What Iraqi Civil Society Can Teach Government

When asked about the outlook of Iraq over the past seven years since the U.S.-led invasion, one leading Iraqi politician described it as the seven years of Joseph. The seven bad years Islamic and Biblical traditions tell the story of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. This talent won him an audience with the King, and Joseph interpreted the King’s dreams as foreshadowing seven years of prosperity that would be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advised the King to store surplus grain during the years of abundance to prepare for the years of famine.

Perhaps Iraq is the inverse story of Joseph. The prevailing hope remains that the last seven years were an initiation phase, and the seven good years will begin with Iraq’s new government formation. To make that into a reality, instead of collecting surplus grains, Iraqi decision-makers need to start collecting lessons learned.

Once more, Iraq finds itself at a turning point. From the transition of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) leadership to full Iraqi control to writing the constitution, Iraq has consistently found itself at an existential crossroads over the past seven years. Now more than ever, the pressure to make the right choices is on. Although a new Iraqi government was announced in November, it remains under a dark cloud of an eightmonth delay, calling into question Iraq’s stability. Coupled with a waning Washington interest in Iraq and the deadline of the U.S. military scale-down in August, the burden of proof of a stable and prospering Iraq is more difficult than ever. In fact, the question remains: What will the sovereign nation of Iraq look like?

So far, the odds are not in Iraq’s favor. Iraqi politicians still complain about crucial decisions made under the U.S.-led CPA leadership that have negative long-term consequences. The most commonly cited are the dismantling of the military, the de-Baathification process and the preference toward expatriate Iraqi leadership. Despite these mistakes, the truth remains that the most valuable lessons for Iraq’s future are hidden in the last place people have been looking – inside Iraq. More specifically, inside Iraq’s civil society.

Since 2003, there has been little attempt made to understand what Iraqi civil society had suffered, no attempts to heal, and with that, a missed opportunity to build on Iraq’s previous experiences. Instead, there was an urgency to forget everything prior and to build a “new” Iraq and a new civil society.

Naturally, it was not that simple. Iraqi civil society’s past continued to emerge in new shapes and sizes, often serving as obstacles to true growth. The ghosts from previous experience overshadowed even the best of NGOs and filled them with self doubt and internal fighting. The patterns that emerged in civil society are parallel to political parties, challenges in the government and are already being mirrored in provincial councils. Some of the patterns include a strong dependency on powerful or charismatic leaders over institutional development, lack of transparency in funding and donor relations, and resistance to taking any form of initiative. Over the last seven years, civil society in Iraq has begun to identify the challenges facing this sector and has found creative ways to address them.

Many development practitioners could argue that Iraqi civil society is the silver lining around the dark cloud looming over Iraq. Undoubtedly, it is an ingredient within the new mosaic of Iraqi politics that many neighboring countries still do not possess. For Iraqi civil society to be useful, the lessons learned in this sector must be captured.


This is not to say that Iraqi civil society was created in 2003. It has always existed. One of the assumptions early on was that Iraq had no civil society. Yet Iraq has always had a vibrant civil society, with some women’s organizations dating to the early 1900s, and professional associations, such as the doctors, engineering or lawyers unions, playing an important role in the national debate. Despite the political turmoil, many of these civil society advocates always found a way to remain active in their communities.

Civil society existed in its own nature, and like many other parts of Iraq, was among the many victims of the Baathist regime. Saddam Hussein strategically “nationalized” civil society so it would be merged with the state. This included the professional unions, student body organizations on university campuses, artists (who began painting or singing tributes only to Saddam) and even the women’s organization. The regime targeted these groups, purged any independent thought or ideology and used them as outlets for its own agenda.

What was left was a very unhealthy civil society. Iraqi organizations that once represented its members were now used to test loyalty to the Baathist regime and exert social control over their peers. All products from this civil society centered on pleasing the ruling elite. Naturally, there was resistance, and we all know very well what happened to those who resisted along with their families. If they managed to escape, they became among the millions of Iraqis who were in exile. Their voices were loud but the regime had erected a sound barrier across Iraq, further alienating those who remained. Those still in Iraq were persecuted, tortured and humiliated by Saddam loyalists who infiltrated universities, cultural and art institutions, professional associations and student bodies.

Therefore when everyone was talking about building civil society, the missing ingredient was truly un-building, or deconstructing, what had infiltrated civil society for the past 30 years. The meaning of the word has become so distorted that its legacy in Iraq was unrecognizable to outsiders and Iraqis themselves. After 2003, the biggest misperception was that civil society was a brand-new concept. The strongest understanding was that civil society equaled nongovernment organizations. Within the first few days of establishing a registration process for NGOs in August 2003, more than 3,000 groups were registered. Over the years, they became known as the “briefcase NGOs,” symbolizing that these organizations were represented by one individual.

Today, the topography of civil society looks very different than it did seven years ago. Organizations have begun to understand the nuances that differentiate members of civil society from contractors hired to perform a task. There is also a growing awareness of the importance of civil society to represent the qualities they are demanding from government: transparency, efficiency and cost effectiveness. The seven years of capacity building for civil society is only now beginning to show some traction. More and more, Iraqi organizations are moving away from charismatic leadership – whose day job is often tied to government – and to establish a stronger institutional base. In almost all cases, this is demand driven. The Iraqi population has openly questioned the independence and effectiveness of organizations, and often in workshops, trainings and service delivery, beneficiaries will hold civil society leaders accountable.


Without the proper institutions in place, leaders in civil society began to realize they had little to no ties with the grassroots. A large part of the emerging groups were rooted in the educated elite. There was recognition that the elite serve an important role, but they are just one piece. With the insecurity and transitions within government, a crucial power lies with the communal, religious and tribal authorities. Organizations began to make a stronger attempt to not only expand their membership base, but to also participate in capacity building of weaker organizations that were working in remote areas. Members of civil society realized that the phenomenon of the briefcase NGO was an obstacle for an active civil society. Over the past two years, several networks have emerged to enhance civil society’s ability to maximize knowledge sharing and cooperative advocacy. They were no longer thinking as individuals or separate organizations, but began developing an identity as an interdependent sector within Iraq.

Nothing tells this story better than the passage of the Iraqi law for NGOs. Although there are many questions on how the law will be implemented, there is no doubt that the new law is among the more liberal laws addressing civil society in the region. This law was passed after intensive lobbying by national Iraqi organizations and supporters within the parliament. A previous draft was introduced to parliament in March 2009 stipulating that Iraqi NGOs were prohibited from affiliating with any foreign entities (including the United Nations, USAID and the Red Cross) without central government approval, and must register or suffer criminal penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment. Not only were these stipulations removed, but the new law introduced safeguards for local NGOs. The March 2009 draft allowed the government to reject applications for registration without specifying a cause; the new law requires any rejection to be tied to a legal justification. The Iraqi government can no longer audit or inspect an NGO nor can it suspend an NGO and confiscate its property as was the case in CPA Order 45. Now the government is required to receive a court order.

These efforts demonstrate the power of civil society to influence decision makers. It also emphasizes the notion that as a bloc, civil society can play an essential role within the national Iraqi debate.

Today, eyes are focused on the ongoing negotiations between the leading political parties to determine what the Iraqi government will look like. Analysts argue that the outcome will determine the future track of Iraq. Throughout the process, Iraqi political parties have been sending delegations to neighboring countries, Europe and the United States to discuss a potential alliance. Perhaps lessons learned could begin at home.

Manal Omar is the Director of Iraq Programs for the United States Institute of Peace. Prior to this she worked as the Regional Program Manager for the Middle East at Oxfam Great Britain and Regional Coordinator for Iraq at Women for Women International. She is also the author of Barefoot in Baghdad, excerpted on pg. 154.

Iraqi civil society’s past continued to emerge in new shapes and sizes, often serving as obstacles to true growth. The ghosts from previous experience overshadowed even the best of NGOs and filled them with self doubt and internal fighting.

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  • About the autor
    Manal Omar

    Manal has over fifteen years working in the field of women's rights, peacebuilding, humanitarian aid, and development. Manal is dedicated to creating a safe space for dialogue on current events in the Muslim and Arab world on identity, civil society, and women's rights. She is also the author of Barefoot in Baghdad. Follow her on twitter @manalomar and at manal-omar.com

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