Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Are Iraq and Turkey Models for Democratization?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Are Iraq and Turkey Models for Democratization?

Article excerpt

In the wake of the upheavals that have shaken the Arab world since December 20 1 0, activists, politicians, and analysts have all been searching for new democratic models of governance that could come into force in these lands. The cases of Iraq and Turkey are perhaps the most obvious choices to examine based on the notion that these are the only examples of functioning democracies within Muslim-majority nations of the Middle East.

Hoping to turn post-Saddam Iraq into a model to be emulated by the Arab states, the Bush administration set out to create an Athens-on-the-Tigris complete with free elections and a constitution with separation of powers provisions. Although the Turkish model had a completely different genesis and evolution, it is worth exploring as Ankara has proclaimed itself a model for the post-revolutionary regimes. What lessons can be drawn from the Iraqi and Turkish experiences, and to what extent do they fit other Middle Eastern states?


In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Western powers sought to graft onto the political systems of the newly-born Arab states the values of democracy, constitutionalism, and pluralism. As soon as Britain obtained the mandate for Iraq in 1920, it set out to build a democratic system very much resembling the British model itself. This included the establishment of a constitutional monarchy subordinate to a progressive constitution, the establishment of a parliament with upper and lower houses, and the launching of a nationwide system of elections. However, this edifice crumbled on the first day of Abd al-Karim Qassem's July 1 958 putsch, and it would take nearly fifty years, and a large scale foreign invasion of Iraq, before an attempt at its reconstitution would be made. What went so horribly wrong? And are the new circumstances more conducive to the success of the nascent Iraqi democracy?

The evident answer to the first question is that this construction was imposed artificially on a society that had different cultural, political, and social values and did not evolve from within the society itself. Even if Iraqis wished to have a Western-type constitution, they had no say in its promulgation. In the words of the British president of the Iraqi Court of First Instance, the constitution was a "gift from the West."1 Similarly, although there was a parliament in place, it did not function in a healthy or normal fashion: During its entire existence, the legislature never cast a single no-confidence vote against the cabinet, rubber-stamping its decisions while simultaneously suffering sporadic dissolutions.2 While elections were held, they were rigged time and time again. In short there was a façade of democratic institutions but the ideas and practices never set down roots in society. With Qassem's takeover and the murder of the entire royal family, the democratic project expired.

The idea of reviving the democratic project in Iraq began to gather momentum in 1998, once again spurred not by Iraqis themselves but by an outside superpower, the United States. Thus, according to the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, "it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government in place ofthat regime."3

In time, the moving spirit behind the project of Iraqi democratization came to be President George W Bush who was, in a fashion, walking in the footsteps of his British predecessors. His declared goal was to help the downtrodden people of Iraq get rid of their oppressor and bring progress and democracy to the state. But in Bush's case another more ambitious target was stated as well, namely turning the post-Saddam Iraqi democracy into a model for other Arab countries to follow. Thus, on the eve of the invasion he declared: "A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East . . . instead of threatening its neighbors and harboring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both. …

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