Monday, December 12, 2005

Looking at the election in Iraq

Considering how ignorant most Americans are regarding our own electoral process, my guess is that the vast majority of us may as well be blind, deaf and illiterate when it comes to making sense of elections in another country. And if that country happens to be Iraq, nearly everyone is simply waiting around until it's over, waiting for whatever authority figure tells them how to interpret the results.

As at home, no matter what the outcome spin doctors will be at work during and after the process morphing the outcome, no matter what it happens to be, into whatever shape various agendas require. Does that sound about right?

In an effort to be an independent observer I try to do homework beyond the soundbites and platitudes being peddled by those with an axe to grind. After reading what Abu Khaleel has written during the last several months I give him high marks on credibility. He is a source of history, social customs and language able to share what he knows, typically without bias. When he has a bias he makes no secret about it, stating his point of view in a way that doesn't seek to manipulate facts or take positions simply to win points. Unlike most commentators he does not try to hide his opinions by being deliberately vague.

His take on the current election is detailed, probably more than most US readers will care to follow. His analysis leads to the conclusion that the election has components bending results toward what he candidly refers to as a "pro-occupation stance." I would say that the use of that term is no less tainted than the casual use of the term islamofascist in the vernacular of those whose slant is in another direction. Buzzwords such as these have the advantage of revealing whatever prejudice may lie behind the words.

Listing the various competitors he names Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Muqtada al Sadr (Yep, same one you've been reading about, now allied with the Shiite no longer just Shiite, but religious Shiite. He had actually joined the same slate in the previous elections after the intervention of Sistani following the Najaf confrontation and secured and was given 21 seats in the present assembly and a couple of ministries. However, that was done very quietly since that change of stance was too sudden for most of his followers. This time it is out in the open.), Mr. Chalabi, (the neocons’ man in Iraq and who played an important role in forming that religious fundamentalist Shiite bloc, has now left them to run on his own.), the Islamic Party coalition and Saleh Mutlag (a man who made a name for himself by fiercely opposing the Constitution draft…to the extent that ‘the other side’ vetoed his participation of the ‘reconciliatory’ conference in Cairo held under the auspices of the Arab League.).

And finally...

...the man of the hour so far seems to be Allawi. He has managed to reshape his alliances by inviting minor ‘secular’ players who did not do well in the previous elections, but he is making it perfectly clear who is running the show. TV campaigning is heavily “personalized” portraying him as the needed strong, charismatic leader. His slate is simply known as the Allawi slate.

His list certainly makes interesting reading. The names cover the whole spectrum from Communists to staunch capitalists, but they have two characteristics in common: secularism and a pro-occupation stance.

Allawi, a Shiite himself, has also cast his lot strongly against the “Shiite” parties. He went as far as saying that these people were doing worse things than Saddam. [They made their own opinion of him perfectly clear on his canvassing visit to Najaf recently. Protestors stoned him and threw tomatoes at him. He claimed it was an assassination attempt.]

The two Kurdish parties naturally look favorably at him. He is already a signatory to the issues that they deem most important: Secularism, the Constitution and the particular Federal system of government that they want. In addition, they know that he is the American favorite. They can do business with him.

But the important thing is that many ordinary people, Sunni and Shiite, are looking favorably at him. He is posing as the “secular” politician. I am constantly surprised by the number of people, ordinary Iraqis from all walks of life, in Baghdad, the mixed areas and the western provinces who are supporting him - far more than during the last elections. They see him as the only one capable of standing up to the “Shiite” religious, pro- Islamic Iran fundamentalists, who has a chance of having a say in forming the next Parliament and the next government. Many people have already forgotten, or chosen to forget, that it was he who sanctioned the bombing of Fallujah II and Najaf; that his interim government saw the introduction of corruption to an unprecedented level; and that he is self-confessed CIA man. We have a saying that reflects this mood and that we hear repeatedly these days. It says something like: “He who sees death accepts fever”.

With something like $40 million in US backing, he managed to secure around 40 seats last time. I have no idea of the financial backing he is receiving now (he seems to have no shortage of funds)… however, he is expected to have much better fortunes this time around.

That was the arena, and these are the players.

But that's not the end of the story. Several voids still exist in the political process that likely will never be mentioned in first reports. No matter what the "official" results are, these non-participating forces silently represent something missing in what is about to be advertised as the political end-game.

Conspicuously absent from the arena (again) is one Jwad al Khalisi, a Shiite scholar of some standing, but who is strong in his opposition to sectarianism and the occupation. Although quite active, he is given very little exposure in the media! The other major figure absent is Ayatollah Ahmed al Baghdadi, a senior Shiite cleric who is strongly critical of the occupation. On the Sunni side, the influential Association of Muslim Clerics is also absent. All are against the elections as a matter of principle, maintaining that no elections can be free under occupation.

There is more at the site for anyone who wants to read further.
The Council on Foreign Relations outlines very much the same information, but what follows here is a lot more interesting to me.

As if that were not enough, Abu Khaleel has gone to some length to describe how tribal issues dovetail with politics and religion in Iraq. If you thought that religion and politics were segmented and divisive, you haven't seen anything yet!

Enter tribes...

In one of his other blogs, A Glimpse of Iraq, Abu Khaleel undertakes to help the Western reader better grasp the importance of tribal connections in Iraq, and by extension, the Arab world as it reaches across time and geography in a complex social web that has no counterpart in Western life.

This is not only going to seem odd, in light of the foregoing comments about the election. It is going to strike most readers as something between contradictory and crazy.

It stared with one tribe. About 20 elders of that tribe met one morning to address these issues. They agreed on a pact defining their tribal responsibility. The pact was agreed and signed in the same morning.

They then made copies and distributed them to neighboring tribes so that others knew where that tribe stood and what they saw as the limits of their responsibility(for their own tribesmen or kin) and in relation to other tribes.

Tribal Manifesto

During these difficult times that our beloved Iraq is going through, times characterized by the weakness of the authority of the state and the attack of numerous forces of evil and darkness, Iraqi tribes have an important positive role to play in reducing damage to our society.

The Iraqi tribes have indeed played important parts during the numerous periods of devastation and occupations that Iraq went through between periods of civilization. Those tribes had an important effect on preserving our country’s culture and noble values, despite the frequent charge that tribalism is a contributing factor to backwardness.

This positive role would be more effective if the criteria and the limits of tribal contributions were clear and well-defined.For these reasons, the following guidelines have been approved and agreed by the signatory tribes:

Basic Criteria: All positions will be based on our traditional values and religious beliefs that are common to all of us.

Religion: Tribes cannot address the question of religious conflicts as the issue of religion much wider than tribal bonds and jurisdiction.

Sectarianism: Most of the tribes in Iraq have members who belong to one of the two major sects in Iraq (Sunni and Shiite). Consequently, tribes cannot be associated with any sect. That would lead to conflicts within the tribe itself… which would be like strife within a single household.

Politics: Political belief is a personal matter. It would be unthinkable for a whole tribe to be Baathist, Communist, Socialist or Capitalist. It is therefore outside the bounds of tribal relations what a person’s political beliefs are as long as actions do not violate criminal or social codes.

Criminal acts: A tribe is responsible for any criminal act or misconduct by any of its members as is the norm in tribal relations. Resolution of acts such as robbery, assault, murder, etc. and their consequences should follow normal procedures tribes have always used. The only way a tribe can absolve itself of any responsibility of the wrongdoings by any of its members is for that tribe to disown that member. Members of that tribe would then be not accountable for that person’s deeds. That means that this tribe will no longer have any right to defend or to avenge that person.

Resistance: The Iraqi nation is larger and more important than any single tribe. National aspirations are wider concerns than tribal ones. People who see themselves as fighters defending their country against invasion or subjugation do not usually consult with their immediate tribes. Iraq becomes their larger tribe. Their immediate tribes cannot therefore be responsible for their actions.

Better read that over, slowly, and let the full meaning sink in.
Better yet, go to the site and read the whole commentary.
It shatters all the ideas we may have had about the way society is ordered in the Arab world.
I think that to the extent that we can learn to understand what is written here, we can begin to grasp the complexities of what is going on in the Levantine part of the Middle East.

According to Abu Khaleel, this "manifesto" or credo is hot off the press. If it means what I think it does, it can make or break the results of any election, in Iraq or elsewhere, depending on how well it is internalized by tribal leaders and passed on to their respective constituencies with their approval. I very much doubt that anything happens without the blessings of tribal leaders...religious or political figures notwithstanding. Just a guess on my part.

I don't want to add anything else at this point, other than to point out that we have in our own traditions seemingly redundant, if not contradictory features. Consider civil versus criminal law, police departments versus sheriff's departments, judges versus justices of the peace, state versus national laws, and so on. We think nothing of trans-denominational religions, inter-faith marriages, and all kinds of human configurations that are now called "family."

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