Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Sadrist Watershed

One of the most notable aspects of the recent Iraqi elections has been the electoral success of the Sadrists. Led by the enigmatic young cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sadrist list formed part of the large, loose alliance of Shi'i religious parties known as the Iraqi National Alliance. The fact that the Sadrist list won 39 out of the coalition's 70 seats has put it in a position to play kingmaker of the next government, and will likely have a marked effect on the next government's program.

Oil policy and relations with the US are two areas where the Sadrist contingent could play a significant role in the next government's program. It is not secret that the Sadr has been one of the most vociferous opponents to the US project in Iraq since 2003. His 39 seats in parliament may be enough to break a governing coalition that shows signs of being too chummy with the Obama administration. For instance, there had been rumors that some in the Iraqi leadership had wanted to slow down the American withdrawal, even postpone it indefinitely. If any future PM pulls a stunt like that, he can expect to see Sadr's 39 MPs walk out.

Oil policy is another important aspect of the next government's program that the Sadrist trend has been highly critical of. The current hydrocarbon legislation is deadlocked (really two competing Kurdish and Ministry of Oil sponsored bills that appear to be irreconciliable), and likely has no chance of passing in its current form as long as the Sadrists have a say about it. The Sadrists have expressed a strong current of resource nationalism, are suspicious of foreign oil companies operating in Iraq, and vehemently oppose the use of Production Sharing Agreements (in which oil companies acquire equity in Iraqi oil). The Kurdish draft law actively encourages them, while the centralized Ministry of Oil draft version doesn't explicitly prohibit them (none of the recent oil deals signed between the central government and international oil companies have used the controversial PSA as their contract model). In short, passing any type of neoliberal hydrocarbon law is a pipe dream as long as the Sadrists control 39 seats in parliament, and will have a great amount of leverage in terms of selecting the next prime minister. Undoubtedly, one can expect the policies of the upcoming government to be decidedly more nationalist in nature.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Limitations of National Unity Governments

Many hoped that the recent national elections in Iraq would shake up the balance of power that has prevailed in Baghdad since 2005 by ushering in some new parties and producing a coalition government with a greater degree of ideological coherence. In this context, recent developments in the post-election negotiation phase provide reasons for disappointment.

One of the many problems with the 2006-2010 government was that it included so many parties with conflicting ideologies. It may have been a "national unity" government in name, but it was incoherent ideologically. It included the main Shi'i religious parties, Prime Minister Maliki's Da'wa, the Kurdish Alliance, and the Sunni-led Tawafuq bloc. Since there was virtually nothing binding these blocs together besides the desire to cling to power, the government has not managed to accomplish much in the last four years.

Though former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's bloc faired the best in the recent elections (winning 91 out of 325 seats), he will not be forming the next government. A supreme court ruling has decided that the leader of the largest bloc in parliament is to be designated with forming a government, and that blocs can form after the election. This means that al-Maliki's bloc (State of Law, which finished second with 89 seats) can merge with the third place finisher (the INA, collection of Shi'i religious parties). Throw in the Kurdish Alliance, and you have yourselves the necessary number of parliamentary seats to form a government. But because Maliki has made so many enemies within the INA and Kurdish blocs during his tenure as PM, it is likely that he will not be nominated as the new PM if a State of Law + INA + Kurdish Alliance coalition emerges.

What's wrong with this potential coalition? Nothing, except it is the same coalition that has dominated Iraqi politics since 2005. And it excludes the bloc that finished first in the elections (Allawi has said he will not join such a coalition).

The ironic part about all this is that the two top finishers in the recent elections - Maliki and Allawi's blocs - are quite ideologically coherent. Both favor a strong central government, talk in nationalist terms, and are perceived as less sectarian than their rivals. Yet, a fierce personal rivalry has prevented them from reaching an accord and has forced each to turn to less logical alliance partners.

Though grandiose "national unity" governments that comprise as many blocs as possible may sound normal and fair, they often come at the expense of ideological coherence. That is precisely what happened from 2006 to 2010, and it is happening again today. The real losers in all of this are the millions of Iraqis who value a state capable of delivering security, jobs and services over a state based on ethno-sectarian quotas.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Baradei and the MB

Within US policy circles, the Muslim Brotherhood is often spoken of in somewhat of a hushed tone, often times in conjunction with ominous phrases like "Islamo-fascism" or "jihadi extremism."

I was therefore dismayed but not surprised to read Foreign Policy's most recent take on the political situation currently playing out in Egypt. Mohamed el-Baradei's "commitment to liberal reform" is questionable, writes Ilan Berman, because (and here's where the hushed tone comes in) he has been "flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood." This "flirtation" is in reference to Baradei's outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood (and virtually every other opposition group and party within Egypt) in his effort to cobble together a coalition for political reform -- what he has called "The National Coalition for Change." Berman goes on to explain that the Muslim Brotherhood is "the world's most influential font of radical Islamic ideas" and that, as a result, "if the Brotherhood is joining a coalition committed to political liberalism, it's clearly not for ideological reasons." There were lots of other factual inaccuracies, analytical shortcomings, and gross mis-characterizations in the essay -- but I'll spare you.

Ilan Berman, as far as I could tell, seems to have limited expertise in local Egyptian politics (indeed there seems to be quite a trend these days of alleged Egypt 'experts' writing dispassionately about the upcoming elections). It was therefore an incredible relief to find that Foreign Policy had also published an eloquent and thorough rebuttal of Berman's article, which effectively debunked every single statement made in the piece. Samer Shehata, a professor at Georgetown, is actually an Egypt expert, having spent extensive time living and researching in the country. He has an impressive understanding of domestic politics and the various political actors in the country -- and it shows in his response.

I won't elaborate the various points Shehata makes, as they are stated better by him. His broad critique, however, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is "far from the radical threat portrayed by Berman" and that in fact it is a diverse Islamist movement with a history that extends back farther even than the current regime and that it's role in Egyptian politics is incredibly complex.

The latter is a point that is far too infrequently made in Washington (or anywhere in the US, besides the odd university seminar room). The 'hushed-tone' attitude surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood is really unfortunate. The movement certainly has had violent episodes in its past and there are factions in it today that espouse a more uncompromising bent of political Islam. But the Muslim Brotherhood is also arguably one of the most moderate Islamist groups in the Middle East today and many of its members are open-minded, well-educated professionals who are happy to embrace and participate in a liberal political system. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a genuine, well-functioning democracy in Egypt that does not include, in some shape or form, an MB-based party. In order for Baradei's reform project to have any credibility or mass support he needs the Muslim Brotherhood's blessing, and he is therefore wise to reach out to its leaders and include them in his coalition. Unfortunately the policy wonks in Washington (who claim to want democracy for Egypt) tend to avoid this inconvenient reality and choose instead to paint the Muslim Brotherhood with the same broad "Islamo-fascism" brush that is reserved for any Islamically-oriented political group.

A final point: these sort of ill-informed 'analyses' are unfortunately a common occurrence in much of the writing on the Middle East by think tank experts, policymakers, and even journalists. This fact is well known and often-decried among professors and grad students in the ME Studies departments of US universities. There is a disdain for the policymaking community's myopic focus on current events and an assumption that much of this analysis is conducted without any real depth of understanding. This is a fair criticism. But what is truly maddening is that most of these individuals -- who have the understanding and nuanced insight necessary to effectively combat these flawed accounts -- don't ever respond. Samer Shehata is a well-respected academic whose work on Egyptian labour is some of the best on the subject. And yet here he is, getting his hands dirty in the policymaking realm to make sure that poor articles like Berman's do not go unanswered. It's too bad that more professors of ME studies don't take it upon themselves to do the same.