A Tightrope Walk Toward Democracy

Currently, an end to the Iraq conflict is nowhere in sight. Yet in some parts of the country there are signs of political normalization and an economic revival. spoke with Professor Ferhad Ibrahim upon his return from Iraq.

What impressions did you gather in the course of your trip, especially with regard to the security situation in Iraq?

photo: Arian Fariborz
Ferhad Ibrahim

​​Ferhad Ibrahim: My experiences and observations varied quite a bit from region to region. In the North the situation was stable, the country is in the midst of reconstruction and the institutions are once again up and running – for example the universities and hospitals, as well as the infrastructure.

In Baghdad and environs, on the other hand, things are very bad. It will take a great deal of time before reconstruction can begin there. It's mainly the lack of security that is making things worse. If you ask the inhabitants of Baghdad what is most important to them, they will name security as their top priority; above all, people want stability, safety and peace. And that should be the most important goal for the coming months and years.

Should the European Union play a greater role than it has to date as a mediator in the Iraq conflict? What opportunities do the Europeans have, together with the United Nations, to drive democracy in the country?

Ibrahim: I think that the UN has a great deal of experience in preparing for and conducting elections. It is important to build on these experiences. The UN is already represented in Iraq – especially through Lakhdar Ibrahimi, who is respected by many Iraqis. But there is perhaps also a need for additional models in order to launch a dialogue between the diverse groups, particularly with those who are dissatisfied with the current situation - for example, the people living in the Sunni Triangle.

It's not enough to try to impose peace with tanks and guns. You also have to speak with the people to find out exactly what they want so that you know where to start. And in this context the advice of the EU is vital so that we can benefit from European experiences in how to peacefully settle this kind of conflict and ensure a certain degree of stability.

What do you think of the peace initiatives coming from the neighboring Islamic states – especially Iran, which even acted as mediator recently between the rival Shiite groups and the USA?

Ibrahim: Talking with journalists and intellectuals in Baghdad, it is evident that they often see Iran as the real source of friction – an opinion shared even by Shiite intellectuals. Iran is surreptitiously offering support to certain groups, such as that of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as other social groups. Orthodox Shiites in Ghom support the spiritual leaders in Najaf and Kerbala. Therefore, Iran has not played a very positive role in Iraq up till now.

As far as Iranian offers to mediate in the conflict are concerned, I personally am extremely skeptical. I believe that it's better if the neighboring states do not get involved. Instead, the European Union, NATO and those countries that have demonstrated a certain amount of neutrality – such as Egypt – should take the leading role here.

But, unlike in the case of the Middle East conflict, Egypt and the other Arab states have made little effort at mediating in Iraq to date. How do you explain the fact that they are holding back?

Ibrahim: The problem is that the occupation and American policy on Iraq do not exactly have a good reputation in the Arab world and none of the governments in the region want to risk being involved in this conflict – for domestic reasons. They would end up being branded as a partner to the Americans.

Arab states, such as Egypt, could in principle play a positive role here. After all, countries like Syria or Iran have already taken up a position that is not acceptable to many Iraqis. Jordan, on the other hand, is being quite cooperative: for example, Jordan is training Iraqi police and army officers and is participating in many areas as well.

The Jordanian economy is also active all over Iraq. I met up with many representatives from Jordanian companies in Baghdad, as well as in the North, who are trying to export technology or goods into Iraq.

Of course, there are many different actors involved in this conflict. In this context you sometimes speak of a "civil war staged from outside." What exactly do you mean by that?

Ibrahim: Naturally there is unrest and there are differences in opinion. There are groups who are trying to accomplish their objectives through the use of violence, but it's important to remember that the support they receive from outside the country is enormous – much greater than is widely acknowledged. This includes organizations sending people into Iraq with a specific agenda, as well as terror experts sent to Iraq by al-Qaida. Some of the neighboring states are also participating in this undeclared war.

The Americans know it and the Iraqis know it. Naturally, this is a process happening both from inside and from outside. No radical Islamist can operate from the outside without the backing of Iraqis inside the country. But the forces working from the outside are very strong. If it were possible to put a stop to these external machinations, it would probably be easier to solve the problems within the country.

But it is necessary to conduct a dialogue with those groups that are dissatisfied with the way things are going – such as the Sunnis in the so-called Sunni Triangle and groups such as that of al-Sadr, which are not represented in the Governing Council – and to offer them some sort of possibility of playing a part in the new Iraq. And one must signalize to the neighboring states that their interference is unacceptable. But up until now the Americans have undertaken very little in this direction.

Does the Iraqi transitional government have an "increasing legitimation and representation problem," as political scientist Amr Hamzawy claims?

Ibrahim: As a matter of fact, virtually every political shade present in the country is represented on the Governing Council and in the government: from communists to the Muslim Brotherhood; from clans, political parties, minorities, Assyrians and Turkmen to representatives of the former bureaucracy. No Iraqi government since the founding of the state in 1921 has been as representative of the overall population as the current Governing Council and government.

Of course there are problems, problems within the context of the occupation policy, and there are difficulties stemming from the disappointment of the Iraqis. One year after the fall of Saddam Hussein the situation is still unstable. Naturally people primarily blame the government and Governing Council for that fact. But what does it mean to have a legitimation problem? After all, the neighboring Arab states also suffer from a lack of legitimation – this is a widespread problem.

But I think that there is simply no other way. This is the only option for involving all of the groups. According to my observations in Iraq, and even before my trip, I did not discover any major problems in terms of legitimation.

Interview: Arian Fariborz

© 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Dr. Ferhad Ibrahim is professor for Near East political and contemporary history in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Free University of Berlin.

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