The Current State of Affairs—the Arab Spring and the Iraqi Experience as Historical Junctures in Governance

A series of uprisings in 2011 across the Arab Middle East demanding political reforms and social justice that came to be known as the Arab Spring[1] have been one of the catalysts for the this reconfiguration. While the full ramifications of the Arab Spring are yet to be known, it marked the entry of the region into a pronounced struggle to redefine regional power dynamics through a series of proxy wars,[2] interstate interventions, and the emergence of numerous influential Islamist non-state actors that in extreme cases have challenged the control of state governments through violent appropriation of territory. These regional struggles were/are animated by national dynamics. At one extreme there is the Syrian civil war (2011-present), which has been responsible for massive destruction of towns and cities, deaths of civilians, and one of the biggest refugee crises in recent history.[3] On the other extreme, there is the Tunisian experience of national governance renegotiation through constitutional reforms and electoral democratization. Between these two extremes, deliberations and experiments with national and regional governance arrangements continue to take place.[4]

If the Arab Spring has ushered in, among other things, a wave of governance re-design at the national levels, Iraq provided an example (to avoid) for these attempts to redesign political life and governance methods. Between 2003 and 2006, Iraq witnessed a massive governance experiment during a period of transition. The Iraqi example is useful to consider in order to illustrate the first problem that is of concern in this chapter: that of knowledge abstraction in governance practices. While the Iraqi case is a national case, not a regional one, its consequences, the lessons learned, and the expertise that has been built, have all had regional ramifications.

Less than a decade before the initiation of the Arab Spring, Iraq witnessed major transitional moments: from the US-led occupation in 2003 and the consequent collapse of the state institutions, to the eruption of the sectarian civil war 2006-7. Capitalizing on the weakening of the Iraqi state as a result of over a decade of international sanctions in the 1990s[5] and the consequent policies post-2003, in June 2014 a multinational Islamist militant group, the Islamic State, took control over a vast territory of the country's eastern and northeastern provinces. Inspired by the events of the Arab Spring, protests continue to take place in major Iraqi cities demanding better governance, social justice, and democratic politics.[6] Upon the US-led occupation of the country in 2003, Iraq became the object of an American state-building project. A main aspect of this project was the introduction of democracy as a governance method that would transform the country into a regional democratic model. Knowledge about the country and the region was translated into more 'governable' forms of information by international (and especially American) governance experts. The following section will draw on examples from the Iraq experience to illustrate the first point in the chapter's argument on the difficulties of drawing a critical (regional) perspective on governance;

difficulties that arise from the nature of governance (national, regional, or global level) as a technology of ordering that requires the production of abstracted forms of knowledge about the objects that it tries to act upon.

  • [1] A comprehensive historical account of these uprisings that details their composition, politicalmake-up, and organization is yet to be written. However, for a collection of accounts of issuesrelated to the Arab Spring and attempts to explain aspects of this phenomenon, see McMurray andUfheil-Somers (2013), Lynch (2014), and Gerges (2014).
  • [2] The region has witnessed a number of proxy wars in the past 40 years in which regional andinternational powers compete for regional influence through providing financial, logistical orpolitical support and occasionally physically participating in armed conflicts in a third country.For example, and most famously, the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) was fuelled by Iranian,Syrian, Israeli and Arab Gulf interventions. More recently, Iraq and Syria offer prime examples inwhich major regional powers, such as Iran, Turkey and Arab Gulf countries, compete for influencethrough supporting and arming different fighting factions in both countries. This is discussedfurther in the sections below.
  • [3] As of May 2016 there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR. Of this numberthere are 2.1 million refugees in Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq and 2.7 million in Turkey (UNHCR 2016).As of December 2015, it has been estimated that among those who stayed in Syria there are6.5 million internally displaced persons and 72 per cent of the population has no access to cleanwater. For further details on the extent of the humanitarian crisis, see the UN's HumanitarianResponse Plan for 2016 (UNOCHA 2015).
  • [4] Other countries that have been through (or are still going through) constitutional reformsinclude Libya, Egypt, and Yemen.
  • [5] For an account of the sanctions regime as a form of intervention and its ramifications on theground, see Sarah Graham-Brown (1999).
  • [6] More recently, the Iraqi Parliament was stormed by protesters.
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