From Saddam’s fall to Tahrir Square: in search of the Arab Spring

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For more than 200 years of Arab history, there have been calls for democratic reform. However, despite the recent revolutions and the liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s, these demands have still not been entirely satisfied. This is especially apparent in Iraq, where hopes of freedom started in 2003 with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and continued with the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Despite unanimous agreement about the necessity of democratic reform, the question is how it can be effected and from where. In the midst of concerns about the repercussions of foreign intervention, Saddam’s regime was toppled by external powers, thus changing Iraq and the entire region over the past decade.

The first elections in Iraq’s republican history were held in 2005, and boycotted by the majority of Sunnis. Shiites won, and Kurds - already undergoing their own ‘spring’ in several regions - achieved autonomy, while sharing power in the central government through the symbolic role of the president. Political parties and civil society organizations came back, and minorities and marginalized groups started gaining their freedom.

At the time, the focus was on getting rid of the totalitarian regime that ruled Iraq, and ushering in a new era of democratization in the Arab world - or what the late U.S. political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “fourth wave” of democratic reform, which was expected to create a new, more developed Middle East.

But this was not the case, for Iraq was swept with sectarian violence, as academic Vali Nasr explained in his book “Shia Revival” (2006). The United States strongly supported reform in the Middle East through democratic transition, and linked this plan to the establishment of economic and commercial partnerships with countries in the region.

Details of this plan were mentioned in May 2003 by former U.S. President George W. Bush, and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the so-called Greater Middle East initiative. Back then, Bush stressed that the absence of freedom would make the Middle East a hotbed for violence, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction - all seen as future threats to the United States and its allies. That is why, he said, accepting the current situation would be extremely unwise.

The fall of Saddam made other Arab leaders fear for their positions. That is why the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi stopped his nuclear projects, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad promised democratic reforms, and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made constitutional amendments that allowed the election of the president.

The liberation of Iraq in 2003, therefore, seemed to be ushering the long-awaited democratic ‘spring’ that later materialized in the revolutions of 2011. The fall of Saddam encouraged the emergence of several reform initiatives, such as the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as Kefaya, and similar movements in other countries. Domestic and international pressure on incumbent regimes also paved the way for revolutions to erupt in the region.

Although it is still too early to predict the fate of the Arab revolutions, the situation in Iraq remains the most complicated, owing to sectarian violence and the opportunism of several politicians who are currently in power, among them Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The Iraqi model failed because the U.S. administration failed in managing it. Military victors ruled singlehandedly, without making use of plans set by American politicians and strategists. This led to the dissolution of state institutions that operated during Saddam’s rule, such as the police and the army.

Nobody paid attention to growing Iranian influence inside Iraq, which is ongoing, and there were no attempts to stop sectarian clashes that started with the establishment of the group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which joined al-Qaeda in 2005.

Regional powers managed to hinder democratic transition in Iraq through taking advantage of sectarian and partisan divisions, and supporting jihadist groups that found safe haven in neighboring Iran and Syria.

Iran emerged as the biggest winner in the war on Iraq, for it got rid of a major regional rival, provided an opportunity to expand its influence in Shiite areas of Iraq, and established strong ties with Maliki’s government in Baghdad, as well as Kurds in the north. Iran is, however, facing challenges to its ambitions in Iraq, among them international sanctions and the possible fall of one of its most strategic allies, the Syrian regime.

The expansion of Iranian influence was helped by the fact that several nascent parties and political powers in Iraq were established on sectarian bases, and took advantage of sectarian tension to make political gains. This was clear in the Daawa Party, led by Maliki since 2006, even though it tried to give a different impression by including Sunni members.

The same applies to the Sadrist movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, as well as their Sunni counterparts such as the Iraqi Islamic Party. Following the fall of Saddam, those parties tried to create a popular base by offering social services that combine politics and civil society. Several emerging factions, some of which were armed, established their headquarters in streets, schools and civilian spaces.

The American presence was no longer welcome, especially with U.S. troops failing to protect Iraq from slipping into sectarian violence. This anti-American sentiment was shared in the rhetoric of almost all political and religious factions, including armed groups. A series of assassinations targeted military commanders and scholars from different sects, the latest of which was on March 29, when three leaders from the Iraqi National Movement, also known as the al-Iraqiya List, were killed in the Wasit governorate.

In Anbar province, al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups became active under the leadership of Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006. The group succeeded in establishing an Islamic emirate in 2007, but was defeated in 2009 through American efforts to establish the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq (al-Sahwa).

Those militant groups, however, returned with Maliki neglecting the council and excluding opposition. This, together with the Arab revolutions, led to a series of protests against the government, the most prominent of which was the Anbar Uprising, which celebrated its 100th day on April 1, 2013 under the slogan “100 days of dignity.”

Despite repeated accusations of corruption and failure, Maliki managed to secure a second term in office. The al-Iraqiya List, led by Iyad Allawi, won 90 seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections, compared to the 89 seats won by Maliki’s State of Law coalition. However, by allying with the Sadrist movement and following Iranian lobbying, Maliki formed a government on Nov. 25, 2010, and promised to establish a supreme council for policies to be headed by Allawi, which has never materialized.

As revolutions erupted across the Arab world, Maliki started a series of power-grabs that mainly revolved around hunting down opposition. This was clear with former Vice President Tarek al-Hashimi, who was accused of 300 crimes of murder and bombing, and who fled to Kurdistan, then outside Iraq, and was sentenced to death in absentia on Sept. 9, 2012.

The same applied to Finance Minister Rafea al-Eissawi, who was pursued by Maliki following his visits to Jordan and his statements about the imminent fall of the Syrian regime, which is allied to Maliki.

Allegations of corruption started to be made against the Maliki government, such as the case of a Russian arms deal which eventually led to the resignation of government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. Maliki is also constantly accused of infringing upon the independence of the judiciary, and violating articles of the constitution. This has stirred the indignation of Sunnis and several political factions, and has driven several governorates to seek autonomy.

Protests consequently erupted in Falluja and Ramadi in the Anbar governorate in the west, Tikrit in the Saladin governorate in the center, Mosul in the Nineveh governorate in the north, and Kurdistan. Several political factions joined the protests and strikes, and sit-ins swept the country in what resembled another of the 2011 Arab revolutions. The question is whether Iraq is witnessing another liberation, especially with calls for toppling Maliki and his regime gaining ground across the country.

Maliki started losing allies. Members of the Sadrist movement protested against Maliki following his statements against their leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who criticized the Russian arms deal and government policies in Kurdistan, expressed sympathy with Hashimi and Eissawi, and condemned Maliki’s monopoly of power. Clashes erupted between the Sadrists, who occupy vital ministerial positions in the government, and Maliki’s allies in parliament.

This represents the most critical challenge for Maliki and his State of Law coalition, especially in the forthcoming municipal elections, previously scheduled for April 20 and now postponed for six months. This is possibly due to the government’s apprehensions over the escalation of the crisis, and the possible success of the opposition through releasing political detainees, respecting the constitution, power-sharing, ending exclusionist policies, and the independence of state institutions, all likely to trigger widespread demands to oust Maliki.

However, following the fall of Saddam, Iraq’s institutions have been tarnished with the totalitarianism and sectarianism known during the former regime. As in several post-Arab Spring countries, the separation of judiciary, executive, and legislative powers have been hindered. Like the post-Mubarak regime in Egypt, Maliki is violating the independence of those powers and clamping down on opposition.

Even though several factions oppose Maliki, most of them still have representatives in the parliament and ministers in the government. Kurds harbor legitimate fears about Maliki’s commitment to power-sharing, yet they are not trying to usurp power from him, but are instead focusing on stopping him from using military force against their semi-autonomous government.

Renewed violence in Iraq reflects a vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and Maliki’s inability to fill it, especially after abandoning the Sahwa, whose members are now a constant target for al-Qaeda and other militant groups. In addition, there are sporadic violent incidents that blight Iraqi society in the absence of security, a clear demonstration of the failure of the state.

Another challenge facing Maliki is the possible fall of the Syrian regime, through what is widely seen as a Sunni uprising against the Shiite minority, regardless of the inaccuracy of this assumption.

Therefore, the establishment of a civil state that abides by the principles of citizenship remain a demand that has not been met in post-Saddam Iraq, where the regime was toppled by an external power, as well as in post-Arab Spring Egypt and Tunisia, where domestic revolutions ousted tyrannical regimes. Arabs are still searching for their ‘spring,’ a democratic one in which power is not monopolized and opposition is not eliminated.

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