Thursday, September 02, 2004

Najaf, Arab crises and the road to regional self-determination

The article below is the work of Rami Khoury, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

The urban warfare in the Iraqi city of Najaf that pitted the ragtag Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr against the combined armed forces of the American and Iraqi governments has been defused for the moment. Events in Najaf mirrored the fundamental personal emotions and public political forces that drive events in the increasingly violent Middle East: a motley band of young men with personal weapons following a volatile young leader stood their ground, challenged their national government in Baghdad, and suicidally fought the strongest military power in world. The crisis was defused through the personal intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite religious authority in Iraq (who originally comes from Iran).

The events help us to identify the real forces that drive the lives of the Sadr loyalists and the institutions of Iraqi society. Those can be summed up as the five crises that define the modern Arab world, which I listed last week as:

1. A crisis of sustainable human development, reflected in stagnation and disparity in water, jobs, nutrition, education, health and other human needs;

2. A crisis of sensible and stable statehood, with most Arab countries having suffered civil war, rebellions, border conflicts, terror and widespread emigration;

3. A crisis of citizenship rights, with public power and force exercised by small groups of unelected, unaccountable people;

4. A crisis of competing identities, including the modern state, pan-Arabism, Islam, tribalism, ethnicity, regional affiliations, gangsterism, commercialism, democracy, resistance,

terrorism and others;

5. A crisis of coexistence and unclear relations with Israel, Turkey, Iran, the USA and other external powers.

The cumulative consequences of these five crises, as reflected in the Najaf events, are very clear for those who wish to see them:

Low, erratic human development has generated millions of distressed individual Arabs whose daily life needs are so poorly met that they will gravitate to demagogues like Moqtada al-Sadr, in a desperate, often suicidal quest for money or meaning in their depleted lives.

They and others like them have battled every government in Baghdad in modern history, including the British, the Baathists, the Americans and the interim government of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi - because the centralized state has not served them or reflected their identity and needs. US President George W. Bush and Iyad Allawi promised Iraqis democracy, and sent tanks and helicopter gunships to Najaf.

Sadr partisans and many other Arabs seek refuge in the gun, the tribe, and the Divine because they do not find either personal solace or political meaning in being citizens of an Iraqi state that honors their rights and spells out their responsibilities. The bond of citizen-state relations is badly broken.

Arab citizens everywhere resort to tribal, religious and regional identities because their modern state's laws and institutions have not ensured the critical basic needs of its citizens in three key areas: material needs, political accountability and participation, and manifestation of a credible, common national identity. When you need a job in the Arab world, you do not go to the Labor Ministry, but to your cousin. When you need to confront your own government, you do not go to Parliament with draft legislation, but to your sacred shrine with shoulder-fired missiles. When you need a mediator to defuse a crisis, you do not seek out politicians or civil society leaders, but your most holy man.

Tensions inside Iraq are partly due to the country's imprecise, fluctuating relations with key external powers such as the United States, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Syria, many of which interfere in internal Iraqi affairs, creating a chronic cycle of cross-border tensions.

This simultaneous manifestation of all five modern Arab crises in Iraq highlights how difficult it will be to achieve the sort of stability, democracy and progress that all Iraqis desire and deserve. Not a single Arab country to date has adequately resolved any of these five crises in a sustainable manner. None has seriously attempted to resolve the core weakness that underpins them all: the fact that the Arab citizenry in every country has never had an honest opportunity to define the broad parameters of statehood, or the more technical issues related to promoting political representation and accountability, cultural and ethnic pluralism, and realistic balances in areas such as religion and secularism, gender roles and rights, state power vs. individual rights, and central government vs. provincial authority.

Iraq suggests that the chronic crises of the modern Arab world will not be resolved by foreign armies or local militias. Yet, ironically, Iraq may turn out to be the first modern example of an Arab country whose citizens had the opportunity to define their basic national institutions and values. No existing power structure in any Arab country was established by the freely expressed will of the majority of its own citizens. All reflect the decisions of former colonial powers, or their chosen local elites, or native groups and officers that seized power after independence.

The answer to the crises of the Arab world is not to perpetuate their underlying causes - foreign armies, local autocrats, populist demagogues, rampant human despair, fragile national institutions. The answer is in granting the Arab people the opportunity to exercise their right of self-determination - once and for all to define their own state and national structures, devise responsive governance systems, work out relations with neighbors and distant powers, and decide the most appropriate balance in their lives and lands among the tribe, the gun, the law, the state and the divine.