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Studies 14 July, 2011

The Tribe and Democracy: The Case of Monarchist Iraq (1921-1958)


Abdulaziz Alhies

Abdulaziz Alhies is is originally from Ha’il Saudi Arabia where he completed his B.A. in Artistic Education at Hail Teachers College he continued his studies in English Language Teaching at Riyadh Teachers College after which time he taught both Art and English from 2001 until 2006. He has written for Arabic websites including Aljazeera.net and Elaph. Most recently Alhies completed his M.Sc. in Sociology at New Mexico State University in 2009. In addition to participating in educational and artistic projects his research interests are related to political sociology and he has completed a study looking at the relationship between democracy and tribe specifically in Iraq.

This study attempts to examine the perpetual political usage of the tribe, and is concerned with the ways in which the tribe has been politically exploited in the processes of political change in the region, specifically in relation to democratic transition. Usually, democratic transition involves a free space, or a margin of action, because of the freedom associated with democracy. This transition process may reduce the space of hegemony occupied by the ruling regime, increasing freedom of expression and popular participation, which engenders a political space that can be filled by political powers that do not abstain from using the traditional structures in society, such as the tribe or the sect. In the case of the Arab state with a totalitarian regime, it is to be expected to have the tribe used politically and exploited in different facets. In the democratic environment, however, the prospective situation remains unclear and requires further research and analysis.

This study accepts that the tribe, as a social formation, has been politically used under the modern regional state, including the period of the democratic experiment in monarchist Iraq,[1] which is the case studied in this paper. This era of Iraq's history (1921-1958) is a suitable case for the topic of this paper, for Iraq is a tribal society par excellence, and has witnessed an early attempt in the region to embrace and practice the democratic experiment in the first half of the 20th century.[2] This study also focuses on the interaction of the "Arab" tribe with the political dimension in Iraq, as it represents the majority of the Iraqi popular body.

Examining the available historical material on that period allows us to understand general characters and patterns relating to the political/social dimension in Iraq, including the despotism of the ruling elite, the continuing British interference in Iraq, conflicts between the ruling wings, cultural rejection to the acceptance and assimilation of modern values, as well as the concept of patriotism. This study focuses on comprehending an important pattern from that period - "the political influence of the tribe" - looking at how it was an important factor in degrading democratic practice in Iraq, which could be seen through their use as a social entity by political actors. The study will also look at the influence of the tribe through its cultural rejection of democratic practice.

In each of these cases, the tribe would be used as a "block" in the service of a specific camp, whether inside or outside the tribe, in a manner not befitting the expected political standards in a modern state. Some studies have revealed that the tribe was not the main culprit behind the collapse of the democratic project in monarchist Iraq; rather, the main factor was the corruption of the ruling elites of the time, and how they, according to Abdel Wahab Rashid in his "Democratic Transition in Iraq: the Legacy and the History," reduced government to a few individuals who had embedded themselves in the court and its policies, and were supported by the strong families and clans.

This is to say that the tribe had a helping, but instrumental, role in this issue, which was visible in different facets, such as the financial support of one political front against another, the flaring of a revolt or political instability in a specific region, or voting and siding politically with a specific political current. These are all interferences that do not conform to modern political practices, which accentuates the importance of studying the political influence of the tribe - especially since it remains an under-studied question.

Thus, this study will attempt to examine the cases in which political powers used the tribe in the political process in Iraq; by describing the historical events of that period, we could track the specific political/social manifestation of the political usage of the tribe. These events can only be understood when examined within their historical context.

This study concludes that the political stature of the tribe in monarchist Iraq took many forms and shapes, according to each phase and its political circumstances. In one stage, for example, the tribe could be a force of opposition to the political system, while, in another phase, it would enter into bitter conflicts with rival clans or against the government; alternatively, we could see a state of harmony and cooperation between the tribes and the ruling elites. These were all instances that have, as a general rule, hampered democratic and civic practice in the country.

This study shows that the tribe's structure and organization also exhibited different types and shapes; sometimes the clan would be united with shared goals and visions, beginning with the individual tribesman all the way to the sheikhs. In other instances, sheikhs would monopolize material and political gains at the expense of the tribesmen, engendering forms of exploitation that - in many instances - pushed tribesmen to rebel. These forms of exploitation included the acquisition of massive estates in what was known as the tribe's territory, and the use of the members of the tribe as hired hands in these lands. It became clear that the tribal sheikhs (especially those of Iraq's south) whose lands spread in all corners of the country were no longer focused, following the emergence of the modern state, on achieving material and moral gains for the tribe as a whole; instead,  they were - at least for a vast proportion of sheikhs - focused on personal gain and enrichment. Political elites exploited this greed and employed it in the service of many of its objectives, including the senior administrators of the British occupation.


  • [1] Abdel Wahab Rashid, Democratic Transition in Iraq: the legacy and the history, (Arabic), (Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, 2006).
  • [2] Dawisha Adeed, (2005), "Democratic Attitudes and Practices in Iraq: 1921-1958", The Middle East Journal, 59(1), p.11.