Abstract and Biography - American University of Beirut

Civil Society after Saddam: Oil Unions and Democracy in Iraq
Following the intervention in Iraq by coalition forces one decade ago, the Bush
Administration underwent an enormous and unprecedented project to bring the ‘Western’
liberal model of democracy to Iraq. For the first few years the project to bring democracy to
Iraq had its share of successes as the Iraqi people proved themselves capable of
understanding and utilizing democratic mechanisms and institutions. This culminated in a
series of nation-wide elections from 2005 onwards that brought a democratically elected
government to power (Isakhan, 2012). However, one of the unfortunate consequences of
the war and the US effort to bring democracy to Iraq was that many key ethno-religious
political factions viewed it as an opportunity to pedal their own relatively narrow and very
divisive political rhetoric (Davis, 2007). This meant that the Iraqi government was
constituted not so much by a body who wanted to draw Iraq together behind a common
ideology and to work towards a collective and egalitarian future, as it was by
representatives who would fight on behalf of their ethno-religious constituencies. Not
surprisingly, a great deal of academic literature has emerged which has analysed and
criticised the formal political parties and institutions of the post-Saddam era (Dawisha,
2009). Indeed, the bulk of contemporary scholarship on Iraqi politics focuses on issues such
as: the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Iraqi government; the obstinacy and
ineptitude of many elements of Iraq’s political elite; the systemic corruption that is
hollowing out the coffers of the state; the moribund bureaucracy that are struggling to
deliver basic services and; of course, the deep-seated divisions within and between those
that represent Iraq’s three main ethno-religious blocks: the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs and
the Kurds.
While each of these is certainly valid and important, most studies of contemporary Iraqi
politics have failed to appreciate the informal political networks and the hidden geographies
of power that have stood as bulwarks against foreign occupation, ethno-religious
sectarianism and violence, and rising authoritarianism in this deeply troubled state. Given
this context, this paper focuses on the specific case of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions
(IFOU), Iraq’s largest and most powerful independent workers union. The IFOU has
repeatedly taken the Iraqi government to task over their poor pay and the dangerous nature
of their work, as well as the government’s initial kowtowing to US plans to privatise the
entire Iraqi oil sector. To do this, the IFOU have utilised a rich array of very democratic
mechanisms including peaceful strikes and protests, media campaigns and political lobbying.
But when such measures have failed to garner the desired results, the IFOU has gone as far
as halting oil production and cutting off the supply of oil, kerosene and gas to the rest of the
country. Such moves have met with mixed results in Baghdad – at times the central
government has pandered to the requests of IFOU, at other times it has gone as far as
issuing arrest warrants for the senior members of the union. It is for all of these reasons that
the IFOU serve as an interesting example of informal power in Iraq and may well pose one
of the greatest challenges to rising authoritarianism there.
Benjamin Isakhan
Dr Benjamin Isakhan is Australian Research Council Discovery (DECRA) Senior Research
Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalization, and Convenor of the Australian
Middle East Research Forum at Deakin University, Australia. Previously, Ben was Research
Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University and Research Fellow for the Griffith
University Islamic Research Unit, affiliated with the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic
Studies, Australia. Ben has also been Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Middle
Eastern Studies and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (US) and at the
International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University (UK). Dr
Isakhan is the author of Democracy in Iraq: History, Politics and Discourse (Ashgate, 2012).
Ben is also the editor of The Secret History of Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 [2011]),
The Arab Revolutions in Context: Civil Society and Democracy in a Changing Middle East
(Melbourne University Press, 2012) and The Edinburgh Companion to the History of
Democracy (Edinburgh University Press & Columbia University Press, 2012). Broadly, his
research interests concern issues such as: Democracy in Iraq, the history of democracy, the
cultural heritage of the Middle East and Middle Eastern politics and history. Ben’s current
research includes the ARC-funded project ‘Measuring the Destruction of Heritage and Spikes
of Violence in Iraq’ (DE120100315) which involves several field trips to Iraq.
Davis, E. (2007). The Formation of Political Identities in Ethnically Divided Societies:
Implications for a Democratic Transition in Iraq. The American Academic Research
Institute in Iraq Newsletter, 2(1), 3-4.
Dawisha, A. (2009). Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Isakhan, B. (2012). Democracy in Iraq: History, Politics, Discourse. London: Ashgate.