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Ali is an economist and political analyst, working at a private UK-based company. He worked previously at the World Health Organisation and has an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. You can follow him on Twitter (@alialsaffar).

It’s the institutions, stupid.

One of the most enduring images of the Arab uprisings so far has been that of Muammar al-Qadhafi being assaulted, and eventually murdered, after his capture. The fact that this was done at the hands of people who were portrayed as being pro-democracy activists captured a lot of the debate surrounding the ”Arab Spring”—were the events in Egypt a revolution or a coup? Are Libya’s new rulers concerned about democracy and human rights, or are they using these terms because they know that they are held in such reverence by the Western powers that they needed on their side to make sure Qadhafi fell?

For me, the image of Qadhafi being sodomised then killed captured his legacy. The people that did that to him came from the generations that were raised in his Libya. They are a product of Qadhafi rule. Had the last 42 years in Libya been ones in which human rights were respected, I very much doubt that he would have suffered this fate. If Libyans been brought up to believe that the judiciary was fair, and that justice could be administered through the courts, then perhaps Qadhafi would have been handed to them. The fact is though, the institutions in Qadhafi’s Libya, like those in many of the countries in our region, were bastardised extensions of the government itself.

In Iraq, we had/have the same issue. There were no independent institutions during Saddam’s tyranny. There was a hope that proper, independent ones could be created from scratch after the war, but to what extent has this been a success? The only institution that I can think of that exhibits a semblance of autonomy from the government is the Central Bank, and that is because its governor has admirably resisted massive pressure from the Ministry of Finance to bring it under its influence. The Trade Bank of Iraq, one of the most successful organisations in post-war Iraq, was effectively taken over by the government when its chairman was hounded out of the country last year, and replaced by Hamdiya al-Jaf, who is apparently far less capable. Worryingly, it doesn’t seem to matter that the bank is now far weaker now than it was when it was independent.

One of the key challenges is that there seems to be little or no understanding of what constitutes independence, either among the government, or the people. The lines that separate the government and the state are blurred; the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary are all one in the minds of many. It shouldn’t be left to the government to address the issue—its not in its interest to, and quite plainly, it won’t. Perhaps this is where Ali Latif’s ideas on grassroots change come in. Pressure needs to be applied from the bottom-up, but for this to happen, a better understanding of the importance of institutions needs to be grasped in the first place. This is something that diaspora Iraqis are well equipped to help with. But how to go about doing so? That is the question.

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5 Comments on “It’s the institutions, stupid.”

  1. Lion of Babylone February 6, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    Thanks for this post.

    One of the big problem is that when the government is asked why it takes over independent institutions it justifies its action by saying that “these institutions, although visibly independent, are in reality either corrupt or operate not in the interest of the state and probably for the interest of other sides who are against the current political structure in Iraq”.

    To be honest this is not completely wrong. I don’t say that governments taking over independent institutions is right (it is actually a disaster), however without a structure that ensures the accountability of these “independent” institutions (under quotation because we all know they are not completely independent and can’t be) it might be the “less wrong” solution for situations like the TBI to have governmental intervention (Since you mentioned TBI, the Council of Ministers has control over it, so it is not that “independent” and might need a change in the way it is governed in the first place).

    And Yes, TBI is not functioning well, but what about the allegations against its former director. Where is he? Why did he escape and is wanted by the Interpol. If you are not sure that important organizations in the state are operating in a way that is good for the country and are not linked to some conspiracies or regional powers, how can you do anything in Iraq?

  2. Lion of Babylone February 6, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

    Sorry for the extremely long comments Ali, but I only do so because your posts are good and I regard them as “food for thought”.

    Related to the larger context of your post: The whole system was not designed well, and maybe on purpose. It has been built in a way that doesn’t give any side the ultimate power and promotes the sharing of power, but the framework doesn’t ensure transparency and accountability. The result is that all sides are left with some power fighting for the rest.

    I think the goal was not to have a really democratic, transparent, and strong system, but rather a system that is democratic, but less coherent and with some designed weak points; a system that has some “back doors” in case something goes “wrong” and one side has “too much” control.

    What do I mean by “go wrong” and “too much power”?. Since we have a democracy in Iraq there is no doubt that “Shia” will win the elections all the time. (I hope I don’t sound sectarian now). The elections are based on the sect (they will be for a while like that) and “Shia” are majority.

    So if the “Islamic Shia” have power over the government, there is fear that they are too close to Iran. So there must be some other power centers except the governmental one. These are represented in the parliament, supreme court, and “independent institutions” that give power to sides who did not win the election.

    Now the criteria of having an administrative post in these independent organizations is being technocrat. But in reality those who can be regarded as technocrat today in Iraq had either advanced administrative positions in time of Saddam, which means that they had been either “Sunni” or “Baathi” regardless of being “Sunni” or “Shia” (Really sorry, I am no sectarian but Saddam was like that and if he was “Shia”, he would have done the same to “Sunnies”).

    Another option for technocrat would be somebody who has studied and worked outside Iraq and had important administrative positions (there are few member from the current “Islamic Shia” parties who we can say that about them), which makes those closer to the Americans.

    The current “Shia” government realizes that and tries to fix this “imbalance” by removing those who do not operate for the interest of the state (government), and then you can see “stupid” things like that happen to “institutions”.

    The American designed it well, but they were surprised by Maliki who could remain in power regardless of the results of the election and started to act bold.

    And based on that I anticipate that the situation will remain unstable as long as Maliki or a strong “Islamic Shiite” is in power. If a secular guy or a “weaker” Shiite would be in power, the system would work and Iraq would be more stable – by design ;)!

    Really sorry for the really huge post and thank you Ali.

  3. Al Ward February 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    I think when evaluating what happens in Iraq the following questions will need to be answered:

    > Do Iraqis want Mr Clean or Mr Good?
    > Do Iraqis want results achieved or institutions built?
    > Do Iraqis want a “system that works for them for now” or a “system that might work for them in 20-30 years?
    > Do we want to see the remains of the “functioning” government SALAVAGED or do we want a complete new independent system that would be great if it works but we are not sure it will do?

    Considering the burden of the past, Iraq needs an extra-strong ruler and “centralist” view for the interim unfortunately, this is far from perfect because of all possible and actual side-effects but then we are not in a perfect world.

    The failed, corrupt, horrifying, “semi-socialist” and dinosaur-like rules from the horrendous times of the Ba’athi dictator (saddam) have turned a great proportion of the society to reproducing robots. Do this, Don’t do that(which by the way they will try to do the opposite).

    TBI fails so what? Northern Rock failed? RBS?

    While corruption assists, feeds and maintains terrorism and chaos directly or indirectly.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. To Iraqis, institutions are stupid | British Iraqi Forum - February 7, 2012

    [...] Al-Saffar touched on a fundamental weakness of the Iraqi state at the moment, the lack of robust and independent [...]

  2. It’s the Stupidity, Stupid | British Iraqi Forum - December 11, 2012

    [...] in February, I wrote a post on the need for institutions in Iraq, and mentioned the Central Bank of Iraq as being one of the only independent, competent bodies in [...]

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