Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The Iraqi "System" 

Read Chris Allbritton's last couple of pieces. Note with concern, sympathy and amusement his inability to "explain" or "understand" Iraq. Perhaps you better just sit there and record what is going on Chris, storing it all up for later.

This piece below is right at the bottom of the scroll, so you might miss it.

The New Babylon 

TO DEFINE the political system of Iraq would have baffled Aristotle. In name, it is a constitutional democratic monarchy: "sovereignty belongs to the people," says the Organic Law of the State, " and it is a trust confided by them to King Feisal, son of Hussein, and to his heirs after him." The word which begs the question in this social contract is "people"; for the political system in fact is a rich cake, containing ingredients of many different forms of government and systems of rule; and these varied ingredients reflect the varied elements of the "people." The least important group may be disposed of first: the nomads, or Bedouin, who number rather more than ten per cent of the population. Plans are afoot to provide mobile schools in vans and so on, but the nomadic life is the best suited to the empty spaces of the desert. Such people want to be left alone; there seems little advantage in teaching them the curriculum of a primary school. Their interest in Iraqi politics is nil. The second group is the country people, who depend on agriculture and are tribally attached. The third is the population of the cities. It is a commonplace that such groups exist in every nation: with more or less tension between them. In Iraq the gulf is far wider than any conceivable in Europe. Thus, a town like Baghdad is in every way comparable to a European city: with better amenities, perhaps, than many. The people of Baghdad are as alive to, political issues as the people of Aberdeen, or Salonika. The country people, however, cannot be compared, either in standard of living or standard of education with the country people in any European land. (The only exception: the Kurds, who enjoy a more individualistic way of life than the fellahin, and are less dominated by their sheikhs; they resemble Balkan peasants.)

These three groups are reflected in aspects of the Iraqi system. The Bedouin, who gave so much to Islam (though the Bedouin ideals were spiritualised by the genius of Muhammad) have little influence on modern Iraq. But the fellahin, under their sheikhs, are a majority of the population. They as naturally elect their sheikhs to Parliament as Scottish clans would have elected their chiefs in the seventeenth century. These sheikhs are a constant barrier to progress, particularly on questions of taxation. So that while government servants have income tax deducted at source, the richest people in the country pay no tax at all. Many of them are literally unable to read or write. The third group, the townspeople, are thus torn between fury at the preponderant influence of the landlords, and the democratic assumption that they do not exist. The only solution would be to suspend democracy in theory, as well as fact, and restrict the vote to those with an acceptable standard of education. This would place power solidly in the hands of the educated city dwellers. They might with some justice claim that this suspension of democracy would benefit those deprived of the vote: that they, the town-dwellers, would thus be able to express the "real will" of the people, and reform the system of land tenure.

With this stratification of the country (and we have passed over further complications, the schism between Sunni and Shia Moslems, the position of such minorities as Christians, Jews and Yezidis) the day-to-day working of the Iraqi state exhibits: characteristics of democracy (in the frequent gerrymandered elections), of plutocracy (in the power of money to over-ride the law), of dictatorship (in the whimsical closing of parties when they become too troublesome), of anarchy (when the parties get going again after a brief suppression), of monarchy sometimes constitutional and sometimes factitive. In the thirties a number of would-be Ataturks flashed and fizzled out. Since the war, a non-military oligarchy has ruled the country: a succession of rich friends, known vulgarly as the pack of cards. A change of government comes about for no apparent reason; and is only a shuffling of the well-worn pack. The members of the pack comprise an elite, with seats in the Senate, rotten boroughs to elect them to the lower house, and American commercial agencies to pay their bills. It is an ill-assorted pack, with no kings, few queens, but many knaves.

Typical of the knaves is a politician whose grandfather was a peasant in the south under Ottoman rule. His behaviour gives ammunition to the communists and makes the honest man despair. How, people ask, did he become so rich? Even as a Prime Minister his salary was less than £2,000 a year, in a country where the cost of living is not low. Yet he has a palace in the city, and huge lands in the country. In the summer when the river is low he has the water diverted on to his own land, while that of the poor farmers is left dry. He is accused by a newspaper under the name of “ahadahum" (one of them) of having received seventy thousand pounds from a foreign firm for awarding them a certain contract. He is accused of having also built up his fortune by forcing rich sheikhs to play poker with him, and lose, when he was in power. Such stories may not be true; an exact attention to truth is not a characteristic of Iraqi journalists. But no smoke without fire apart, no Cadillac without money is a truism.

In the pack of cards there is one ace, perhaps of Spades, Senator Nuri Said. He is not popular, and among the extremists he is spoken of with loathing. But he is respected. And with so volatile and undocile a people as the Iraqis, respect is perhaps the best a ruler can hope for. Strong, uncorrupt, quite untroubled by popular opposition, he is now an old man. (He was one of King Feisal the First's supporters in the First World War, when he deserted from the Turkish Army to join the Arab Revolt.) He has always worked with the British, from the time of the Mandate; though in the summer of 1954 he was called a false friend to Britain in an English Sunday newspaper, being accused of wanting England to evacuate its two bases in Iraq. For his friendship with Britain he is, of course, attacked: particularly by those politicians whose only quarrel with the British is that the British have not tried to use them. He is a refreshing figure, because of his frankness, and for Iraq, one who will surely be honoured after his death. He negotiated the new oil agreement: he was responsible for the firm stand on the Jewish question-insisting that all Iraqi Jews must decide for or against Israel; and those for, must leave.

Nuri Said is sometimes referred to as a " dictator" by his enemies; he is rather the strong man who comes in and goes out of power like the little man with an umbrella in old-fashioned weather-houses. A great ruler, a great practical psychologist, he lacks the creative imagination of a great statesman. He can keep order, but had shown no signs of having any particular goal to which the order was to be kept. Until recently. The schemes of the Development Board require a period of order before their benefits can be appreciated by the people. He seems the man most likely to ensure that order, and to allow its economic betterment to carry Iraq a stage further. Meanwhile, he cannot expect to be popular with the young and the enthusiastic, who because they would like Iraq to be an "enlightened" democracy like Switzerland or Denmark assume that it already is so-except for the wicked oligarchy now in power. Such people forget that the oligarchy, with its faults, only reflects the present state of Iraqi society, with its limitations. No magic wand, even waved by a genius or a man of impeccable honesty, can undo the results of centuries of bad administration in a fortnight. The road up is always sterner than the road down, and less exciting. Only the destination is better.

Meanwhile, as for the last few years, riots break out occasionally, the pot boils over, martial law is imposed.

" The whole predicament became more serious when the mob turned its attention to the rescue of the few men who had been apprehended, or to the punishment of those constables, justices and military officers who had sought to check the outrages; while it was difficult to secure evidence that the men who had been arrested had not been innocent bystanders. Very soon outrages were so numerous that the government could not find the troops to dispatch to places which were known in advance to be threatened. The point was to be reached at which the city authorities would actually release the prisoners in their charge, in order to save the prisons from being set on fire. The situation was rendered more difficult by the long-standing anti-government spirit in those sections of the public that made most noise. At this time comparatively small risings of the mob, processions that ran amok and almost incidental riots could overthrow a government."

The above passage, from H. Butterfield's account of the Gordon Riots in eighteenth-century London, could fairly describe the average commotion in Baghdad: nearly always taking place when Nuri Said is out of office, nearly always leading to his return to power. In many ways Iraq is like eighteenth-century England: the same vitality, the same spontaneity, the same abuses, the same stirring of the working classes, the same realisation by the intelligent that society is in transition from an old to a new form of life. Modern techniques accelerate the pace of development, and Iraq can also learn from observation of what happened in other countries that moved into the industrial age. Some of the mistakes can be avoided, some, of the intervening stages can be passed over. But however prompted by technique or example, the passage from feudalism and despotism to responsible self-government is a process that has to be lived through, not something that can be achieved by a pen's sweep, or a sword's. Time, as well as strife, is the mother of all things.

from "The New Babylon" by Desmond Stewart & John Haycock Collins 1956
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memories of a childhood in Iraq in the 1950s * thoughts on events in the Middle East

Location: United Kingdom

expatriot in Middle East as child, retired teacher.

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