The Long Shadow of the Authoritarian Past

Iraq had a vibrant civil society and rich layers of secular political argument in the pre-Saddam era. These key ingredients must be reclaimed if democracy is to take root in the Middle East, says Sami Zubaida

Iraqi soldier and flag (photo: DW)
Can the pillars of civil society and its political fields be raised again from chaos and ruin left by the Ba'ath regime and the invasion?

​​I am now confronted by casual remarks from many sources to the effect that: "what Iraq needs now is another Saddam". The implication is that such a divided and fissiparous society is impossible to govern without violent authoritarianism. "Saddam kept the lid on" is another refrain.

Iraq, in this view, is the extreme example of a Middle-Eastern society which cannot govern itself, characterised by tribal, religious and factional conflicts, to which notions of democracy are inappropriate and where any attempt at democratisation is sheer folly.

My response is that the situation today is not somehow a "natural" tendency of Iraqi or Middle-Eastern society: it is the product of a particular history. Regimes such as that of the Ba'athists and Nasserists, rather than being a remedy to a natural anarchy, played a crucial role in producing these effects.

Democracy requires "a community that experiences itself as such, most commonly the nation-state". One of the many tragedies of Iraq is that precisely such an imagination of nation and its political field emerged between the 1940s and 1970s, to be thoroughly suppressed thereafter and replaced by the ascendancy of religion and tribe.

Iraq: the old social classes and politics

The modern history of Iraq witnessed the physical expulsion of vital sectors of the middle class and the confiscation of their property, twice. The first was the departure of the Jews in 1951. They constituted the bulk of the middle class – commercial, professional and bureaucratic – in Baghdad. In the first half of the 20th century the Baghdad markets were largely closed on Saturdays.

Jews were prominent in government employment, the railways, education, medicine, banking, music, art and literature. This is a history which has been unwritten by both Arab and Israeli interests.

The vacuum created by the departure of the Jews, at least in the markets, was filled by the Shi'a. Urban and wealthy Shi'a families shared with the Jews exclusion from many areas of official life and pursued their fortunes in trade and finance.

It was precisely these wealthy Shi'a, the new propertied middle class who were then targeted in the second episode of the elimination of that class: the expulsion of large numbers of Shi'a, on the pretext of Iranian affiliation, which started in 1970 and continued in waves through the 1980s.

Most of the deportees were poor Fayli (Shi'a) Kurds, but thousands were wealthy urban Shi'a, targeted for their wealth, which was then expropriated to the benefit of the denizens of the regime.

The "capitalism" which developed subsequently was a classic case of "crony" capitalism. Opportunities, loans, licenses and contracts were distributed in accordance with a logic of allegiance, kinship and patronage, with the regime clans and regions benefiting greatly.

"The thief of Baghdad"

At the same time, the powerful men of the regime were free to expropriate any land or business they found desirable, in particular Saddam's uncle Khayrallah Tulfah, for a time governor of Baghdad, nicknamed "the thief of Baghdad", and his thuggish son Uday who imposed his "partnership" on any business he fancied. Property as a source of social power was eliminated and subordinated to the whims of the regime.

This is an extreme example of what has happened elsewhere, especially in Egypt, where the ruling family and its associates have enjoyed wide business and partnership opportunities.

The middle classes of public service, professionals and bureaucrats were strictly controlled and disciplined by the Ba'ath party, to which they had to belong. In the 1970s and early 1980s these classes enjoyed a fair degree of prosperity and privilege, funded by the plentiful oil resources.

The wars and sanctions of the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the drastic impoverishment of these strata and their subordination to Ba'ath discipline.

Political repression under the Ba'ath eliminated any kind of independent political field in which struggles could be waged. This neutralisation was aided by the elimination of property and capitalism as sources of social powers and struggles, and the subordination and humiliation of the educated middle classes as the main source of social and political activism.

These are powerful sources of the present malaise in which religious authorities and tribal leaders appear to be the only effective players in post-Saddam Iraqi politics. It wasn't always like that.

The culmination of Iraq's social and political plurality and vital political field came in the Qasim years, 1958-63. Qasim's was a military coup, like Nasser's in Egypt. However, for a variety of reasons, it did not close off political pluralism but stimulated it.

These were the years in which the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) came into its own (and followed a misguided strategy which ultimately led to its demise).

Quite apart from being communist, the ICP was the main national party of Iraq, which included Kurds and Arabs, Sunni and Shi'a, Christians and Jews. Another was the National Democratic Party, a much smaller party of modern bourgeois elites.

Opposite them were the pan-Arab nationalist parties, primarily the Ba'ath and the Nasserists, with much smaller and narrower constituencies in sectors of the Sunni Arab population.

Most other parties in the history of Iraq were transparently vehicles of support for particular personalities, with constituencies of kinship and patronage, much like political parties in most of the Arab world where they are allowed.

What distinguished that Iraqi political scene was precisely the salience of ideological struggles, waged between forces formed on the basis of social interests and political objectives, and not loyalty to tribe and community.

These latter were, of course, present, but mostly subordinated to the parties and often forced to pursue their objectives through the ideological ranks. That episode in Iraqi history had its share of violence and disorder, and of government repression.

It was not "democratic". At the same time it provided the conditions for the kind of political struggle which can lead to the pluralist and democratic settlement.

Iraq: the new generations

The eventual ascendancy of the Ba'ath, through further military coups, led to the gradual suppression of these forces and fields with savage violence, precisely because the communists and the left had entrenched constituencies of support and the Ba'ath lacked them. But clearly violence was not enough. Saddam's brilliant strategy in the 1970s was to draw the still vibrant Communist Party into a National Front coalition.

By 1979 he was able to subsume or suppress all the Communists' popular bases and organisations, and to wage another campaign of savage violence against their remnants, now fully exposed thanks to the forced openness under the "front".

The 1970s coincided with the hike in oil prices and the great riches they bestowed on regimes which controlled them. This was an essential element in the ability of the regime to reinforce the security state of repression and to co-opt many elements of the middle class and the intelligentsia, and to colonise the formations of civil society.

The years of wars and sanctions in the 1980s and up to the demise of the regime in 2003 witnessed the increased localisation and communalisation of Iraqi society. Poverty and violence drove most Iraqis to fall back on their local and communal resources and leaderships.

A whole generation grew up under these conditions with no memory of the previous history or politics. Local society and communal organisation tends to be "traditional", religious and tribal. These forces were actually encouraged and fostered by the Saddam regime as means of social control when the reach of the Ba'ath Party contracted.

The present sorry state of Iraqi politics, dominated by religious authority and sectarian interests, is not the natural state of Iraqi society without authoritarian discipline. It is the product precisely of that authoritarian regime and the social forces that engendered it, greatly aided by the oil wealth that accrued directly to the regime.

The new Iraqi constitution divides that wealth between regions, transparently to the advantage of communally based regional governments with undefined powers. It is not so much orderly and defined decentralisation, but more the setting up of regional mini-states with the potential for new authoritarian regimes.

This is especially the case with the envisaged Shi'a region in the south, under the tutelage of religious parties and the prospects of clerical power. It is difficult to identify sources or forces for democracy in the present situation. The educated, secular middle class is still there (but many are trying to leave, and who is to blame them?). But they have no organisation, leadership or voice.

Can the pillars of civil society and its political fields be raised again from chaos and ruin left by the Ba'ath regime and the invasion? It is difficult to give clear answers at this point, because there are so many imponderables.

A whole generation has grown up under the Ba'ath, then the poverty and destruction of war, then the sanctions regime. Alienated and impoverished, what allegiances and outlooks can this young generation have?

Hopefully, the life-force of ambition and desire, the aspiration for stability, career, fun and love will succeed in pushing this generation to a civil life. But for that they will need resources and security, the lack of which is the foremost problem of the Iraqi present.

Sami Zubaida

© Sami Zubaida 2005

This article was originally published on

Sami Zubaida is emeritus professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck College, London. Among his books is Law and Power in the Islamic World (IB Tauris, 2003).

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