Iraqis certainly know how to surprise themselves, and everyone else. Just when many pundits claimed that the democratic experience had failed, Iraqis set the constitutional process in motion to form a new government. Last week they elected the speaker of their new parliament, and then they chose their new president. In both cases, divisive figures failed to make waves as the newly elected parliamentarians went instead for consensual figures—“healers, not wielders of knives”—as one Iraqi parliamentarian put it.
The biggest surprise was the election of Fuad Masoum, a Kurdish scholar and politician who was almost the last of 50 candidates to throw his hat into the ring.
“I decided to put my name forward because I felt there was a desire for Iraqis to come together,” he told me in a telephone conversation an hour after his victory. “I am confident that Iraqis can come together to meet the challenge they face.”
Masoum’s ambition to act as “a president for all Iraqis” is no vain hope. He is an atypical figure for a number of reasons. First, he entered the race as an individual against a number of powerful figures fielded by major political blocs. He won with 211 votes against his sole rival’s 17 in the second round of voting in the parliament.
Next, he offered the parliament, and through it the wider Iraqi public thanks to a live TV broadcast, a very American-style presentation of himself and his view of things. For a people used to haughty politicians talking down to them, this was a pleasant surprise—someone talking to you as a fellow citizen and not a “Ra’is ” (ruler).
Those who know Masoum know he was not playing political theatre . A trained philosopher, he wrote his PhD thesis about the “Brethren of Purity” (Ikhwan Al-Safa), a group of scholars and mystics who in the 9th century compiled what became the first encyclopedia in history. Heavily influenced by Mutazilite philosophy, the group wanted to “reconcile faith with reason” through an analysis of religion based on reason. Two centuries later, the Italian theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, used the same method to reconcile Christianity with Greek philosophy.
Masoum’s election is a powerful signal that, at a time when Iraq faces a serious threat from Islamist terrorists in three of its provinces, a majority of Iraqis reject the reduction of Islam to a political ideology. “Masoum has not only united the Kurdish blocs, but drawn strong support from both Sunni and Shi’ite Arab communities,” a parliamentarian in Baghdad said.
Born in Erbil in 1938, Masoum hails from the town of Koy-Sanjaq in the autonomous Kurdistan Region, and has a long record of struggle against successive despotic regimes in Baghdad.
After a stint as professor of philosophy at Basra University in southern Iraq, Masoum joined the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan alongside Jalal Talabani. Over the years, Kurds came to regard him as the voice of moderation and wisdom. The father of five daughters, Masoum has always paid special attention to promoting equal rights and opportunities for women.
Thanks to his studies at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the chief center of learning for Sunni Muslims, Masoum appeals to traditionalists who believe Islam must continue to have a leading role in Iraqi life without dominating the public space. “Our immediate task is to show the world that democracy works in Iraq,” Masoum told me. “We now face the challenge of choosing a new prime minister and helping form a new government.”
Throughout our conversation, Masoum gave the impression of calm strength that befits a man at peace with himself. That may be the key quality likely to help him put national reconciliation at the top of Iraq’s national agenda.
Though it has been a surprise to most, Masoum’s election has been greeted with a great deal of warmth in many world capitals. It is not every day that the US, European, Arab, Turkish and Iranian media sing from the same hymn-sheet on a major issue. And, yet, they have all welcomed Masoum’s election. This means that Masoum starts his presidential term with a significant capital of goodwill both inside and outside Iraq. “Iraq needs all its friends, he told me. “A stable and democratic Iraq would be good news for everyone.”
Bargaining among political blocs over a new prime minister is expected to start after the feast of Eid Al-Fitr this week, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Four years ago, it took Iraqi politicians several months to form a new government. This time, however, they hope to reach a consensus within a week or two. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the principal religious leader of the Shi’ites, has called on all parties to form a new coalition government before the end of August. Masoum does not want to fix a specific date, but believes that a general awareness that Iraq needs to come together and defeat the Islamists is a powerful impetus for the formation of a coalition with a strong popular mandate.
Iraq is certainly not out of the woods yet. However, it is the only Arab country where there is a consensus that governments should be chosen and changed through elections and in the context of legal political competition.