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The Tribe and Democracy: The Case of Monarchist Iraq (1921-1958)

This study attempts to examine the perpetual political usage of the tribe, and is concerned with the ways in which the tribe has been politically exploited in the processes of political change in the region, specifically in relation to democratic transition. Usually, democratic transition involves a free space, or a margin of action, because of the freedom associated with democracy. This transition process may reduce the space of hegemony occupied by the ruling regime, increasing freedom of expression and popular participation, which engenders a political space that can be filled by political powers that do not abstain from using the traditional structures in society, such as the tribe or the sect. In the case of the Arab state with a totalitarian regime, it is to be expected to have the tribe used politically and exploited in different facets. In the democratic environment, however, the prospective situation remains unclear and requires further research and analysis.

This study accepts that the tribe, as a social formation, has been politically used under the modern regional state, including the period of the democratic experiment in monarchist Iraq,[1] which is the case studied in this paper. This era of Iraq's history (1921-1958) is a suitable case for the topic of this paper, for Iraq is a tribal society par excellence, and has witnessed an early attempt in the region to embrace and practice the democratic experiment in the first half of the 20th century.[2] This study also focuses on the interaction of the "Arab" tribe with the political dimension in Iraq, as it represents the majority of the Iraqi popular body.

Examining the available historical material on that period allows us to understand general characters and patterns relating to the political/social dimension in Iraq, including the despotism of the ruling elite, the continuing British interference in Iraq, conflicts between the ruling wings, cultural rejection to the acceptance and assimilation of modern values, as well as the concept of patriotism. This study focuses on comprehending an important pattern from that period - "the political influence of the tribe" - looking at how it was an important factor in degrading democratic practice in Iraq, which could be seen through their use as a social entity by political actors. The study will also look at the influence of the tribe through its cultural rejection of democratic practice.

In each of these cases, the tribe would be used as a "block" in the service of a specific camp, whether inside or outside the tribe, in a manner not befitting the expected political standards in a modern state. Some studies have revealed that the tribe was not the main culprit behind the collapse of the democratic project in monarchist Iraq; rather, the main factor was the corruption of the ruling elites of the time, and how they, according to Abdel Wahab Rashid in his "Democratic Transition in Iraq: the Legacy and the History," reduced government to a few individuals who had embedded themselves in the court and its policies, and were supported by the strong families and clans.

This is to say that the tribe had a helping, but instrumental, role in this issue, which was visible in different facets, such as the financial support of one political front against another, the flaring of a revolt or political instability in a specific region, or voting and siding politically with a specific political current. These are all interferences that do not conform to modern political practices, which accentuates the importance of studying the political influence of the tribe - especially since it remains an under-studied question.

Thus, this study will attempt to examine the cases in which political powers used the tribe in the political process in Iraq; by describing the historical events of that period, we could track the specific political/social manifestation of the political usage of the tribe. These events can only be understood when examined within their historical context.

This study concludes that the political stature of the tribe in monarchist Iraq took many forms and shapes, according to each phase and its political circumstances. In one stage, for example, the tribe could be a force of opposition to the political system, while, in another phase, it would enter into bitter conflicts with rival clans or against the government; alternatively, we could see a state of harmony and cooperation between the tribes and the ruling elites. These were all instances that have, as a general rule, hampered democratic and civic practice in the country.

This study shows that the tribe's structure and organization also exhibited different types and shapes; sometimes the clan would be united with shared goals and visions, beginning with the individual tribesman all the way to the sheikhs. In other instances, sheikhs would monopolize material and political gains at the expense of the tribesmen, engendering forms of exploitation that - in many instances - pushed tribesmen to rebel. These forms of exploitation included the acquisition of massive estates in what was known as the tribe's territory, and the use of the members of the tribe as hired hands in these lands. It became clear that the tribal sheikhs (especially those of Iraq's south) whose lands spread in all corners of the country were no longer focused, following the emergence of the modern state, on achieving material and moral gains for the tribe as a whole; instead, they were - at least for a vast proportion of sheikhs - focused on personal gain and enrichment. Political elites exploited this greed and employed it in the service of many of its objectives, including the senior administrators of the British occupation.

[1] Abdel Wahab Rashid, Democratic Transition in Iraq: the legacy and the history, (Arabic), (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 2006).
[2] Dawisha Adeed, (2005), "Democratic Attitudes and Practices in Iraq: 1921-1958", The Middle East Journal, 59(1), p.11.
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It's the Tribes, Stupid! - The Atlantic

For more than 230 years, Americans have assumed that because we have had a happy experience with democracy, so will the rest of the world. But the American military has had a radically contrary experience in Iraq. And Iraq may be but prologue for what our troops may encounter in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Iraq has had three elections that have led to chaos. Bringing society out of that chaos has meant a recourse not to laws or a constitution, but to blood ties. The Anbar Awakening has been a rebuff not only to the extremism of al-Qaeda, but to democracy itself. Restoring peace in Anbar has been accomplished by a lot of money changing hands, to the benefit of unelected but well-respected tribal sheikhs, paid off with cash and projects by our soldiers and marines. Progress in Iraq means erecting not a parliamentary system, but a balance of fear among tribes and sectarian groups.

Because Iraq was among the most backward parts of the Ottoman Empire, tribalism has always been strong there. The power of the tribes intensified during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when the state was weakened in part by economic pressures. Because the tribes in Anbar, along the desert smuggling route to Syria, were too strong to subdue, Saddam Hussein had no choice but to co-opt them and make them part of his power structure – exactly as our military has lately been doing.

It is such traditional loyalties existing below the level of the state that historically both Marxist and liberal intellectuals, in their efforts to remake societies after Soviet and Western democratic models, tragically underestimated. A realist like St. Augustine, in his City of God, understood that tribes, based on the narrow bonds of kinship and ethnicity rather than on any universalist longing, may not constitute the highest good; but by contributing to social cohesion, tribes nevertheless constitute a good in and of themselves. Quelling anarchy means starting with clans and tribes, and building upwards from those granular elements.
From the archives:

"The Lawless Frontier" (September 2000)
The tribal lands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border reveal the future of conflict in the Subcontinent, along with the dark side of globalization. By Robert D. Kaplan

The tribal nature of Pakistan is even more pronounced than in Iraq. Pakistan, divided among geographically based ethnic groups, is a nuclear Yugoslavia-in-the-making. Our troops are already in Afghanistan. So it is highly conceivable that we will have boots on the ground in Pakistan’s border area with Afghanistan. This is the true frontline in the war on terrorism, where presumably the leadership of al-Qaeda is ensconced. Our troops will find there a deathly volcanic landscape of crags and winding canyons and alkaline deserts 1,000 miles long and 100 miles wide. In this high desert, the tribes rule: Dravidian Raisanis, Turko-Iranian Baluchis, and Indo-Aryan Pushtuns. Neither the British nor any succeeding Pakistani government has managed to subdue them.

The tribes of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province don’t require Western institutions because they already have institutions of their own. What we call warlords are often, in reality, tribal elders who settle divorce cases, property disputes, and other civil conflicts for which we resort to the courts or government. If the American military deploys to these badlands in numbers large or small, it will follow the Anbar example of working with the tribes, greasing their palms for information on al-Qaeda, while accepting their social and political way of life.

There is nothing wrong or cynical about this. Where democratic governance does not exist, we must work with the material at hand. We have inherited our Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty and democracy just as other peoples, with different historical experiences and geographical circumstances, have inherited theirs. And these other peoples yearn for justice and dignity, which does not always overlap with Western democracy. Throughout the Arab world, old monarchial and authoritarian orders are now weakening. Keeping societies stable will depend largely on tribes, and the deals they are able to cut with one another. In the Middle East, an age of pathetic, fledgling democracies is also an age of tribes.

When George W. Bush first ran for president in 2000, he spoke about the need for “humility” in foreign affairs. Now that our troops are practicing what he preached, after years of failure we’re finally seeing some tenuous results. In striving for a new, post-modern order in the Middle East, we have awakened a medieval one, from which we must now build something permanent.