Journal des Alternatives

This is what democracy looks like?

Susan HARVIE, 25 April 2003
Photo : © Josée Lambert

On April 14, the Pentagon announced that "major combat in Iraq is over." That same day, in the small Iraqi city of Nasiryah, 6 000 people protested their exclusion from a closed-door meeting held by General Jay Garner, appointed by the U.S. to head a transitional military government for Iraq. This was the first organized manifestation of the Iraqi people’s opposition to American occupation. With civil society organizations in southern Iraq all but destroyed, concerned Iraqis will look to the models developed in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the 12 years after the first Gulf War, the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq built a functioning parliamentary democracy based on political pluralism, a pluralist media, and an active civil society. During that time, Iraqi Kurdistan went from a repressed backwater to the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East. Arab Iraqi dissidents have been using Iraqi Kurdistan as the base for their activities and working with the Kurdish people to build the foundations of a postwar democracy.
Iraqi Kurdistan has developed a dynamic civil society made up of social movements (including women’s organizations, trade unions, and youth organizations) as well as NGOs working on a wide range of issues such as poverty reduction, human rights, women’s rights, health care, and education.

Women at the forefront

One of the more impressive components of this social movement is the women’s movement. Until about a year ago, the women’s movement consisted of a series of isolated groups tightly controlled by political parties, ethnic groups, and religious organizations. In 2002, these disparate women’s organizations came together to lobby for state funds to build two shelters - one in each of the major cities - for widows, abandoned wo-men, and women fleeing domestic violence. Their victory was twofold. Not only were the shelters built, but 20 women’s groups established a network to represent the women’s movement and to increase its impact on society.

The Network has since coalesced into a pluralist, national women’s movement that is playing a key role in changing public thinking and public policy. For example, after a difficult campaign with impressive lobbying and mobilization, the Kurdish administration abolished the "honour" defence. Under Iraqi law, a man accused of murder or assault on a female relative may plead that he was motivated by the defence of family honour against a real or perceived breach of honour. In murder cases, this defence would reduce the minimum prison term from 8 years to 6 months. The successful campaign against the "honour" defence was motivated by a massive increase in these crimes in the 1990’s, itself the bitter fruit of years of conflict, displacement, poverty, and overcrowding.

After another successful campaign by the women’s Network, the Kurdish administration is currently in the process of abolishing polygamy and the Network is opposing a ruling that women teachers must wear Islamic dress. Although the focus of the Network is on women’s issues, they also understand their role as contributing to the overall democratization of society. Other civil society organizations are watching and learning from their experience.

Birth of a movement

The social movement in Iraqi Kurdistan is still relatively young, but it is built on the experience accumulated during the long history of Kurdish revolt against dictatorial regimes in Baghdad. The social organizations and NGOs have a culture of information sharing and collaboration, and have built and maintained informal networks of contacts throughout southern Iraq. As a result, they are well prepared to contribute to the rebuilding of civil society and democracy in the south. Some have already sent representatives to Baghdad and other cities. Their strategy is to work together, as they have in Iraqi Kurdistan, to build networks of civil society organizations based on the models they have developed in the north. Over the past 12 years, they have learned that a necessary prerequisite for a functioning democracy is a strong and organized civil society.

Civil society organizations in the north know that they will be warmly welcomed in the south. Through their networks of contacts, the Iraqi social movements in the north know that their opposition to the American military occupation of their country is widely shared. Most Iraqis blame the United States for the years of sanctions, and many believe that the war was fought to transfer Iraq’s natural resources to foreign corporations. Few believed that the war would result in real democracy or an economy which functions in the interests of the Iraqi people. Their fears were confirmed with the announcement that General Garner, best known for his outspoken anti-Palestine views, would be responsible for creating democracy in Iraq.

The civil society organizations from northern Iraq face an overwhelming challenge in their determination to build a strong and organized civil society and a functioning democracy in a country under occupation by the most powerful military machine ever assembled on the planet. They are not discouraged.

On the contrary, they see the current situation as a huge opportunity, one for which they have been waiting for decades. They know that they need help and that they have been isolated from social movements in the rest of the world for far too long.
They firmly believe that the social movements they have heard about through the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and through the massive worldwide demonstrations against the American war on their country will not let them down.
They are counting on the social movement in the rest of the world to support them in their struggle for a truly democratic Iraq and for control of Iraq’s resources in the interests of the Iraqi people.


Susan Harvie, special collaboration
The author has just returned from a mission in Iraq for Alternatives.

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