"How is Iraq?" we asked a friend just back from Baghdad the other day.
"Bad, very bad, my friend," was the reply. "Even my cook has an opinion about how to form the new government."
The Iraqi friend is a prominent banker who spent his youth in exile in the West and returned home only after the fall of Saddam Hussein. However, he seems to have retained the traditional mindset of many of us Middle Easterners, who see ourselves as victims of despotism and yet fear any system in which even the cook has an opinion.
To be fair to our friend, the current political scene in Baghdad isn't exactly reassuring. The general election failed to produce an outright majority and the formation of a new government could take weeks if not months.
We are used to seeing governments formed and reshuffled in hours, if not minutes, with narrow elite of "usual suspects" playing musical chairs in and out of ministerial posts. In that system, any hitch in forming a government could be dealt with by having some ministers shot, as did Saddam Hussein in his heyday, or exiled into ambassadorial posts with a golden handshake.
It is not only our friend's cook who has an opinion on shaping the next government. In a bigger slot are a number of figures whose political CV wouldn't fill half a page.
There is Muqtada al-Sadr, a maverick Shiite cleric who has recast himself as a talented political maneuverer, trying to captain a team that brings together antediluvian Communists on the one hand and shadowy Shiite militiamen on the other. Then there are a dozen or so other political and military baritones with American, Iranian and other song-masters inspiring their lyrics. In the background are tribal chiefs and grand ayatollahs who could nudge the field-players this way or that with a shaking of their beards.
"What do the Communists have in common with al-Sadr?" our friend demanded. "And what do both of them have in common with militia chief Hadi al-Ameri?"
The answer is that they all have at least three things in common.
The first is that they are all Iraqis, just like the opinionated cook in question.
The second is that they all accept that Iraqi governments should be based on results of elections. The third is that they are all forced to acknowledge Iraq's ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity, which means that no single element should monopolize power in the name either of religion or ideology.
In its manifesto published back in the early 1960s, the Iraqi Communist Party, which had a mostly Shiite membership at the time, stated its objective to be the establishment of the dictatorship of proletariat and the elimination of religion from Iraqi politics. Today, the party, at least in its current epiphany, talks of power-sharing, pluralism, secularism and coalition, terms that didn't exist in the Iraqi lexicon before 2003.
To repay the compliment paid to them by the Communists, the Iraqi ulema frequently called for the imposition of total ban on Marxism in any form or shape and cheered when the despot of the moment launched a witch-hunt against the left.
Today, however, the ulema know that any attempt at banning parties that they don't like will not be tolerated by public opinion.
The thinking brain of al-Sadr's distinguished clerical family was his father-in-law Ayatollah Muhammad-Baqir al-Sadr, who founded the ad-Da'awa Party with a dream of putting Iraq under clerical rule inspired by the model of Ali Ibn Abi-Talib. And, yet, Muqtada's chief adversaries today are in ad-Da'awa, with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the most vociferous. However, even al-Maliki dares not preach the old gospel for fear of being laughed out of the rostrum by our cheeky cook.
The young technocrats around Muqtada get their ideas, especially on economics, more from Milton Friedman's texts than Muhamad-Baqir al-Sadr's "Our Economy" (Eqtesadena).
Iraq is, perhaps, the most diverse society in the region, something that caused it much grief under despots but could become an asset in the future.
Substantial segments in each of the ethnic, religious and sectarian communities that together form Iraq know that none of them alone could claim and effectively exercise power. The next step should be to also accept ideological and political diversity. I believe that in the past 15 years, Iraq has made significant progress in that direction.
It is too early to guess the final outcome of the current coalition talks among the top vote-winners in the recent general election. Muqtada's decision to engage al-Ameri's faction in coalition talks may be a clever move. The future government, which is bound to face enormous problems, cannot allow al-Ameri to emerge as the leader of the opposition in the new parliament, thus exploiting whatever setback Iraq may suffer in its zigzag path to sustainable democratization.
Iraq's parliament in session, March 26, 2016. (Image source: World Bank/Flickr)
Many Iraqis suspect al-Ameri of being "Iran's man" and a puppet for Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Part of that view is due to Soleimani's propaganda. The general is a master of self-promotion; a savvy manipulator of the modern media. However, al-Ameri was also close to the Americans and acted as go-between for General David Petraeus, then US Commander in Iraq, and various Shiite factions. Even if keen on defending Tehran's interests in Baghdad, al-Ameri is intelligent enough to know that propagating an Iranian-style system in Iraq would mean political suicide. Bringing him into the tent could reduce Tehran's ability to do mischief from outside the tent.
In any case, even together, Muqtada and al-Ameri don't have the numbers needed to form a government. They would need to bring in a chunk of the Kurdish bloc plus at least elements of the Sunni Arab groups to form a credible coalition.
That would leave a bloc of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish smaller parties to form the opposition. With the government coalition transcending ethnic and sectarian boundaries the opposition will also be freed from the same constraint. That would make it possible for Iraqi politics to become a forum for competing political programs not rival religious and ethnic identities or abstract ideological divides.
In a system of down-to-earth politics, Iraq would be liberated from utopian illusions that have caused it so much tragedy, and focus on bread-and-butter issues closer to the concerns of both our banker friend and his cook.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.