Is the decision by the Iraqi National Assembly (parliament) to postpone for a week its scheduled debate on a new draft constitution “a major setback” for the newly liberated nation, a or just a bump on the road to democratization?
There is no doubt that many who are nostalgic for the days of Saddam Hussein had been hoping and praying that the 15 August deadline would not be met. These are people who want Iraq to fail so that they could prove that George W Bush and Tony Blair were wrong in toppling the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad.
The postponement was a setback if only because this was the first time that the new leadership was unable to meet a political deadline it has fixed for itself. One cannot begrudge the opponents of the liberation their unique moment of jubilation.
But if this was “a major setback”, as some dons of dilatory deeds have claimed, why did Iraqi lawmakers broke into spontaneous applause after they had voted to postpone the constitutional debate? Did they know something that the serial filibusterers on Capitol Hill didn’t?
The answer is that while the postponement was a tactical setback for the Iraqi lawmakers it represented a strategic advance for the practice of democracy in the newly liberated country. The Iraqis working on the draft resisted intense pressure from all quarters, including Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the Shiite top cleric, and the US Ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad, to brush disagreements under the carpet and come up with “something.” They were told to set aside the contentious issues and offer the assembly the apple-tart and motherhood parts of their exercise.
But the drafters understood that the goal of the exercise could not be making everybody happy for a brief moment. They understood that the object of democracy is not to make everyone happy on every issue every time. In fact, the opposite is often the case if only because democratic decisions based on compromise as they are bound to be, never fully satisfy anyone. What matters in democracy is that everyone should feel happy about the way decisions are arrived at.
As far as the way decisions are made is concerned, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are happy. They know that the days when a mustachioed despot could impose any constitution on them are gone, hopefully for good. They also know that no single group can impose its will on all others. More importantly, they know that if they ignore the wishes of the people they wouldn’t be able to look their neighbors in the face.
It is disingenuous to make much of the fact that the Iraqis have not succeeded in writing a constitution in three months.
The physical act of writing a constitution is not difficult.
The late Ayatollah Khomeini asked one of his minions to translate the constitution of the Fifth French Republic and then added a few articles to enshrine his own despotic rule. The exercise took a few days. The Pakistani military dictator Zia ul-Haq once told me that he could write a new constitution “in a mater of weeks, if not days.” General Douglas Macarthur is said to have assigned one of his secretaries to write the Japanese Constitution, again in a matter of days.
But the American “founding fathers” needed three years to write a constitution which was, subsequently amended two dozen times.
And then remember that all “the founding fathers” were Christian Protestant English gentlemen sharing the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background.
Iraq’s “founding fathers”, however, represent a complex mosaic of ethnic, religious, and linguistic communities. The whole thing is further complicated by the fact that five rival political coalitions, representing some 60 different political parties- from the Communists to the Islamists and passing by secularists and monarchists- are involved in the writing of the constitution.
On top of all that the debate over the new constitution was widened to involve virtually all Iraqis. Over 300 constitutional conferences were held throughout the country, enabling some 50,000 people to express the views of countless trade unions, cultural associations, women’s organizations, human rights groups, guilds, tribal leaderships and religious fraternities. An even broader debate took place through the newly-born private media, including 150 newspapers, dozens of talk-radio stations and half a dozen television channels.
Thus the exercise went far beyond a political task assigned to a committee and developed into a nationwide course in politics, human rights, civic duties, and public ethics. Many Iraqis discovered the complexity of their society for the first time. They saw that Iraq did not consist of the uniformed, mustachioed and gun-toting individuals who marched in front of Saddam Hussein’s giant portraits like so many robots.
“I didn’t know that we had a Luri minority,” a highly educated Iraqi friend told me the other day.
“I had no idea that many Iraqi Kurds were Shiites,” another Iraqi friend admitted.
Others discovered that there are Iraqi Turkmen, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians, Chaldaeans, and Ahl-e-Haq in addition to a variety of Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites. Iraq’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity is further complicated by a rich array of political and ideological sensibilities. On the left there are Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists, and Labour Party-style social democrats. On the right there are Islamists of a dozen different sensibilities. In the middle there are democrats, republicans and liberals who aspire after a Western-style system.
Imposing a constitution on all these different strata at gunpoint may be easy. Getting them to agree on one is less so.
Recently, The Americans took six months to appoint an Ambassador to the United Nations, and, even then, failed to agree. So imagine if the Americans were to write their constitution in the multicultural, multi-ethnic and politically divided United States of today rather than in the homogenous country it was two centuries ago.
There is no doubt that every political move in Iraq today should take into account two factors: the fight against the terrorists, and the need for an early end to the US-led coalition’s military presence. The speedy introduction of a draft constitution would be helpful on both accounts. But it would be wrong to see the drafting of the constitution as nothing but a tactical move related to the war against terrorism and the departure of the foreign troops.
While the Iraqis must work hard and fast to meet the new deadline they have set for themselves, there is no need to sacrifice quality to speed. The terrorists will continue killing the Iraqis with or without a constitution but are ultimately doomed to defeat. The departure of he foreign troops is equally inevitable, although it could be speeded up through the Iraqi political process.
The constitutional debate has turned Iraq into a giant school for democracy. A nation that had been terrorized into silence for more than half a century is beginning to learn to talk, to debate and to engage in polemics. People, who never thought anyone would bother about their views, or whether they could have any views of their own, are now beginning to discover the power that they could have as individuals and groups in a democracy. The new political elite is learning the art of negotiation, diversion and, yes, even filibustering. In Iraq today the past is fighting the future. The future is sure to win.