still am because I do think that democracy is possible in Iraq particularly. Don’t forget that in 1990, Samuel Huntingdon listed Iraq and Iran as having achieved the economic standard that qualified them to introduce democracy. I admit that many events were unforeseen. Because I lived in the UK for 23 years prior to the fall of the regime, I didn’t know in detail about the changes that Iraqi society went through. Harsh UN sanctions against Iraq for 12 years brought the country to its knees and all its institutions were dysfunctional. All these developments were not to be accurately gauged by Iraqi exiles like myself, unfortunately of course. Still, I think democracy could have been established gradually over a ten-year period had there been a strong US commitment to it.