Two recent news stories caught my attention over the past few days in the Arab press that I think deserve more attention.  The first, the biggest news story in Iraq to emerge to my mind over the past several months, was a series of spontaneous demonstrations in two of Iraq's major southern cities, Basra and Nasiriya, concerning a lack of electricity that led to the resignation of the electricity minister, Kareem Waheed.  The second, less important but it still stuck in my mind, was that a much heralded meeting of Minsters of Communications in the Arab world failed to reach agreement on the creation of an Arab-wide commission on communications to monitor violations and the like I suppose, and the matter was placed on the agenda of the next Arab League summit. 

These are related to my mind.  They both speak to a gaping problem in the Arab world, and one not much discussed in Western press, but to my mind central to the legitimacy of some of these regimes, from the ones for which I have no respect, Egypt and Syria, to those I think that are trying to make a real effort at democratic rule fitfully as it might be at times, chief among them Iraq and Lebanon.  The issue really relates to a nearly ubiquitous problem of awful governance.

Look, civil war is sexy, it's newsmaking, it sounds like the kind of thing a journalist should be covering, embedded somewhere in a combat helmet looking as idiotic as I, a law professor, would in a combat zone, though I'm at least smart enough to know my limitations so as not to get in the way of soldiers doing what they do.  But the point is, it garners attention.  People stewing in their homes without electricity getting really pissed off (go ahead, shut off all your lights, your computers, your televisions, your ac in summer heat in texas for 20 hours a day, and tell me how many days passed before you get really really mad) doesn't seem like news.  So nobody really thinks about it, until of course thousands appear in the streets, and then there is a story.

The point is, however, nobody demonstrated over Allawi's right to govern, or Maliki's, or anyone else's. The continuing fear is civil war in Western press and commentary, but nobody seems particularly excited about the political impasse, which is an odd way to prelude a civil war.  If you can't get people onto the streets just to say your candidate should govern, it seems hard to believe they'll go fighting for you.  For this and many other more important reasons, it seems clear to me that they don't care because the moment of civil war has passed in Iraq.  My upcoming book will be discussing this, but the notion that the constitutional ratification is going to lead to the country's dissolution is about as demonstrably wrong as can be by now.  The government is more in control and a detente has been reached among the major factions respecting what the government will look like that everyone seems okay with.  If there is going to be war, remote but possible I suppose, it'll be Arab/Kurd, not Sunni/Shi'i, meaning it has notjhing to do with constitutional formulations and everything to do with land grabs.  (Not constitutional because most of the Arabs, meaning the Shi'a, and the Kurds, both approved the constitution by overwhelming majorities). 

What they care about is not sitting in the damn heat which is higher than 120 F in the summer without any electricity. They care about clean water.  They care about being able to get a license to marry without sitting in some courthouse for six hours, and that's if they are willing to pay at least $250 in bribes.  Otherwise it's measured in days.  The problem in government legitimacy in Iraq is not about Allawi, Mutlaq or Maliki, it's not about Sunnis and Shi'is, it's about truly awful governance.  The government is absolutely terrible at just about everything it does.  Maliki got a pass when he managed to improve security dramatically, but everything else remains horrible, and his time to improve the lives of Iraqis is about up. 

To be clear, I'm not talking about legislative effectiveness.  Not that Iraq is great, but it's hard to measure which parliament in the world is the least efficient, heaven knows nobody thinks their parliament works.  Iraq's does pass laws, and we could argue about whether they do it as well as others.  But in terms of simple ability of the government to perform routine functions--mail, marriage, driver's licenses, whatever-- Iraq is extremely, undeniably poor.

The same largely does go for the Arab world, which is why I mentioned the communications ministers.  I think in the US we tend to dismiss such commissions as stalling for time, some sort of entity that will study things and claim to do things and actually be more or less useless, like the Human Rights Commission of the UN.  The fact that the Arab governments can't even manage to set THAT up is just symptomatic of the problem.

It's an important side, and a largely untold story. But to my mind, if the government topples one day (not soon, but could) and if dictatorship returns, it won't be because of some Sunni/Shi'a thing, and it won't be bcause of a secular/religious thing, and it won't even be because of an Arab/Kurdish thing.  It will be because average Iraqis finally decided they'd rather risk another Saddam than live the miserable lives they suffer now.



What did you think of this article?

  • No trackbacks exist for this post.
  • No comments exist for this post.
Leave a comment

Submitted comments are subject to moderation before being displayed.

 Name (required)

 Email (will not be published) (required)


Your comment is 0 characters limited to 3000 characters.