The Blog

Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing

Iraq adopts the Transitional Administrative Law, and starts down the messy road towards real democracy.

11:00 PM, Mar 9, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"NOT EVERYBODY got everything they wanted in this law--that's the way of democracy." So said Paul Bremer, top American in Baghdad, at the signing of Iraq's historic Transitional Administrative Law on Monday. This interim constitution sets the ground rules for Iraqi self-government after the transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition on June 30 through the election of a national assembly less than a year from now--the ground rules, that is, by which Iraqis will continue their experience of not getting everything they want, under long-craved conditions of freedom.

What will they make of it? One straw in the wind comes from a group of Iraqis with more than average exposure to the process of drafting the new law: Iraqi journalists. A moving anecdote told by Ambassador Bremer's chief spokesman, Dan Senor, speaks worlds.

Baghdad reporters are a fresh and eager bunch. They've been inventing a craft since the fall of Saddam. Some 200 newspapers, small and large, have sprung up in the free-for-all since the liberation. Those who attend briefings by the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Iraqi Governing Council have followed the constitution-drafting process closely for months.

In addition to daily briefings, every Thursday, a rotating group of 10 to 15 reporters spends about 90 minutes with Ambassador Bremer. The meetings are held behind closed doors, but are on the record. Recently, all the basic constitutional questions--federalism, separation of powers, political freedom, the status of women, the status of Islam, and the rest--have been the subject of detailed discussions.

A week ago Saturday, Senor recounts, the deadline for drafting the new law was near, and negotiations among the Iraqis were intense. At 10:00 p.m., three members of the Governing Council--a Sunni, a Shiite, and a Kurd--emerged to update the press. They said there were difficult sticking points, and the deadline might have to slip by a few days, but all parties remained committed to reaching a compromise. Senor, who was watching, said you could see on the reporters' faces that they "got it." The council members worked through the night.

Finally, two days later came the press conference at which the council announced that an agreement had been reached. The document would include a unified, federal Iraq, equal rights for women, and a non-amendable bill of rights guaranteeing the essential freedoms. The reporters asked sophisticated questions. When they were finished, as the Iraqi Governing Council members walked off the stage, something happened that Senor had seen happen only once before, the day Saddam's capture was announced: The Iraqi journalists present stood up and cheered.

NOW THE EDUCATION, and self-education, of a wider Iraqi public will gather steam. The full text of the Transitional Administrative Law and the executive summary are up on numerous websites (starting with CPA site; an executive summary is available here) in several languages. Some Arabic, Kurdish, and English-language newspapers have printed the complete text; many others have printed the summary or highlights. Nearly 900,000 handbills, posters, and booklets outlining the bill of rights and other key passages are being disseminated around the country by the CPA, which has already sponsored numerous town hall meetings, according to Rob Tappan, director of strategic communications.

Meanwhile, the Iraq Foundation, a private nonprofit founded in 1991 by Iraqi exiles dedicated to democracy, is launching another series of discussions, starting in Baghdad and slated to extend to all 18 provinces. Some will convene invited public intellectuals and opinion leaders. Others will seek to reach larger audiences through universities, unions, cultural associations, the media, local councils, and NGOs.

The purpose is to stimulate reflection on self-government at the grass-roots. Says Hassan Mneimneh, director of documentation at the Iraq Memory Foundation, the purpose is to enable "an autodidactic and introspective phase for the acquisition of democratic values, rather than dispensing democracy as a new holy text."

Good. Anything dispensed from on high as holy writ could hardly be authentic democracy. The Iraqis deserve the real thing.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.