Iraq and the West are haunted by history

Once again, Iraq is tearing itself apart. The country’s existence as a cohesive whole is now in more danger than it was at the height of the civil war in 2006/07, when the yearly civilian death count was over 20,000. Now, with a disintegrating Syria providing an ideal base for terrorism, Iraq is being threatened by ISIS, a group aiming to establish an Islamic caliphate across much of the Middle East.

Much of the debate swirls around the controversies of Western intervention. Two apparently contradictory questions are being asked again and again: did the 2003 invasion set up the conditions for ISIS’s emergence (namely, the severe weakening of the Iraqi state, and the dominance of Nuori al-Maliki’s Shia government over minority Sunnis)? And, even so, should the West act again, to save the Iraq it spent so much blood to create?

But there is one Western act neglected in the endless news articles and opinion pieces, and it is the one perhaps most crucial in understanding ISIS’s determination to redraw the map (and, as it happens, sheds a lot of light on the recent history of both Iraq and Syria): the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917. As WWI put strain on the empires of France and Britain, the countries’ diplomats drew up a plan for a quasi-independent Middle East; dividing their territory into countries with arbitrary strokes of a pen. Thus, the region’s countries never lined up with its nations, and the stage was set for the next 100 years of bloody strife.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement failed, crucially, to distinguish between Sunni and Shia Arab areas, resulting in the formation of countries with sizeable minorities and powerful majorities. Sometimes, as was the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is the minority group which wields power – often by force. It is hard to overstate the feelings of animosity between Sunnis and Shias, especially in the most polarised countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon); there hasn’t been peace between the two groups since the great schism after Muhammad’s death.

Al-Maliki’s divisive style of government has not helped matters, but it is naïve to blame the Prime Minister for all of is his country’s woes. Iraq is a product of Western imperialism – and in many ways should never have existed in its current form. ISIS is abhorrent for many reasons, but its rejection of arbitrary borders isn’t one of them; it is based, instead, on an embedded historical narrative.

So we have to ask ourselves, is Iraq’s integrity really our paramount priority? In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the West advocated self-determination for ethnic minorities, and now many countries exist where once stood just one. Surely the same right cannot be denied to the peoples of the Middle East. And yet, the consequences of the dissolution of Iraq are hard to fathom, both within its current borders and worldwide. Having misguidedly brought the country into being, the West is bound to defend it. There is no righting the mistakes of history.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Sadness in Houla

All sorts has been going on. In the forefront of my mind recently has been the calamity in Houla, Syria, where dozens children were murdered by the army. The world is duly horrified and I believe The Times was right when it headlined the story ‘the tipping point’. The UN managed to get itself together enough to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian government, which is still claiming the violence was perpetrated by unspecified ‘terrorists’. There is a sense now that something will happen, but all the options carry considerable risk.

There is, as always, the daunting possibility of military intervention. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the West is weary – especially of becoming involved in yet another Muslim country. It would also be legally dubious to go to war in order to achieve regime change in another country. But then one has to ask if it isn’t even more dubious to let a government murder its own people. However, I think direct feet-on-the-ground intervention is a long way off.
At the other end of the spectrum is doing absolutely nothing. Then it is possible – perhaps probable – that the country could decend into sectarian civil war. The country is not as tribal as Libya, but it is home to people of many different creeds. There are bitter divides between Shia and Sunni Muslims. To further complicate this, the ruling elite comes from the Alawite sect, members of which still support the President – as do the Christians, who fear an Islamic state. The capacity for fighting is huge. And yet, for reasons stated above, leaving the regime to do as it pleases doesn’t seem like a good idea

So a third way is needed. As I see it (and I’m not an expert, mind) there are two options. The first is the creation of ‘buffer zones’ in Turkey, where opponents of the regime can group together, train and plan without the risk of shelling. But the international community is rightly reluctant to rely on Turkey, whose own President is becoming more and more tyranical. He would also probably favour Islamists, when Syria desperately needs to remain secular

The second option is to carry on doing what we’re doing – i.e. allowing Qatar and its friends to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. This avoids all the problems of Western intervention and may eventually help to stop such massacres. But this doesn’t present civil war, which is looking more and more likely now that the violence has spread into neighbouring Lebanon, which is still wobbly decades after its own bloodshed supposedly ended.

The two options are clearly not perfect. But, for the children of Houla and the rest of Syria (perhaps Lebanon too), something has to be done. What you you think it should be done? Comment below.

Hope and dispair

The world was enthralled last December when democracy reared its head in the Middle East for the first time. It was like watching a film crescendo during January and February when the Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were literally swept away by the full force of popular opinion. All the good news made us heady as events spread and we could see a new world, at the very tip of our fingers.

Then, events plateaued. We stopped watching with joy and descended into horror. The uprising in Libya quickly led to the siege of Misrata, and NATO was dragged into a new war in the Arab world. The protesters organised themselves into rebel armies and fought against Gaddafi’s ruthless men. In Syria protesters spent the summer and autumn being gunned down in their own cities, by their own people. Still, they ignored the tens of thousands of arrests, the torturing and the murder and they kept fighting for what they believed in. In August the rebels in Libya finally took Tripoli and Gaddafi’s forty-two-year-old regime fell. Joy bounced back into the Arab spring.

The Syrians are still protesting bravely against the Assad regime, which continues to attack them. The UN is imposing tighter and tighter sanctions, and Turkey – once President’s Assad’s most loyal friend – has turned its back. It seems that the end will come, but for the Syrians it may as well be centuries away.

Recently Tunisia held its first elections (see below) which heralded the dawn of democracy, especially as they were so successful. Again, progress in Tunisia spurred its Egyptian neighbours into action. Fed up with the tortoise-paced change in their country, Egyptians surged back to Tahrir Square, the home of the revolution, to demand the resignation of Field-Marshal Tantawi. The Field-Marshal heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took power when President Mubarak was ousted. Many of its members were involved with the old regime, and there is wide-spread and legitimate scepticism about SCAF’s commitment to democracy. This scepticism increased when the army again opened fire on the new protesters. It looked as if things were going backwards.

The new violence coincided with the start of Egypt’s elections and there was a lot of panic that voting would be cancelled. Fortunately, the polling stationed opened as planned. But the process itself is complicated. People are voting for members of both the lower and upper houses of Egypt’s new Parliament, who will then be responsible for creating a new constitution. Fresh elections will apparently be held before June. This time, voting is being staged over several weeks. This is meant to give the judiciary a chance to regulate what is going on, but it also allows plenty of scope for some nasty fiddling.

The main problem is that the armed forces have become accustomed to special treatment, having been the main source of political power for decades, and are loathe to give it up. Whatever the outcome of these elections, normal politics will not exist in Egypt until the army is safely back in its barracks. And that is a long way off.

Tunisia’s elections

The Arab spring has just witnessed its first true success in the country where the protests started in December last year – Tunisia has held its first elections after 23 years of dictatorship under the now-ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. There were worries that the elections would be mired by violence or vote-fixing, but the UN mission overseeing the process declared the elections had been ‘free and fair’.
The elections were held to appoint a constituent assembly, which will then be responsible for running the country whilst it writes a new constitution. This is an essential process as the constitution will provide a foundation on which to build the democratic institutions, like a justice system, which are so far lacking. It will also set out the rules that will govern future parliaments, which will allow fresh elections for Tunisia’s first MPs and lead to normal governance.
The result of the election was known before the people even went to the polls. Ennahdha (the Renaissance), an Islamist party, won with 41% of the vote. This was so predictable for two reasons. Firstly, Tunisians, although moderate in their views, are nearly all Muslims and so naturally vote for a party that supports their faith. The second reason that Ennahdha did so well is that they are the most organised and well funded party, having existed underground during the Ben Ali era and it had a strong history of fighting corruption. That means that people know who they are and what they stand for, which gives them a huge advantage over the new opposition.
However, the voters have not given Ennahdha a majority in the Assembly and the party has announced that it is seeking to enter a coalition with either the CPR or Ettakatol, the two most popular secular and left-leaning parties. An agreement is likely to emerge, which will give heart to those who worry about an Islamist party being in power as secularists are unlikely to relinquish new-found freedoms. And Ennahdha itself is desperate to present itself as a moderate party, proclaiming to be inspired by Turkey’s political situation – where a mildly Islamist party, the AK, rules a secular society. Turkey enjoys the benefits of a booming economy, partly because investors are keen to make money in the Middle East and want a stable political system in which to work. Many in the West are hoping Ennahdha keep to their professed ambition. At the moment they seem to be doing so – recently the party’s leaders announced a new push for equality for women at home and in the workplace. They have also pledged to safeguard democracy.
Despite all this some observers are worried. It is possible that these promises are being made to ensure the release of frozen government funds abroad or to keep Western governments on side during the times of uncertainty. What happens in Tunisia now is crucial to the future of the region as a whole – having been a trailblazer in throwing off its dictator, the country needs to create a safe path to democracy which its neighbours can follow. But even more importantly, events in this once-insignificant North African country could dictate foreign policy all over the world. A rise in Islamism will only increase Western-Arab tensions and possibly Islamist terrorism. The people of Tunisia have a lot of hopes to fulfil.

Is Libya free?

On the face of it the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Dig a little deeper, though, and the conviction behind the answer wanes a bit. So let’s evaluate.

Yes, Col Gadaffi no longer holds power. Therefore, Libya is free from the tyrant who ruled it by fear for the past four decades. He is no where to be found but his spokesmen still say that he is in Tripoli, while a few members of his family have escaped to neighbouring Algeria. More likely he too has fled, or returned to Sirte – his hometown – where his loyalist troops are expected to regroup and make a last stand. The rebels and the NTC (their government) have issued an ultimatum to the fighters in Sirte: give up, or face an all-out assault. With Tripoli firmly in rebel hands, it is almost impossible for Gadaffi to come back, but people are still scared. That fear will not abait until he is either captured or killed. Again, Libyans are controlled by fear.

So if Gadaffi can not come back, why is there so little international celebration? The world, and many Libyans, are daunted by the problems that could now arise – primarily, what to do with Gadaffi loyalists. Even without their leader, Gadaffi’s army pose a huge threat. For many years they will remain the best trained and best armed men in the country. Naturally, they will do all they can to derail the NTC and any following government in a bid to reinstate Gadaffi or various members of the old regime. They may disrupt elections, or attack ordinary civilians. In short they are dangerous people. And yet there is very little than can be done with them. An Iraqi-style devolution of the army would no doubt lead to the same sort of insurgency as in Iraq, further destabilising the country. It is better to keep the army in its official role, but the NTC will have a lot of reconciliation to do. Libyans, meanwhile, may feel that they have been let down by the keeping of Gadaffi loyalists in positions of power.

Another forceful blow to freedom has not been given much press time. The NTC is not an elected body. It is the self-proclaimed political leadership of the rebel forces. Not one vote helped it into power. This is a big deal. If Libyans did not elect the NTC, how are they ever going to remove it from power? And having fought so hard to gain office, why would the new politicians willingly leave? Luckily the Council is so far making all the right noises (some may say to secure the release of frozen assets). They have promised free and fair elections within eight months of Col Gadaffi’s capture. This is undoubtedly a good sign, but seeing as no one knows where Gadaffi is the Council could conceivably be in power for years before an election is held.

And even if elections do happen in a timely manner, what is to stop someone else from seizing autocratic power? The electoral system would be so new that the opportunities for abuse would be manifold. Of course, the UN will monitor goings on, but what can they do to ensure fairness? Not a lot. Also, it is highly likely that an Islamic or Islamist party will take a majority of seats in a new parliament, leaving many moderate Libyans feeling at best distanced from politics – at worse persecuted over their religion.

For Libya to be free four things need to happen: the capture or killing of Gadaffi, free elections (including freedom to run for office and a comprehensive electoral role), effective maintenance and control of the army, and the preservation of secularism. Not a hard task, then.

A new country

Over night Libya’s rebel army made the much-anticipated advance on Tripoli and we awoke to an almost-finished battle for the city. The rebels used a two-pronged approach, coming both from Ziltan to the West and Zawiya to the East, forcing Gaddafi’s forces to fight on two fronts. As of this morning the rebels were claiming to hold 80-90% of Tripoli, although the BBC was struggling to verify these figures. The rebels’ political wing, the National Transitional Council (NTC) – now recognised by most countries as the legitimate government of Libya – says that there are only ‘pockets of resistance’ left in the capital, although gunfire and heavy weaponry can still be heard throughout the city.

Everyone is now almost, if not completely, certain that Gaddafi is going to go in the next few days. Last night his most influential sons Saif al-Islam and Mohammed were captured and are now being held. This leaves their father even more isolated. And as I write there is a gun battle outside Gaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli – where it is conceivable he could be. The rebels say that they plan to secure Tripoli by Wednesday and are confident that once this happens the regime will fall.

So Gaddafi’s effectively gone and his forty-two years of dictatorship are over. This is surely a reason to celebrate. But more difficulties lie ahead. Libyan society is very tribal and divided. These divisions have been held together by Col Gaddafi’s iron grip, but in the manic days ahead they may once again rear their heads and fighting may break out. As well as this, troops once loyal to the regime may continue to oppose the NTC, even when they have no-one left to protect. And even if fighting does come to a swift end it will be extremely hard to bring democracy to a country that has not experienced it for four decades. The NTC has been fighting for control for five months now and it would not be surprising if it was reluctant to give it up. This means that the move towards free and fair elections will be slow and painful, even if everyone acts nicely.

There are two big problems facing Libya’s immediate future – NATO and Islamic extremism. The former seems to be sticking around while the rebels call for it to leave, which is slightly awkward as they are on the same side. NATO seems intent on claiming some of the glory, although in recent history many of its heads of state have been very pally with Gaddafi. By sticking around, unwanted, they it is doing more harm than good to its reputation. Journalists in the UK have been quick to remind politicians and the public of the lessons of Iraq. I think this is a bit of an over the top comparison. NATO did not invade Libya, it prevented the massacre of innocent civilians and helped topple an undemocratic and ruthless regime. It did not deploy troops. Crucially, it was invited in. Nevertheless, it should not surpass its mandate of protecting civilians. It also should not try to demilitarise Libya, or impose any of its other ideas about government as it did in Iraq. If it leaves Libya a few days after Gaddafi it wíll have done a good job.

One of the jobs the NTC will have to do in the coming weeks is decide who should be allowed to run in elections, whenever and however they take place. There are two groups who may be causes for concern – ex-Gaddafi supporters and religious fundamentalists. It is unclear what the NTC will decide or how the public views the two groups and integrating them into the new society of Libya will be very difficult. But legally excluding either will only lead to more political strife, especially after Gaddafi’s repressive rule. Safeguards must also be put in place to prevent another breakdown of the constitution and ensure that no one person takes complete command.

It is clear that Libya is at a turning point – and one from which there will be no return. If the next few days and weeks go smoothly it is reasonable to hope that Libya can reach a state of peaceful and functional democracy. Keep your fingers crossed.