Does Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq represent “a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming signs of incipient authoritarianism”?
Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone (right), based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.
Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held. RTWT
On the frontline of defending political space and often bearing the brunt of regime crackdowns, Iraq’s embryonic civil society has quickly become a key player in advancing democratization, notes Jamie Biglow of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center:
Human rights organizations have moved from simply educating people about their rights to monitoring rights violations. A few think tanks have emerged. Activists are moving from protesting in the street to advocating policy. Groups are fighting for a legal framework for independent media. They have seen a lot of coordination across the country and across sectarian divides. All these different sectors and institutions have come together with one goal: building a democratic country.
Biglow recently discussed developments in Iraq, the wider region and democracy in general with members of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Middle East and North Africa program team: Rahman Aljebouri, Senior Program Officer; Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, Assistant Program Officer; and Geoffrey King, Assistant Program Officer. The team works on programs supporting civil society organizations working on human rights, accountability, and democratic reform in Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf. The following is an extract of their discussion:
What do you believe is at the heart of democracy?
A democratic society is a place where your opinions count and institutions of governance work; where there is accountability and clear rules of the game; where people are free to speak their mind, and there is a legal framework that helps them speak their mind. You need a healthy political system, a vibrant civil society, a strong labor movement, and a private sector; the combination of all will produce a place where people are respected, heard, and safe. A place where people can live their everyday lives without fear. -Rahman Aljebouri.
Democracy means that people’s opinions and their aspirations are taken into consideration in a respectful and accountable way. It means governance, rule of law, and having institutions and a political process that assure these are upheld. -Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, Assistant Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa
For me, the core concept of democracy is that a people collectively decide their own political destiny. -Geoffrey King, Assistant Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa
How does this translate into practice in Iraq?
In Iraq, the Endowment focuses its small grants to local, non-governmental institutions working on human rights, government accountability, and legislative advocacy. The Endowment has a truly unique approach: rather than design its own programs, the Endowment responds to the self-declared needs, aspirations, and demands of local organizations. They place emphasis on the institutional development of these local actors to consolidate the long-term sustainability of Iraqi civil society. As a result, the Endowment’s MENA program has room for adaptation and can change its strategies as the issues evolve, while encouraging the democratic process. Their model promotes the ideal of a vibrant, locally driven Iraqi civil society.
In short: the Endowment’s dynamic and flexible character allows it to change its strategies with the changing needs of the Iraqi people.
One of the hallmarks of democracy is that there is room for debate and a range of opinions, and I certainly have mine. But in democracy promotion, impartiality and careful balancing are critical. The Endowment works with organizations from lots of different communities and political tendencies, and always avoids “picking a side” with either funding or advocacy.
As Hanane explained it: “The key to our neutrality is that they are coming to us.” That is to say, the Endowment doesn’t cherry pick their candidates based on a preconceived set of ideals. Applicants approach the Endowment as a source of funding, and the Endowment is able to grant or deny funding based solely on the applicants’ potential to promote democracy.
I look at the work we do as means driven rather than ends driven. We are trying to assist these groups in connecting the dots, to facilitate their work on the democratic process. As long as a strong civil society rooted in international norms can be a watchdog for the democratic process itself, they will be improving their societies to whatever end they see fit. To us, perfecting the means is the end game. To what political end? That’s up to them. -Geoffrey King
Democracy in Iraq is starting to take hold, but Rahman and others at the Endowment still do not consider Iraq a democracy. Iraqis still lack an independent media, security, and a culture of democratic institutions.
Civil society organization themselves are increasingly threatened by a lack of funding and political restrictions, and sometimes struggle to remain mission driven. In certain regions, political leaders distrust civil society. Visa problems and language barriers present significant roadblocks to finding funding from the international community. Furthermore, because there is such a high demand for support from the Endowment (300-400 applications a year!) coming from Iraq, sometimes it can be a challenge to strategically identify where to intervene and what to prioritize.
Despite the challenges, Iraqi civil society has made inspiring strides. In recognition of that progress, the Endowment has changed its tactics. In the immediate post-invasion years, Iraqi civil society focused on civic education and humanitarian assistance. Recently, the vanguard groups have shifted to government accountability and legislative advocacy. Rahman, Hanane, and Geoffrey highlighted examples of the strides made by Iraqi civil society over the past few years.
We have been seeing a lot of sectors working together – this is an important part of democracy… In the last 10 years, they have made 20 years of progress! -Rahman Aljebouri.
With modest funding, NED supports nearly 50 mission-driven local Iraqi organizations working to consolidate democracy. Founded in 1983 under the Reagan administration, the Endowment is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the strengthening of democratic institutions across the world. The Endowment is steadfastly bipartisan: it was founded with bipartisan support and was closely followed by the creation of the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), all of which were joined by a labor institute already in existence, known as the Solidarity Center, which ensures political balance. The Endowment receives its funding annually through a congressional appropriation.
Behind the founding and the direction of the Endowment is the idea that freedom is an aspiration shared by all, and a democratic government is the best way to ensure that aspiration. As their Statement of Principles and Objectives (1984) states, “Democracy involves the right of the people to freely determine their own destiny.”