Where Does Iraq Stand in the Midst of the Arab Awakening?

Where Does Iraq Stand in the Midst of the Arab Awakening?

Like many others, I was glued to the television screen for the first months of 2011. It was clear that Mohamed Bouazizi – the young Tunisian man who burned himself to death in December 2010 in protest of his treatment by police – both inspired a nation as well as reinvigorated a belief in global citizenship. Not only was the region awakened to move toward prodemocracy rebellions, but Arab nationals across the diaspora and global human rights activists were also motivated to seize the opportunity for change in the region.

For many activists throughout the Arab and Muslim world, the movement toward liberation and democracy had been tainted by the Iraq and Afghanistan experience. Instead of becoming a beacon of hope for democracy in the region, the experience became more of a looming threat of change leading to chaos. Arab dictatorship’s propaganda emphasized that democracy was a synonym for colonialism and imperialism. However, as the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships fell apart, the role of the individual citizen took central stage. The movement was able to reclaim the ideals of freedom and democracy with a local impetus.

At the first opportunity that presented itself, I traveled to Egypt, making sure to get outside of the city and visit activists in the countryside to gauge the sustainability of the momentum created during the movement in Tahrir Square. From Egypt, I traveled to Benghazi, Libya, where the awakening has manifested toward a violent conflict as the current regime holds on to power. Nonetheless, like their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, the Libyans emphasized that change was inevitable. The wall of fear had been shattered.

The series of events that led to the Arab awakening was sparked by the Tunisians, but Tunisia was not the first dictatorship to fall. The Iraq experience was the introduction to the Arab world of the fall of a dictatorship, a transitional government and the establishment of democracy.

The starting point in Iraq was dramatically different from the wave of events leading to the toppling of two regimes in North Africa. Activists in the Middle East quickly point out that the movements are grassroots-led and most importantly, internally sparked. Iraq was not. Over the past six months, the reference to Iraq has been contradictory. The message from the West has been that the Iraq experience led the way for democracy to the region. The message on the ground is that the Iraq experience is a cautionary tale of how not to do democracy. In both cases, the most common question I faced during my travels was: What are the lessons learned from Iraq?


Iraq stands at a crucial crossroads in 2011. The fact that national elections were held in March 2010 demonstrates that Iraq is indeed on the road toward democracy. Not only were those elections an important milestone, the outcome reflected the Iraqi population’s political maturity as it moved away from identity politics toward voting on the parties’ political platforms. At the same time, the elections highlighted the challenges facing the country. The eightmonth delay in government formation reflected the persistent divisions within the country. More than a year after the elections, the government formation remains incomplete with no appointment of security ministries. The new government continues to struggle to demonstrate legitimacy, provide security, address major political disputes, deliver basic services and build national unity.

In the shadow of the Arab awakening, the Iraqi government is having to demonstrate its ability to govern effectively. Although the U.S. role in Iraq is diminishing, the work for Iraq in reconstruction and nation-building is in many ways just beginning. The past seven years have been dedicated to stabilizing the country and creating legitimacy for the Iraqi government. In that time, an emerging civil society has demonstrated a desire to serve Iraq during the nation-building process. Its role during the next few years is more crucial than ever. In many ways, the silver lining within Iraq has been the emergence of a strong civil society. It was members of Iraqi civil society that took the government to constitutional court over the delay in government formation. At the same time, a major win for civil society was the passing of a strong NGO law that could lead the entire region in creating a balance between civil society and government institutions.

A lot has been invested in Iraq, and a military withdrawal without proper support for Iraqi institutions could threaten the country. The last few years have confirmed that Iraqi security forces have been able to maintain stability, yet there remains a lot of fear that the total drawdown will lead to intervention from neighboring countries. The international community needs to remain invested in a stable Iraq now more than ever. The outcome is yet to be determined, and with the Middle East facing so many changes, there is a strong possibility that it will push Iraq to slide backward.


Identifying the lessons learned is crucial to allowing countries currently going through transition the opportunity to leapfrog ahead.

First, in the sector of security and services, it is imperative that the opposition’s international coalitions think carefully about making preparations for law and order (policing and protection of public and private institutions to avoid looting, damaging infrastructure, etc.). One of the greatest challenges in Iraq was to maintain services (water, electricity, etc) at least at their pre-conflict level. If promised projects are not delivered rapidly to the suffering population, this undermines the credibility not only of the occupying authority but also that of the emerging leadership, which hinges on the ability to deliver.

Second, when looking at issues of governance, building a clear media campaign to engage the public in understanding the process is important. Too often democracy is translated as elections, and the common mistake is that countries may be tempted to rush into early elections. This may backfire because it provides an added advantage to institutions under the previous regime. It is important to allow time for a more mature political process to develop (security to stabilize, candidates to organize, civil society to develop). Along the same lines, it is important that links and robust relationships are created between civil society and all government processes. From the very beginning, an indicator of a strong governance structure is how involved women are, not only as a voting bloc, but also as decision makers in the nation-building process. Being able to bring women and their views to the table in parliament, negotiations, committees, constitution-producing processes, etc., will help set a new tone within the country. It is important to emphasize that establishing democracy requires not only setting up proper institutions, but also education and capacity building.

Finally, it is important that all technical assistance takes into account realities on the ground and long-term solutions (governance, economic, institutional, infrastructure, etc.). It is crucial that international consultants avoid overambitious objectives based on unquestioned assumptions, and therefore difficult to achieve (e.g. fast economic liberalization). While providing support, it is crucial that donors move away from the brick-and-mortar mentality, and are willing to invest in governance, not only in infrastructure projects. One of the greatest challenges facing the international community is the lack of effective mechanisms for coordination among agencies involved in reconstruction, and a clear definition of their roles is critical.

These three are only a brief glimpse into the plethora of lessons that can be extracted to benefit countries going through transitions today. Other essential elements include the process of reforming institutions; the need to engage former regime elements to avoid isolation; a detailed constitutional process that is built on a national dialogue so the people can share views, concerns, grievances and start to heal and create a semblance of a national identity; not to mention, the importance of developing a transitional justice plan that will assist in the healing process. Averting civil strife will require a political transition that strikes a careful balance between justice and reconciliation, as well as ” justice” vs. “peace and stability.” It may be that a certain amount of recognition (testimonials) and justice (trials) are necessary, but the goal and motivation for these processes should be to move the country forward and not seek revenge against those who are responsible for the past.

The main absolute is that exploring lessons learned and finding new ways of operating are essential. Within a brief six months, the winds of change are threatening to transform into stormy waters as the reality of the challenges of transition and nation-building sets in. I can remain cautiously optimistic as I travel through the region by knowing that the linkages between the civil society groups is an added advantage not available to those of us who worked in Iraq eight years ago.

Manal Omar is the Director of Iraq, Iran and North Africa Programs for the United States Institute of Peace. Prior to this she worked as the Regional Program Manager for the Middle East at Oxfam Great Britain and Regional Coordinator for Iraq at Women for Women International. She is the author of Barefoot in Baghdad. She is also a contributing editor for The Islamic Monthly.

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