Although the world is focused on the military coup in Egypt, the accompanying repression of the supporters of the duly elected democratic government, and the real possibility of massive societal strife, another authoritarian government is busily taking its country down a similar road to civil war.
Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite who was originally democratically elected but who has gradually accumulated power using extralegal means, is repressing Sunni opponents and is thus creating blowback in the form a rise in al Qaeda attacks on Shi’ite targets. The al Qaeda attacks have, in turn, resulted in a reconstitution of Shi’ite militias, a major perpetrator of sectarian violence that raged in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Maliki has employed Shi’ite security forces disproportionately in Sunni areas, ordered the detention of Iraq’s vice president and other Sunni leaders on trumped up charges, and is accused of arresting and torturing political adversaries en masse. Despite these autocratic moves, according to John Glaser of Antiwar.com, the United States approved of the attempt to arrest the vice president and continues to slather the Iraqi government with even more aid than it gives Egypt.
It is tempting to conclude that if Maliki had been more inclusive in his governing style, violence would not be spiking, sparking renewed fears of all-out sectarian warfare. Similarly, in Egypt, the U.S. government soft-pedaled the coup by saying that Mohammed Morsi, the elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood, was not inclusive in his governing style. The United States seems to be using a double standard here, since in the US system, one party in a two-party system wins the election, the other loses the election, and no grand coalition is ever formed between the two parties. The problem in both Iraq and Egypt is not that their elected rulers didn’t include every societal group in the government and let them sing kum ba ya, it is that they don’t have a culture of political tolerance that will yet allow liberal democracy and the rule of law to take root. Inclusion in government is less important than the government’s respect for minority rights and than the losers of the election waiting to compete in the next one rather than resorting to violence to attempt a coup.
The hard truth is that at this juncture, these countries, as currently configured on a map, may be ungovernable without authoritarian leaders to prevent anarchy. Yet unlike Egypt – in which the divisiveness is over whether the state should govern using religious principles or secular ones – the conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Iraq are more tribally based or ethno-sectarian in nature. The latter three may be more solvable without the need for a despot, elected or not, at the helm.
In Libya, instead of trying to strengthen the central government after the despotic Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow, perhaps instead the existing situation on the ground of many tribal militias governing certain local areas should simply be ratified. Such decentralized governance might prevent a civil war in which competing groups attempt to control a stronger government to prevent it from being used to oppress their group.
Syria and Iraq instead have ethno-sectarian groups, and much the same ones at that, but might also benefit from decentralizing governance – so that most or all governmental functions, including security and justice, would be handled locally. In Syria, the likely outcome of the brutal civil war may be a patchwork of areas held by different groups – Bashar al-Assad and the Alawites (an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam) might govern a corridor from Damascus to the coastal Alawite areas on the Mediterranean Sea, the Sunni rebels might govern in the northern and eastern parts of current Syria, and the Kurds may have their own autonomous area in the extreme northeast of the country.
To prevent such partitioning by fire, Iraq, which went to the brink of ethno-sectarian civil war in 2006 and 2007 and is heading that way again, might want to explore a voluntary, peaceful decentralization or partition. Governing locally allows security forces and the justice system to be provided by people of the same ethno-sectarian group, thus instilling more confidence in the governed population.
The international community – which includes many multi-tribal, ethnic, racial, or sectarian states – frowns on solutions that formally or implicitly break up states. Many have their own minorities that might be encouraged to break away. Thus, arguments are used that it’s a form of apartheid or that boundaries cannot be drawn exactly and will always leave some unfortunate souls on the other side of the line. In South Africa, apartheid was forced separation using armed might of a minority against a majority. In Iraq and Libya, such decentralized governance would have to be voluntary and would reflect existing ethno-sectarian or tribal areas, respectively. Even in Syria, where such decentralized governance, or even partition, would reflect the realities of the civil war, the groups would eventually have to voluntarily ratify it in a peace settlement or continue fighting. Furthermore, the boundaries drawn between groups’ areas don’t have to be perfect. Research shows that groups tend to feud when a significantly large minority poses a threat to a majority, whereas minorities under 10-percent on the other side of a boundary line are more likely to live in peace with the majority.
Yet despite the international community’s reluctance to allow devolved governance or partition, if the choice is moving to decentralized and autonomous governing authority or anarchy or civil war, the stability and peace of devolved governance should start to look much better.