A new kind of dictatorship

The editor-in-chief of the opposition <em>al-Mada</em> newspaper recalls the years of exile and how disillusionment set in after the 2003 invasion, and expresses his fears for freedom of the press.

After 30 years or so of roaming in exile, moving from Lebanon to Cyprus, then Damascus, Syria, and landing at last in London, I returned to Iraq just two years ago. A decade earlier, it had seemed as if it would never be possible for a dissident like myself to make such a return to Baghdad. I just wanted to resettle in Baghdad, the city where I had the best years of my young life, four at the university and eight working in the non-state media for Tariq al-Shaab, a leftist daily newspaper that was shut down by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1979.

I still recall the day in July 1980 when I had to flee Baghdad in a coach travelling to Syria. From that moment, Baghdad became merely an image and memory. My second encounter with the city occurred a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Seeing my home again should have been a source of joy. In reality, it was a shock.

Baghdad was in ruins after three wars and 25 years of a brutal dictatorship. When I got back to London after that saddening visit, friends asked how I had found Baghdad. I answered: “The Baghdad I left was a glamorous woman in the heyday of her youth; now she is an aged creature on her deathbed.”

I imagined that Baghdad would rejuvenate itself within a few years. Like many fellow exiles, I thought the presence of international forces led by the US would help restore normal conditions in Iraq. Now, ten years on, it seems that Iraq will require another ten years to recover, given the carnage it has witnessed over the past decade.

The sectarian civil war that erupted in 2006 stretched well into 2008 and continues today by other means, in the form of a sharp struggle between the various political factions. Demonstrations against the government in the western, mostly Sunni Arab parts of the country are ongoing. After the invasion, the United States and its allies, notably the UK, initiated a flawed political process that was never going to suit Iraq.

In the post-Saddam restructuring, power was to be distributed along communal lines, reducing Iraq to three blocs – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – with each bloc represented according to its relative demographic weight. The Sunnis did not accept this and boycotted the US- and UK-led political process.

For years, the occupying forces could not find anyone with any weight to represent the Sunnis and the Sunni boycott led to marginalisation. Some opted for insurgency, at a very high price. As the Sunni politicians who agreed to take part in the political process had little influence among their constituents, the Shias and Kurds, backed by the US/UK alliance, sought to tighten their grip on the reins of power.

A precarious situation ensued. Leaders of the Shia Islamic parties, who were now in command of a large parliamentary bloc, began to monopolise power and marginalised the rest, including the Kurds. Shia leaders and communities continue to view Sunni representatives in the political process with suspicion, depicting them as Ba’athists, on the grounds that either they were members of the deposed ruling Ba’ath Party or they did business/had interests in common with it. The ruling Shia political leaders act as if Iraq is their private property and deal with the Sunnis and Kurds as minorities to be subsumed under majority rule. It is the same old ethos of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. The incumbent Shia leaders do not seem to realise that Iraq is not a unitary state, but rather a federal and decentralised polity. Nor do they seem to realise that not only does democracy ensure majority rule, it also guarantees the rights of minorities.

After the United States occupied Iraq, it started to dismantle state institutions under the pretext of de-Ba’athification. The resulting vacuum led to chaos and rendered the reconstruction of state institutions even more difficult. The Iraqis needed a chance to establish a new and stable state but the US played a damaging role. For instance, it was American diplomats who oversaw the writing of the country’s new constitution, a process that should have been handed over to constitutional jurists. The Sunni representatives refused to participate in the drafting of the legislation or in the referendum to approve it. The Americans applied pressure to speed up the process.

To silence the criticism, the US included a clause in the text of the basic law allowing amendments within six months. A parliamentary committee prepared the required changes but these have never been submitted to the Iraqi parliament.

The loopholes in the constitution were described as a “minefield” by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, just 15 months ago. The civil war of 2006-2008 was sparked by the explosion of some of these mines, and so were the current demonstrations in the western Sunni provinces. Yet al-Maliki took advantage of the loopholes, shortcomings and vague articles to enhance his personal, extra-constitutional power and to weaken the power of the parliament, the judiciary and independent or civil society bodies.

Ultimately, al-Maliki and his Dawa Party have managed to create a new kind of dictatorship. This is a curse not only to the Sunnis, or the Kurds, or the swaths of Shias, but to the country as a whole.

As an editor and columnist of al-Mada, a critical, oppositional newspaper in Iraq, I am given considerable editorial freedom, and there is certainly no shortage of subjects to cover. I am, however, concerned about the freedom of the press.

Fortunately, a draft anti-media law has now been reversed, much to the relief of my colleagues and peers. Journalism is a dangerous business, and yet the level of hazards is hardly higher than the tension about the car bombs and assassinations that continue to plague the people of Iraq.

Adnan Hussein is the editor-in-chief and deputy director of al-Mada newspaper

US Marines chain the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein before pulling it down. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories