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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 April, 2003, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Analysis: Conditions for democracy in Iraq
Saddam mural in Tikrit
Saddam Hussein's brand of totalitarianism has left deep scars on Iraq

Iraqi sociologist Faleh A Jabar argues that most of the obstacles to democracy emerging in Iraq lie in the totalitarian state that Saddam Hussein built.

With the US campaign to end the Baath rule coming to a successful end, the post-conflict political order is at the heart of debate.

The "idealists" or neo-conservatives of the US Defense Department envisage a march to democracy, imposed on Iraq and spreading across the Middle East.

The other "realist" argument of the State Department hopes for a stabilised Iraq, with a reasonable degree of normalcy embedded in the "rule of law".

We are most likely to see something between the two.

Untouched by democracy

Iraq was untouched by the 20th century's major waves of democratisation - the latest came with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A trickle spilt over into the Middle East. Exactly when Arab nationalist and authoritarian regimes were coming under serious pressure from the rise of Islamism across the region in the late 1960s, an Arab political elite took over in Iraq in 1968.

A statistical view of daily life in Iraq

And while the totalitarian model was, in retrospect, disintegrating across the globe, the Baath built a neo-totalitarian model. As a latecomer, the Baath regime could have been expected to be one of the last to go.

The question of the nature of the totalitarian regime in Iraq that has just passed is highly relevant; any democratisation process has to start with it.


The structure of the Iraqi totalitarian order resembled the Nazi model with its single party system, command economy, nationalist-socialist ideology and control of the media and army.

An added feature in Iraq was the oil rentier economy - an economy that depends on oil revenues, not taxes paid by the citizenry, to sustain itself.

The principle was: we give you food and employment, you give up your freedoms

Command economies destroy the relative autonomy of the economic sphere from political power; an oil rentier economy provides vast resources that render the state independent from social power relations.

Equipped with such powerful financial and economic tools, the state built massive coercive organs - army and security services.

It also expanded the Baath Party to a membership of 1.8 million and provided almost free education and medical care - a means of buying consent from the population.

One of the results of this was the growth of the modern middle class - people mostly dependent on government salaries and making up more than half of urban dwellers.

Iraqis at large were ultimately offered two options: elimination or allegiance.

The principle was: we give you food and employment, you give up your freedoms.

Destroying civil society

The state systematically attacked civil society. It destroyed or absorbed into itself all modern civil associations - from trade unions, to industrial leagues and chambers of commerce or professional associations of every colour.

Delegates at the first US-sponsored meeting on Iraq's future
First signs of pluralism? Delegates at the first US-sponsored meeting on Iraq's future

The state could also afford tools to overwhelm and dominate the cultural spaces, controlling the very language of communication.

The state also restructured the upper classes, turning tribal leaders and the business elite into dependent clients - becoming in the process the largest single employer, owner and producer.

These are modern features of totalitarianism. Operating in a non-industrial environment, the Iraqi model absorbed and co-opted traditional institutions and spaces.

Fractured society

Tribal networks from the president's clan were integrated into the top of the political order.

A clan class was created, permeating the army, bureaucracy and business classes. Religion and the ideology of kinship were also elevated to an official discourse.

No democracy can do without a separation of the economy from political power

This strange amalgam of modern totalitarianism and primordial institutions may well explain the durability of the system despite the disruptive effects of two wars and more than a decade of sanctions.

But this amalgam also offers a formidable obstacle to change.

Dismantling the single party-system, a natural outcome of regime change will, paradoxically, fracture and atomised urban society.

The result will be the destruction of civil norms and associations, and a return to the primitive and primordial ties of the family, the clan and the tribe.

It must be hoped that these groups will see that civil peace is a better choice than the uncertainties of civil strife.

Introducing free enterprise

It is also essential that the command economy, an economy planned by the state, is dismantled in favour of free enterprise.

No democracy can do without a separation of the economy from political power.

It is easy to imagine a self-appointed liberal - or one appointed from the outside - sitting on top of a wealthy state, and developing into a tyrant

There are serious obstacles to this. The command economy is the mainstay of the state technocrats, the middle class. The lower class also fear and are likely to suffer under the commercialisation of social services as a result of radical privatisation.

Bringing the command economy to an end is a must, but a very costly one and the process will have to be gradual to avoid instability.

Another problem is the oil rentier economy. It is the basis of state patronage and client capitalism - a phenomenon sure to deform and kill off emerging democracy.

Two options have been offered: the new conservative gurus advise of total privatisation of the oil industry; the State Department sages recommend keeping the status quo as much as possible. Both are flawed.

Avoiding liberal tyrants

A third option may be contrived from Iraq's past history.

Under the monarchy deposed in 1958, the executive was allowed only 30% of oil revenues by the parliament.

Mobile phones and the internet look like alien technologies for the bulk of Iraqis... the last decade has been one of isolation and solitude for Iraqis

The remainder was put in the hands of a third trustee, the Development Board, which was managed by the parliament, technocrats and international supervisors - the US and the UK had seats on the development board.

This may help create a dual centre of power in the state, and provide a basis of division of power.

It is easy to imagine a self-appointed liberal - or one appointed form the outside - sitting on top of a wealthy state, and developing into a tyrant.

A liberal order can only stem from institutional pluralism rather than from the liberal ideology of a single politician - such as Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi.

Law and order

Reforming and reviving the currently corrupt judiciary is another necessary step.

At present, fake or genuine tribal groups serve as informal institutions of justice and law and order.

Oil facility in Iraq
The skewed economy oil creates is seen by some analysts as anti-democratic

Lawlessness scares the propertied classes and may well impede normalisation.

Disarming all informal agencies of violence, tribal or otherwise - the Kurdish militia included - is in my view a precondition for the rule of law.

Among the US plans, there is a scheme to dismantle the Baath Party.

As the latter is not only a tool of governance but also an instrument of social engineering, there is every reason to fear that social associations will be unwittingly destroyed.

The industrial leagues, chambers of commerce, bankers and professional associations, can and must be purged at the top but maintained from below.

A free public space for information is an essential corollary to a democratisation process.

The political culture in Iraq is one of rumours and family gossip.

For example, a rumour doing the rounds just before the US-led invasion was that the US would use sleeping gas to knock out the Iraqi forces.

Mobile phones and the internet look like alien technologies for the bulk of Iraqis. If anything the last decade has been one of isolation and solitude for Iraqis.

Along with widespread privatisation, the curtailing of the rentier economy, a strong judiciary and freed civil associations, a vibrant information space is essential for the beginning of an emerging democracy.

Faleh A Jabar is an Iraqi sociologist based in London. He is a research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest publications include The Shia Movements of Iraq, Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues, State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq and Tribes and Power in the Middle East.

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