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-If you’ve missed the first part of the series, where I analyze the role of Western intervention in the Middle East in the conflict that has set the grounds for ISIS, you can find it here!-

If I had to single out one mistake in countries’ plans of action in the Middle East, it would probably be their permanent struggle to outsmart each other – in a particularly complex and absurd prisoner’s dilemma- believing that they can control the evolution of the conflict. They fail to understand that their fellow contenders are also humans, stubborn, temperamental humans; or they fail to act on that knowledge. In addition to this, each country in the region sports its own political dynamics, every citizen stores his own political hopes and frustrations. ISIS feeds off of those grievances, parasitizing local politics.

A look at Middle Eastern governance may leave us with a dystopian fiction feel, since their institutional structure often contains both the essence of oppression and a set-up that guarantees its continuity. In an article for Mother Jones, Patrick Cockburn quotes an Iraqi politician saying that his country’s parties are “too weak to win, but too strong to lose”.  As the journalist goes on to argue, the same could be said about political regimes all across the Middle East: they are too weak to address the population’s needs, but so strong that they suppress any attempt of transformation.

Although most countries in the Middle East frequently hold elections, the 2016 Freedom in the World Index published by Freedom of the House only gives Israel the status of electoral democracy (Whether Israel is really a democracy or not is also a subject of discussion). Islam is frequently accused of obstructing democratization in the region, but the real obstacle could be found within the state administration itself. Researcher Eva Bellin attributes it to the strength of Middle Eastern states’ coercive apparatus: the military and the police. The brutal performance of Bashar Al-Assad’s security forces against the 2011 demonstrations that gave way to the Syrian civil war was the result of a nepotistic policy that selected commanders on the basis of their relation to the Assad family. Even the Iraqi army, of which military analyst Mike Lyons said last year that “in blunt terms,” it is “barely able to defend the country”, has been repeatedly blamed of mistreatment of minorities and violent repression, due to the former Prime Minister’s manipulation.


Data source: Pew. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)
Data source: Pew. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)


Essentially, the executive’s ruthlessness permeates the State institutions, eliminating all possible oversight. Iraq scored 0 out of 16 in Rule of Law in the 2016 Freedom in the World Index, with allegations of lack of due process in politically-motivated trials. In Turkey, a new bill enacted shortly after the coup envisages the removal of a majority of Supreme Court judges, and their replacement with new jurists appointed by a government-administered body. Similarly, civil society organizations (trade unions, NGOs) and the media are infiltrated and controlled by the state, that establishes its own criteria to allow for their existence. Civil society is often found to be the only possible source of democratization.

Most of the countries’ legal systems have provisions that protect the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression and association, but legislation is often too vague to be taken into account. Fear becomes the driving force. Internally, potential government retaliation has a deterrent effect; externally, past and neighboring regimes and armed groups offer a security dilemma that beautifies the regime by comparison.

Researchers Eva Bellin and Raymond Hinnebusch highlight the role of state income in the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. In what’s known as “the resource trap”, the revenues from resources such as petroleum, gas, geo-strategic utility or transit facilities increase government’s incentives to resort to repression. First, they generate the economic backing for exorbitant security expenditures. More importantly, they make the state independent from its population’s financial contributions in the form of taxes. Not needing fiscal revenues to support state activity, governments are even less encouraged to keep their citizens content. Moreover, when there are ties between the leadership’s private capital and the State’s assets, rulers have more at stake than just political power.

Female voter displays her purple finger tips after casting ballots at an elementary school in Nasiriyah (Iraq's fourth largest city) March 7 2010. The heavy purple dye reduces attempts of double-voting fraud. Source: DVIDSHUB on Flickr
Female voter displays her purple finger tips after casting ballots at an elementary school in Nasiriyah (Iraq’s fourth largest city) March 7 2010. The heavy purple dye reduces attempts of double-voting fraud. Source: DVIDSHUB on Flickr

Picking an electoral system that serves national needs for stability and inclusion, that avoids gridlock and at the same time gives all groups political representation, remains extremely challenging. Aside from devious practices like Assad’s screenings of opposition parties and personal appointment of committees that decide who can serve as a non-affiliated farmer or laborer (to whom the Syrian Constitution allocates 51% of the seats), more well-intentioned efforts to establish a fair system often face a predicament. In Jordan, the high number of electoral districts is said to reinforce tribalism and clientelism, since it’s easier for candidates to “buy” voters. In Iraq, the existence of a single voting district was (it was changed before December 2015 parliamentary elections) deemed regionally exclusionary. The unwritten power-sharing agreement, virtually in force in the country until the aftermath of the recent elections, was perceived as both necessary and divisive.

The profoundly dystopian element of the Middle Eastern political ploy, however, lies in its sectarianism. In a “voter enslavement” of sorts, the electorate is in practice presented with the choice of voting for the religious affiliation they profess or for a different one. Consequentially, their attention is diverted from political demands and towards group loyalty. This kinship divisiveness, generally called “unsuccessful nation-building,” seems to me a very successful strategy for parties to secure an electoral base.

Former Iraqi Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashemi (Sunni) told Frontline in 2014 that Arab Sunni communities that he had convinced in 2008 to engage in political participation instead of violent insurgency addressed him again in 2011, and said: “Mr. Hashemi, you remember in 2008 when you convinced us to join you in the political process? This is the result? Now you are not able to protect yourself? [There’s] no way that we are going to participate in the political process.” The demoralization of Sunni individuals, that felt that gaining political representation would be impossible, favored IS’ and other violent militias’ recruitment. In turn, the Islamic State’s threat has had a surprising dual impact in Iraqi politics.

Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Flickr
Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015. Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Flickr

On the one hand, the presence of the Islamic State has exacerbated sectarian tensions, igniting “preventive” attacks against the Sunni population, that are scapegoated. Shia militias like the Popular Mobilization Units (formed under a religious appeal by Iraq’s Shiite authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to protect the country against ISIS) have been regarded as necessary support for the frail Iraqi army, but Sunni parties view them with mistrust. Amnesty International has repeatedly denounced the militias’ reprisal killings of Sunni civilians.

Interestingly enough, on the other hand, ISIS has surfaced as the collapse of sectarian politics. Its rise has pushed forward the urge for reform like no activist could. New Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised to form a cabinet of technocrats without political (sectarian) affiliation to weigh in on the country’s issues, and to abolish party and sectarian quotas. While his efforts have encountered reluctance in parliament, they illustrate a change of policy. Additionally, in 2014 President Obama requested the Iraqi authorities end Shiite abuses if they wished to continue receiving military aid from the US. Inadvertently, ISIS may have planted the seeds for its defeat: inclusive politics that seek to solve social problems instead of benefitting from them.


Al Jazeera:


Amnesty International:

Comparative Politics, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Jan., 2004), pp. 139-157:

Democratization Journal:

Foreign Affairs:

Foreign Policy:

Foreign Policy Research Institute:

Freedom House:

Frontline PBS:

Institute for the Study of War:

International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance:

International New York Times:

International NGO Training and Research Centre:

The Jerusalem Post:

Middle East Eye:

Middle East Forum:

Mother Jones:


Popular Protest in the New Middle East: Islamism and Post-Islamist Politics:



The Washington Post:

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