All Writings
March 7, 2004

Iraq Is Not Ready For Democracy

The Bush administration has not yet come to grips with a fundamental problem endemic to most of the Arab and Muslim world-the lack of the political maturity necessary to engender and sustain pluralism. The Iraqi Council's initial failure to sign the temporary constitution can be largely traced to the absence of those institutions and of a culture that supports democratic forms of government. The temporary constitution may be signed on Monday, but regardless of its fate, the reality is that no constitution engineered by us and meeting our timetable will offer a peaceful transition to free elections or lead to a permanent constitution that all Iraqis accept.

The conditions essential for these desired outcomes simply do not exist in Iraq, nor will they come about because of any hastily put together constitution. For the Bush administration, this whole effort has been heavily influenced by domestic considerations. Especially during an election year, any serious attempt to deal with the complexity of Iraq's reality seems to have vanished from the radar. Exactly what is that reality? It is three-sided at least, comprised of the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni populations, each with its own agenda, power base, hopes, and fears. Let's look at each.

The Kurds who have enjoyed complete autonomy for nearly 15 years simply do not trust that, if free elections result in a Shite-controlled government, their rights will continue to be respected. (Since the Shiites constitute about 60 percent of the population, such fears seem justified.) The need to safeguard their autonomy, then, explains the Kurdish demand that if two-thirds of the voters in at least 3 of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the new constitution, it should be withdrawn. In contrast to the Kurds, the Shiites, though they make up the majority of the population, have never enjoyed power since Iraq's inception in 1922. The Shiites have also suffered tremendously under the rule of the Sunni minority, especially that of Saddam Hussein. Now poised and eager to assume power, and confident that free elections will grant them their cherished dreams, they are ready to resist any efforts that may deprive them of what they perceive to be their long overdue rights. As for the Sunnis: they have held onto power throughout Iraq's existence and have maintained their traditional animosity toward the Shiites, and they have not, as yet, said their last word. Notwithstanding their acquiescence to the temporary constitution, they will reject any permanent constitution that does not provide them with the measure of power they deem compatible with their historic position.

Behind all the political maneuvering, escalating discontent, and continuing sectarian violence that has left hundreds dead, including 180, most of them Shiites, during the last few days in Baghdad and Karbalah, lies the lack of a culture of freedom and a respect for human rights. Of course, despite the current instability, the rights of each Iraqi citizen must eventually be enshrined constitutionally. But given Iraq's demographic makeup and the historical social and political schisms, it is simply not ready for democracy. The people must first develop their own home-grown democratic institutions cushioned by a more liberal culture and with Islam providing moral tenets that encourage human rights to flourish and political parties to develop in freedom. Thus, the interim constitution should have been limited to the issues that promote democratic principles, such as advice and consent, the art of compromise, and the development of democratic institutions. Among these are: a free and fair judiciary, a free press, government accountability, a market economy, freedom of expression and assembly, religious tolerance, freedom of education, and safeguards that enable the formation of political parties. Instead, the Bush administration pushed for a temporary constitution that contained the underpinnings of a permanent constitution and inadvertently raised questions about the power structure that will evolve while including vague references to the role of Islam, a central and contentious issue.

There is no easy solution to the problem of forging a temporary constitution. We started the process, encouraged on the one hand by exiled, so-called reform-minded Iraqis, with their own agenda but out of touch with the real Iraq that has been traumatized for so long, especially under Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, neo-conservative dreamers, and advisors to the president, drew a rosy picture of a democratic Iraq, intoxicating Mr. Bush with the promise of a free Iraq spreading its message throughout the region. This second group has apparently forgotten that a real democracy has to be built on a culture of freedom, something absent in Iraq from its inception.

Now that the administration has decided to transfer power to the governing Council by June 30th whatever the circumstances. As we become less and less visible in order to reduce our casualties, the Iraqis will pretty much be left on their own come July 1. But if we are not to squander everything we've sacrificed for in Iraq, we must use our influence to persuade the expanded Iraqi Governing Council that its first priority is the building of democratic institutions . The permanent constitution must be a byproduct of this social and political evolutionary process that enfranchises all Iraqis.

This approach will not obviously change the aspirations of each of the three main populations to gain power or secure self-rule under a federal-type political system, which may well be the ultimate outcome. But it will allow them to heal some of the wounds of the past, create trust, develop greater consensus about Iraq's future, and find common ground concerning the role of Islam in a free and democratic Iraq. In the end, constitutions don't create freedom, people do.