What’s the difference between Iraq and Egypt? Politics in Iraq are working. The Washington Post reports today that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is developing renewed alliances with both Kurds and Arab Sunnis. This should not surprise.
There’s an unfortunate pattern in both the US media and also among our diplomatic corps that the more isolated they are from events they report, the more dire their conclusions and descriptions of the situation in Iraq. Yes, terrorism is a problem, but to blame Iraq is to blame the victim, not the perpetrators.
No, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not an autocrat. I was fortunate to spend much of last month in Iraq (my reporting is here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Pictures of religious figures and other politicians dot the landscape on the streets of Iraq, but photos of Maliki are few and far between. Maliki has to work with a broad array of politicians to advance Iraq. Sometimes it works; often it does not. In the most successful provinces — Basra, Maysan, and Kirkuk — a broad array of political parties work together for the common good.
Maliki is also not as sectarian as his detractors describe. Nor are Sunni Arab protestors so non-violent. As a general rule-of-thumb, followers of Gandhi tend not to wave Al Qaeda flags. The Iraqi government moved into Hawija first with water cannons until demonstrators opened fire. And while Tariq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi — both of whom have had arrest warrants served — are Arab Sunnis, that does not mean they are not guilty. Indeed, many of the complaints against them are from Arab Sunnis and Rafi Issawi is reportedly paying blood money to some of his victims, hardly the action of an innocent man. Sunnis should not get a free pass because they are Sunnis although, to be fair, Shi’ites should not get a free pass either and the Iraqi government must do a better job of going after Shi‘ite politicians who maintain their own death squads, first and foremost Muqtada al-Sadr. Alas, there’s an unfortunate tendency among Iraqi politicians across sects and ethnicities to speak one way to each other and foreigners and another way when on television and to their constituents. Analysts should not accept an interlocutor’s moderation until they see him speak moderately at a political rally or in a television interview.
Still, lots of issues remain unresolved. Iraq’s president — Jalal Talabani, incapacitated by a stroke last December — is paralyzed, unable to speak, and has suffered brain impairment. Many Iraqis work under the fiction that he might return to their country, but both Kurdish and Arab leaders know he’s never going to resume his acitivity. There’s a tacit understanding that most outstanding issues won’t be solved until 2014 at the earliest, when Iraq next holds parliamentary elections and that then a more efficient government might be formed, one with a clearer mandate.
Maliki hopes to head that government, although he will certainly face challengers. It’s interesting that while many in the West describe Maliki as an autocrat, Iraqis openly debate about whether he will be re-elected. It’s a pretty strange autocracy when even members of the leader’s own party debate his future quite openly. Maliki is reaching out across the ethnic and sectarian spectrum for allies. Local elections have shown repeatedly that Iraqis prefer the moderates to the extremists, even if neighboring states — Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — favor the latter for largely sectarian reasons. The younger generation — those who embraced sectarian politicians with enthusiasm upon Saddam’s downfall — are now more cynical and sophisticated and moving away from some of their more conservative tendencies.
Democracy is a process; it does not come immediately. It involves a recognition that debate trumps argument, and compromise is not defeat. Let us hope the Egyptians push forward with democratization. And let us be grateful that despite all the sacrifices Iraqis and Americans have made, the Iraqis have embraced their own democracy.