Iraq may slip into dictatorship
Much of the Middle East is in the midst of landmark revolutionary movements, which have been mischaracterized in many news media outlets. The subtle use of the word "anti-government" rather than "pro-democracy" in reference to the protestors has led to the widespread notion that anarchy is descending on the Arab world. It is easy to be afraid of this narrative, as it states that chaos would allow for an explosion of reactionary Islamist thought, which would rapidly replace the decaying political order. However, as I have argued in a previous article, this belief is unwarranted in many Arab states. Frustration with autocracy rather than religious fervor has been the inspiration for this political unrest, which, within 18 months, will radically change much of the Middle East.
Despite this overall trend toward secular democracy, there remains a large Arab state, which seems poised for secular dictatorship instead. This is an Arab state that faces large problems from religious terrorism — it killed at least 4,043 of its people in 2010 and 387 last month. This is also an Arab state that faces massive shortages of basic social services such as electricity, putting it in a similar situation as other desperate Arab states such as Yemen. And this happens to be the only state worldwide that, despite massive American assistance, was unable to assemble a coalition parliamentary government until about nine months after national elections. Naturally, we are discussing Iraq.
There has been an unconscious consensus among news commentators and analysts to either avoid discussing Iraq or focus on its positive attributes. However, it would be irresponsible to ignore its gradual descent into strongman rule. The Iraqi government still relies massively on American assistance to enforce security outside of its main areas of control in Baghdad. And where it has direct oversight it is overwhelmed by continued terrorist attacks by factions including al-Qaida. It is true that violence has dropped by a large percentage since the most intense months of the Iraqi civil war, but attacks are still bloody and numerous enough that Iraq can be considered at continuous conflict. I consider it lazy mathematics to pretend that a state is a peaceful, self-sustaining democracy simply because it suffered 4,043 deaths in 2010 rather than 27,850 in 2006.
Iraq's security situation has led to popular concerns about public safety, which precisely lubricate the rise of a dictator. Recent Pew polls have determined that the majority of Iraqis are not satisfied with their state, and many cite national security as their primary concern. These security concerns are precisely why Iraqi political protests have centered on the state's inefficiency and corruption rather than democratic concerns. There are many commentators who will argue that Iraq's protests have not confronted democracy issues because Iraq is a functional democratic state. But this ignores the fact that state corruption and inability to provide social services are democracy issues. They impede on a state's ability to provide for its people, which is inherently the purpose of a democracy.
Additionally, many Iraqis have become disillusioned with their country simply because of its bloody history, which greatly stifles demands for fundamental changes to the Iraqi political process. It is entirely understandable that a state which has suffered through ruthless dictatorship, three major wars, debilitating sanctions and civil conflict in the past three decades would be more concerned with public safety rather than democratic aspirations. This is not to imply that all Iraqis feel this way, but it must be noted that most dictatorships are justified by the majority's safety rather than unanimous consent.
The only factor preventing Iraq's fragile parliament from collapsing into strongman rule is the imposing presence of American troops, which have adopted more intelligent counter-insurgency strategies since the ascent of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and have therefore become integral in preventing existing violence from augmenting to uncontrollable levels. The impending Dec. 31, 2011 withdrawal will be essential in tracking the length of time until Iraq's next democratic collapse, which I predict will occur within 18 months of the American withdrawal in a gradual fashion seen before in Vietnam. Strongman rule will be essential in preventing Islamist aspirations in Iraq, which unlike many other Arab states are quite real and capitalize greatly on national chaos. It is rather poetic that a decade after Sept. 11, a democratic collapse will occur in the only Arab state where American interference was physically applied, rather than other states where it was distant.
Bilal Ahmed is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in Middle Eastern studies. His column, "Gods Go Begging," runs on alternate Mondays.