Democracy Lab

Say No to Civil War

The coming election in Iraq could decide the fate of the country's struggling democracy. The United States needs to take a stand.

Iraqis will vote at the end of this month in our first national-level election since the departure of American troops in 2011. On the heels of last year, the bloodiest we've experienced in recent memory, and facing the prospect of even more violence ahead of us, some have lost hope (though others remain convinced the impending elections will bring change). Some cynicism is understandable. After all, an opposition coalition won more votes than current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in our last parliamentary election four years ago, but Maliki held onto power regardless. Now, the tactics of suppression voters confront have intensified as violence between armed groups rages in two regions of Iraq, Anbar and Diyala. That bloodletting could easily envelop Baghdad. Millions of civilians are caught in the crossfire.

In his Feb. 18 op-ed in Foreign Policy, Maliki wrote that "al Qaeda understands the importance of our elections, and so should Iraqis and Americans." While I cannot say whether or not Americans grasp the significance of these elections, as one who has lived my whole life in Iraq (unlike Maliki and many of the Iraqi politicians whom Americans helped install after their 2003 invasion of my country), I can say with certainty that Iraqis fully appreciate the consequence that April 30 holds for us this year. Elections are the only vestige of hope the Americans left behind in Iraq.

The interference of outside powers is something we know well, so this is one reason the dramatic and ongoing events in Ukraine intrigue some Iraqis. After all, Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 preceded our own historic 2005 election by just a few months. Just as Russia today plays an enormous and frightening role in determining Ukraine's future, so, too, do we increasingly feel the heavy breath of a powerful neighbor, Iran, in so many of the daily events of Iraq.

Since the American invasion, the international community has thought of Iraq in terms of three major groups: the Shiites, who share a sect of Islam with Iranians; the Kurds, who make no secret of their desire for greater autonomy; and the Sunnis, who are blamed by the current constitution for most of the sins of Iraq's history over the past half-century. This presumptive division of Iraq into different parts has helped to plant the seeds of sectarianism, which today fuel violence from multiple directions. Today, the Shiite parties control the power ministries and the central government, while the Sunni are fractured and, too often, labeled explicitly or implicitly as terrorists. This simplistic understanding of Iraq cedes too much power to the modern agents of sectarianism while giving short shrift to the idea of national unity, which the vast majority of Iraqis still share.

For more than a year, Iraqis have also been taking to the streets, compelled by the strong and growing belief that the sectarian policies of the current government have marginalized Sunnis to benefit the more extreme elements of Maliki's electoral base. Government jobs are given disproportionately to Shiites, especially in the security services. Meanwhile, many Sunnis have been unjustly subjected to "de-Baathification" procedures, labeled as terrorists, and imprisoned without the due process of law. That is why demonstrators took to the streets of Hawija early last year, and later set up protest camps in Anbar province (not unlike the camp on Kiev's main square).

Sunnis haven't been the only ones protesting: In 2011, angry, unemployed Shiite youth in the south and in Baghdad took to the streets to defy government corruption. But the Maliki government has responded by singling out Sunnis and treating the protesters as terrorists. This began in the town of Hawija, near Kirkuk, in April of last year, when the Army opened fire on a peaceful crowd of demonstrators, killing dozens, eight of whom were children. The protesters had 14 demands, all of which are linked to the equal protection of rights for Sunnis.

More recently, by moving the army into Anbar in western Iraq after prolonged protests in Falluja and Ramadi, Maliki, who as commander-in-chief of the military also serves as de facto minister of defense and minister of interior, has put the local population in the crosshairs. (In the photo above, Iraqi police officers in Ramadi show their hands, which are adorned with anti-al Qaeda slogans.) While he writes in FP that "we have refrained from ordering the army into Anbar's towns," he makes no mention of the shelling of these towns that destroyed the main hospital in Falluja, leaving thousands dead and almost 70,000 families displaced in the middle of winter. Despite his assertion that he is listening to voices like mine, which call for a ceasefire, the shelling continues.

Last month, the pro-Maliki news channel, AFAQ, repeatedly aired a "news story" that calls on Iraqis to respect the army and ignore voices like mine that call for reform. I asked political leaders in Washington to consider attaching conditions on their sale of Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Maliki's military. Many Iraqis are rightfully concerned that these weapons will used against Maliki's perceived opponents and political rivals rather than al Qaeda. For this, Maliki's channel accuses me of treason.

Iraq wants and desperately needs a free and fair election. Yet there are a number of obstacles that make it hard for Sunnis in particular to reach the polls. In our last regional elections, many voters were turned away from voting stations by police who threatened them with arrest. Since then, security has deteriorated throughout the country. More than 400 candidates have been barred from the election on grounds that are widely seen as political.

This is an experience I know well. Before the last election in 2010, I was myself "de-Baathified" and struck from the ballot -- despite the fact I had been expelled from the Baath Party in 1977 for trying to defend Shiites during a show trial. I was cleared again only after the election, which is why I'm able to participate in government today. But the problem of selectively blocking candidates continues. The whole process has become so fraught that the entire Iraqi electoral commission threatened to resign last week unless they were given immunity. They were concerned they might later be held criminally liable for removing candidates from the electoral lists on grounds many believe are selectively political.

As an ominous beginning to the official election period, Hanan Fatlawi, a prominent member of Maliki's ruling party, made a statement on national TV: "If the Sunnis want equality, if they want balance, we'll give them equality and balance: one dead Sunni for every dead Shiite. How's that?" She was echoing the language of her prime minister, who responded to the lamentable recent murder of a well-respected journalist and professor by a Kurdish soldier by calling for "blood for blood." Such talk not only inflames passions, but it stokes further fear in the hearts of those who were already worried about whether they can safely vote. Such talk should stop, especially coming from those who control the army and the police, because in the semi-authoritarian state that Iraq has become, it can easily be understood by those with guns and authority as official state policy.

As an Anglo-American poet once wrote, "April is the cruelest month." The last decade has not been particularly kind to Iraq. My hope, and that of millions of Iraqis, is that our election will not be cruel, but free and fair. Rather than glossing over the serious problems in our country in an effort to clinch a third term, Maliki would serve Iraq better by removing the obstacles to fairness, equality, and the better future we were once promised.

Portraying a group of citizens as terrorists is a sectarian policy, and Washington needs to be more careful than it has been in recent years about accepting such characterizations as fact. The unconditional transfer of weapons to Maliki's security forces implies that the United States endorses his increasingly heavy-handed policies. But the most important message Washington can send (assuming, of course, that its powers-that-be care about the fate of Iraqi democracy), is that the outcome of this election is not pre-ordained. The streets with Baghdad are filled with rumors, fed by state-run television, that Washington has signed off on a third term for Maliki. The U.S. government would be wise to follow the lead of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq, who made a point of saying that he favors no candidate in this election.

April 30 could well be a tipping point for Iraq. If the will of the people is again denied -- as it was four years ago at Iran's insistence and without objection from the United States -- I fear civil war in Iraq will be inevitable. If millions see their ballots fail, bullets may become the only remaining option for those frustrated by democracy's failure.

AFP PHOTO/AZHAR SHALLAL

Democracy Lab

How the U.S. Can Help North Africa's Democracy Champion

Tunisia has made it farther down the road to democracy than any other Arab Spring country. That means that it deserves hands-on support from the West -- sooner rather than later.

On April 4, Tunisia's Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa will meet with President Obama during an official visit to Washington, and will kick off the first session of the Tunisian-American strategic dialogue. Tunisia has a population of just 10 million and little in the way of natural resources, yet it matters enormously. It is the only Arab Spring country that has so far managed to forge a new political future through a consensus-driven process. In this respect, Tunisia is a vital demonstration case for the rest of the Arab world. Its new landmark constitution, emphasizing freedom, equality, and rule of law, is a significant milestone.

Still, the road ahead for Tunisia is long and arduous. Good neighbors -- including economic partners and political-military alliances -- can and should help fragile democracies succeed through tough times. While both the United States and the European Union have supported Tunisia's transition, their promises of assistance have outstripped what's been delivered. Both need to do more at this important inflection point to ensure that Tunisia builds on the gains it has made. Here are a few recommendations for measures that Washington can take -- in coordination with the European Union -- to help Tunisia reach its goals:


1. Collaborate with European partners to facilitate high-return infrastructure investments that can help jump-start Tunisia's economy and provide jobs.

More than three years after Tunisia set off the Arab Spring, national polls demonstrate that Tunisians continue to view the economy as the country's biggest challenges. Tunisia today faces a tough macroeconomic picture: an unsustainable budget deficit, a bloated public sector, stagnating employment, and low growth rates. Though its economic future is brightening -- with a new constitution, a legitimate government, and the second tranche of a $1.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund -- Tunisia now needs to improve productivity levels to remain competitive. This requires regulatory and tax changes, and infrastructure improvements in roads, water, electricity, and information technology, especially in the impoverished interior areas of the country.

President Obama has requested a mere $30 million in economic assistance for Tunisia next year, most of which will go to the Tunisian-American Enterprise Fund to stimulate small and medium enterprise development -- a laudable approach, but one that won't have any appreciable economic impact for years to come. To help jump start the economy and job creation, the United States should evaluate "shovel ready" infrastructure investments that will boost competitiveness. It has already allocated several million dollars for IT investments, such as helping to improve high-speed internet access. Now, it should evaluate other high-return infrastructure investments such as much-needed water and waste treatment systems.


2. Deepen trade and investment relations and increase market access for Tunisian producers, including in agriculture.

The benefits for a transitioning country of tighter economic integration with a "good neighbor" go well beyond increased trade (as Mexico's experience with NAFTA and Poland's experience with EU ascension attest). The process can offer powerful incentives to promote rule of law, anti-corruption practices, transparency, and tax and regulatory code reform, as well as consolidating democracy. The potential for increased trade between the United States and Tunisia is significant, and the process of negotiating some sort of trade agreement could amplify many of the positive reforms already being discussed as a part of the EU's Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Washington's current antipathy to free trade agreements unfortunately makes one with Tunisia a non-starter. Instead, the United States should work to improve trade and investment possibilities by deepening the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) which sets the strategic framework for discussing these issues.

Included in those discussions should be the prospect of greater trade and investment in agribusiness. Farming remains a primary industry and source of employment in the interior, so improving agricultural productivity is imperative. The EU's European Neighborhood Program for Agriculture and Rural Development (ENPARD), which aims to improve agricultural productivity, is a good start. But the funding for this program has been limited, and it is set to wrap up this summer. Tunisia needs a more sustained, better-funded effort to help farmers move into higher value-added agricultural products and new markets. Opening the giant American market to new agricultural imports is always politically tricky. But given the urgent need to address high unemployment in Tunisia, particularly in rural areas, greater market access is worth pursuing.

The United States and European Union should use their economic leverage of investment and market access to help reformers create a more level playing field that can accelerate growth and job creation. As a recent World Bank report documented, the prior regime and its cronies manipulated Tunisia's investment laws so that they could dominate the private sector. By 2010, ex-dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his clan had cornered more than 20 percent of all private sector profits. Although Ben Ali is gone, his skewed investment restrictions remain in place, enriching a new generation of entrenched elites. Through the TIFA process, the United States should push to reduce the market entry barriers that privileged Ben Ali and his cronies, reduced competition and hurt consumers.


3. Encourage Tunisia to pursue greater intra-regional trade.

North Africa generally, and the Maghreb countries in particular, have one of the lowest levels of intra-regional trade in the world, despite numerous attempts foster it. Political tensions have resulted in structural trade barriers deeply resistant to change. This is a huge missed opportunity. Tunisia should position itself as a relatively stable gateway not only to its oil-rich neighbors, but also to the high-growth markets of sub-Saharan Africa. The United States and Europe should promote that idea by bringing trade delegations to meet not only with leading North African businesses, but also with sub-Saharan executives in Tunisia.


4. Scale up efforts to reduce youth unemployment.

Increased trade and investment should better position Tunisia to address one of its most pressing issues: high levels of youth unemployment. With companies in Tunisia having trouble finding the skills and talent they need, there have been a myriad of programs since the revolution to address the supply side of Tunisia's unemployment challenge. Through its Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the U.S. State Department has funded entrepreneurship and workforce readiness programs; the Washington-based North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO), meanwhile, has focused on improving the entrepreneurial ecosystem for youth through mentoring. While these and other initiatives show promise, none has yet achieved scale and most are under-resourced. They also struggle to reach youth in interior regions, where unemployment is highest. The United States can help by working to coordinating donors, foster partnerships, and increasing funding to achieve scale, and by supporting these efforts in the long term to ensure a sustained commitment. The United States should also invest in increased academic scholarships and exchange programs.


5. Provide sustained commitment to professionalizing civil society so that it can effectively hold government accountable.

To support Tunisia through its transition, it is critical that the United States and the European Union increase support for civil society, which have proven essential in successful transitions. International support for civil society organizations (CSOs) and independent media during transitions is generally a low-cost, high-return investment.

The good news is that post-revolution Tunisia has adopted a liberal environment for CSOs and established a legal framework that has welcomed international support and encouraged the rapid growth of the sector. The bad news is "CSO burnout": Tunisian civil society leaders report being overwhelmed by well-intentioned international groups that tie up their time with endless meetings, interviews and conferences. International donors complain about a thin talent pool and civil society's lack of absorptive capacity. But the whirlwind of post-revolution CSO competitive frenzy is dying down as funders move onto the next new thing. What is needed now is sustained commitment to building the capacity of civil society so that it can effectively hold government accountable. This includes continued investment in training and mentoring, support for CSO infrastructure development, and longer term funding.


6. Support the development of professional and independent Tunisian media.

While there is considerable suspicion in Tunisia about foreign control of media, technical support to help nurture independent media is welcomed and necessary. Tunisian journalists are consistent in saying they do not want any more expensive conferences conducted in French and English in fancy hotels. Instead, the United States and the European Union should jointly fund a mentorship program that embeds Arabic-speaking journalists as editors in fledgling media outlets -- newspapers, television news, and community radio, including in the interior of the country -- to train a new generation of reporters in investigative journalism and media ethics. This training needs to be in Arabic since the majority of media consumption is in Arabic. The mentorship program should also include business mentors who can help independent media establish viable business models.

In addition, the United States and European Union should provide technical support for the promulgation of constructive media regulation in Tunisia. Over the next several years, Tunisia's new parliament will be writing legislation that fleshes out protections of (and limits to) the multiple freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. Given the sensitivity surrounding freedom of expression in the writing of the new constitution, bringing all sides together to understand the impact of legislation in this area would be money well spent. Last year, the government established the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA), Tunisia's first independent media regulatory commission. Washington should bring HAICA regulators to visit with counterparts in the United States and Europe.


7. Support wholesale judicial reform.

Tunisia desperately needs to reform its judicial system to build independence and professionalism in order for democracy to take hold. Tunisia's judiciary under Ben Ali was stacked with cronies and was notoriously corrupt and inefficient. The new government's ability to deliver consistent rule of law through modern and transparent courts will be an essential step in distancing itself from the corruption of the previous regime.

Various international organizations, including the American Bar Association and UNDP, have been working to strengthen skills and promote the professionalism of the sector. But the United States can still do more, including helping to upgrade computer systems to improve efficiency and reduce corruption, and training lawyers and judges, especially in the interior of the country. The timing is good: The election of a representative government later this year ushers in a new opportunity for productive engagement on judicial reform.


8. Strengthen the security relationship and increase support of military reform.

Tunisia's security sector is in dire need of reform and upgrade. Polls show that the country's deteriorating security situation is the prime motivation for street protests. The brazen attack on the American Embassy in September 2012, followed by two shocking political assassinations in 2013, underscored the breakdown of security. (In the photo above, a demonstrator wears a makeshift hat depicting Chokri Belaid, an opposition figure who was murdered in February 2013.) These incidents not only tarnished Tunisia's international reputation, but have also slowed security sector reform, since the government remained dependent on the remnants of the "deep state" at the feared Interior Ministry to investigate the attacks.

Military reform should be a natural area for American engagement. The United States already has close relations with the Tunisian military, which, in stark contrast to its Egyptian counterpart, has remained above the political fray with its reputation largely intact. Many Tunisian military personnel have trained in the United States, and U.S. equipment makes up roughly 70 percent of the Tunisian military's inventory. In February, the U.S. Navy ship USS Elrod stopped in Tunisia to conduct joint exercises to combat drug and weapons smuggling -- a show of support that was welcomed by many Tunisians.

Although U.S. military assistance to Tunisia has doubled since the revolution, it is still less than $35 million, a paltry sum given the strategic importance of Tunisia and the scope of security challenges it faces. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its offshoot Ansar al-Sharia have publicly stated their determination to gain control in Tunisia -- an unlikely scenario but one that could result in a destabilizing wave of violence. Already, low-level fighting against jihadis along the Algerian and Libya borders has resulted in casualties. Smuggling remains a pressing issue. The military badly needs to modernize its equipment, improve intelligence, and bolster training for counter-terrorism operations. Washington should increase financial support for equipment modernization and training, and deepen the intelligence relationship.



Tunisia is simply too important to fail. While Tunisians themselves are ultimately responsible for the success of their transition to democracy, Tunisia's friends have good reasons to support it through the inevitably painful process of economic and political restructuring that is still to come. The benefit of a stable and prosperous Tunisia amid an otherwise unstable North Africa would be priceless.

AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID