On 5 March 2014, Constitutional Transitions held a panel discussion on Zaid Al-Ali’s newly published book The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy. Al-Ali is the Senior Adviser on Constitution Building at International IDEA. Also participating on the panel were Andrew Arato, Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor of Political and Social Theory at the New School for Social Research, and Haider Hamoudi, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Constitutional Transitions Sujit Choudhry moderated the panel.
Discussion began with Hamoudi declaring the book to be “well-written, persuasive, and accurate,” noting Al-Ali’s criticism of Iraq’s out-of-touch elites. Hamoudi also reviewed the strong divisions over federalism, and largely incompatible visions of state that exist among the relevant parties to the transition process, as well as an absence of dialogue on the role of religion in the state. Conversation then shifted to a series of questions posed by Arato to his fellow panelists, including what role federalism will play in Iraq’s political future, and how checks to majority power can be implemented.
After presenting a brief summary of his book, Al-Ali discussed Iraq’s 2005 constitutional framework, which he contends has often not been applied in the way it was drafted. And while certain provisions of the constitution were deficient, the U.S. occupation of the country was also a significant factor in Iraq’s constitution building process. The fact that the procedure was rushed also had damaging effects, explained Al-Ali, to which Hamoudi agreed. And an authoritarian mentality, a lingering remnant of the Hussein regime, hindered real political change.
Questions to the panel concerned the advantages of capaciousness and a multiphase constitution building process. While Hamoudi asserted that a capacious model would be preferable, Al-Ali emphasized that in the Arab region, precise language is important in order to protect against abuses. He added that provisions in developed countries tend to be more detailed, addressing particular problems with specific solutions.
Views differed somewhat on the advantages of a multiphase constitutional process. Arato voiced concern for delaying the resolution of difficult constitutional issues through a prolonged process, and Hamoudi stressed that a participatory multiyear process could be damaging, as the constitution serves as the role for national identity and preserves democratic order. Al-Ali claimed that a multi-year process would have made a difference in Iraq, noting that a longer constitution making process would dilute the impact of “survival instincts” that accompany increased violence and an unstable political environment, where even holding talks about individual rights proves difficult.
Choudhry addressed the increasing scope and expanding process of constitutional negotiations. As it is essentially impossible to solve all constitution making matters in one single sitting, the modern debate has evolved into questions not of whether or not to defer, but of what can be deferred, to whom it is deferred, and when this deferral should take place. The final question for the panel posited whether change in Iraq could come from social action and a shift in the distribution of power away from the country’s elites. Al-Ali explained that social action is constrained by political parties, none of whom are eager to give up their power. While he could not say whether there exists a mechanism to make such change, he hopes to participate in such change-making efforts in the future.
Watch the video of the panel here.