The Politics of Democracy in the Arab World

We are about to establish a government for a liberated Iraq. What type of government will this be?

To answer that it is necessary first to ask a question about our own political system. How does the United States government structure differ from nearly all other democracies on this planet?

The answer may come as a surprise: To call America a democracy is a misuse of that term. America actually is a representative Republic. Most other self-governing nations are representative democracies.

Interestingly, of those few nations that have adopted the American model, most have evolved into a dictatorship of one kind or another. Why is this, and why have we evolved into the longest-lived (excepting the Isle of Man and possibly Switzerland ), most powerful self-governed nation in history?

The simple answer to why seems to be that from the beginning, we agreed to observe the rule of law as it has evolved in the West. We set up checks and balances across our government structure that, along with our accepting the supremacy of our laws, kept any one person or group from exercising excessive control over government. We also made a strong point of pushing government to the lowest possible level, and always presuming that any power the people granted to government really did emanate from the people, and that powers not specifically granted to government automatically resided directly with the people.

These concepts appear simple to state, but have had profound influence in shaping our nation over the past two centuries.

The parliamentary system practiced by most other democracies is dramatically different from how we govern ourselves. Our system devolves down to the votes of individual citizens. Sure we have political parties, and ultimate control of our upper and lower chambers at any given time rests with the party in power in that chamber. But the Executive Branch is entirely separate, and thus relatively independent.

In the parliamentary system, citizens vote for party members who, in turn, vote for the head of government. While it is much less likely that this form of government can evolve into a dictatorship, governance is controlled by a constantly shifting set of political alliances between competing political parties. The individual frequently gets lost in the shuffle. Party affiliation, belonging to a specific group, becomes much more important than it is within our representative republic.

Arab countries have been used to an autocratic governance for at least the last century. Unlike our constitutional separation of church and state, and the unequivocal acceptance of this principle by nearly all our citizens and their various religious institutions, in the Islamic world, there usually is a total integration of church and state.

An Islamic state is a theocracy governed by the Shari’ah, which is analogous to codified law in Western society. It consists of the Qur’an (which Muslims believe was revealed by Allah to Mohammad during the 7th century), and the Sunnah (which records the Prophet’s life), and a constantly evolving collection of Fatwas or rulings that deal with every aspect of Islamic life from ideology to practical daily matters. Throughout Islamic history, Imams and Mullahs have issued Fatwas, which have the force of law among Muslims, similar to a ruling by a Western court. As in the West, these rulings can be confirmed or overturned by a higher authority, by issuing an order known as a Fiqh.

Muslim ayatollahs govern Iran as an Islamic state, like the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden set as his goal unification of all Muslim countries under one Islamist governing body, sort of a pan-Arabic Taliban.

The Ba’athist governments of Iraq and Syria constitute attempts to wrest government from Islam and place it firmly under civil control. Unfortunately, both governments chose a Fascist model, and quickly evolved into absolute dictatorships.

Turkey has the longest successful history among predominantly Muslim countries as a parliamentary democracy. Indonesia, Egypt and Pakistan have demonstrated some success, but appear to be held together by strong-man leaders. Monarchies (another name for dictatorship) govern most of the remainder.

Thus, it is critical as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to shift from combat to stabilization and nation-building in Iraq , to identify and shape the most effective form of government for its liberated population.

Most indications are that U.S. officials favor a parliamentary form of government. In my opinion, this would be a mistake. As pointed out earlier, this kind of government ultimately is controlled by political parties, and in the Arab world, this means eventual control by the Mullahs and the forced implementation of governance by the Shari’ah, overriding any constitutional government we may emplace.

On the other hand, if we establish a constitution similar to our own, with total separation of church and state, and a prohibition of any action that smears the boundary between church and state, the Iraqis might have a chance at continuing self-governance without imposition of theocratic rules mandated by one or another of the brands of Islam prevalent there today.

If we give them a parliamentary style of government, I fear the Iraqi masses controlled by the Mullahs will eliminate any chance they have for self-governance before it even gets off the ground.

We have a unique opportunity right now to make a real difference, not only for the Iraqis we have liberated by our war against the Ba’athists, but also for their children and eventually for the entire region, as the rest of the Arab world sees what a free, genuinely self-governing Iraqi people can accomplish.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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