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Juan Cole

People Power vs. Washington

Juan Cole
Contributor
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the proprietor of the Informed Comment e-zine. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in…
Juan Cole

The claim that George W. Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq somehow opened up the Middle East to reform is an affront to the brave crowds that have risked their lives to change the American-backed order in that part of the world. Bush’s invasion was followed by no significant reforms in the region, whereas the outbreak of people power today has scared autocratic regimes into making unheard-of concessions. Iraq itself is no shining beacon on a hill for the people of the Middle East, but rather is a target of protests and an object lesson among the protesters of what to avoid.

Among those who brought down Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, and those now challenging Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, none put forward Iraq as a model. An activist who had witnessed both scenes contrasted the elation and feeling of achievement among crowds in Cairo with the sullen apprehension in Baghdad after the American military occupied Iraq. In the aftermath of the Jan. 25 demonstrations in Cairo I saw tweets in Arabic from protesters warning against allowing internal divisions to rip Egypt apart. We don’t, they said, want to end up like Iraq.

In fact, the protests in Egypt inspired crowds to come out in Iraq to rally against the corruption and incompetence of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Thousands were in the streets on a “day of wrath” Feb. 25, when 18 were killed and 140 injured as security forces in Mosul, Hawija and elsewhere shot at the crowds. Maliki cut off access to downtown Baghdad by closing key bridges. Since then, there have been almost daily protests in Iraq. Last Friday, thousands of Kurds again gathered in Sulaimaniya to demand the ouster of the autocratic president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, and one man attempted to set himself alight, in emulation of North African protesters. Maliki castigated the demonstrators as terrorists and closed the party offices of two small groups calling for rallies. He continues to hold most of the powerful government portfolios in his own hands.

If Bush’s misadventure in Iraq had indeed been a positive impetus for change in the region, then at least some protesters elsewhere would have credited it as an inspiration. If the U.S. occupation had actually produced a functional, democratic system, so many Iraqis would not have emulated the Egyptian protesters and taken to the streets. Moreover, we would have seen political openings in the years after 2003 in the Arab world. Rather, the reforms are coming only now, impelled by the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt.

On Sunday, the Algerian parliament voted to lift the country’s state of emergency, a measure that had suspended civil liberties since 1992. In the fall of 1991, the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front had won parliamentary elections, an outcome unacceptable to the country’s secular-minded officer corps. The generals overturned the election results and dissolved parliament, plunging the country into civil war as the fundamentalists took up arms. In recent years, under President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a semblance of normality has returned, though many critics in the public accuse him of conducting elections that are not entirely aboveboard, and of tolerating extensive corruption high in the state. The government is acceding to a demand of Algeria’s small protest movement in hopes of averting a larger movement of the sort that chased out the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.

Even in a country such as Morocco, where the protest movement has been smaller than in some other Arab nations, the winds of change have prompted a pre-emptive response. King Mohammed VI has pledged that the constitution will be rewritten to allow the prime minister to be elected by parliament rather than appointed, and to give the position more power. In other words, he will take steps toward becoming a constitutional monarch.

At the other end of the Arab world, in the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has announced that he will devolve legislative powers to the legislature, which has so far been just a debating society. Until these changes, only the cabinet, appointed by the sultan, could make laws. The reforms were impelled by strikes and protests by petroleum workers in provincial cities, as well as by the object lesson delivered by crowds in North Africa.

The handful of powerful neoconservatives in Washington who plotted the war on Iraq never pushed democratization as a goal until after it became clear that their primary justifications for military action were false. Even then, their notion of democracy involved dissolving Iraqi unions and gaining promotions for their Iraqi political cronies, who promptly created a secret police force. The constitution crafted at their insistence was almost universally rejected by Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, setting the stage for a civil war. Prime Minister Maliki has ruled as a soft strongman, creating tribal levies loyal to himself and asserting control over the Ministry of Defense and the officer corps.

The demands of the protesters throughout today’s Arab world have nothing in common with earlier U.S. neoconservative plots. Today’s democratic forces want the right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. They want a better deal economically, and government intervention to ensure the public welfare. They want genuine grass-roots input into legislation and governance. They want an end to censorship and secret police. They want national resources to benefit the common person, not foreign corporations. Their ideals are far closer to FDR’s New Deal than to W.’s White Tie Society. And they are well on the way to realizing their goals in key countries of the region even as the Kleptocratic Bush era recedes into the mists of history, attendant with more major failures of policy than any other regime in American history.

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