I am no expert in Arabic grammar, but the latest confusion caused by a threat by Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to dissolve parliament is so simple to clear up that even I can do it.
Apparently, the culprit are English versions of the Iraqi constitution and in particular a mistranslation of article 64 which governs dissolution of parliament. It should be emphasized at first that English versions of the Iraqi constitution cannot be relied upon since there is not an official one. Their only value is that they may be faster to skim through for an English-speaking reader if something needs to be located fast, whereupon the relevant part of the Arabic version should be consulted.
Here is the relevant clause:
يُحل مجلس النواب، بالاغلبية المطلقة لعدد اعضائه، بناءً على طلبٍ من ثلث اعضائه، او طلبٍ من رئيس مجلس الوزراء وبموافقة رئيس الجمهورية
A reasonable translation would read roughly as follows:
“Parliament is dissolved by an absolute majority of its members, based upon a request from a third of its members or a request from the prime minister with the consent of the president.”
Now, possibly due to the insertion of several commas in the Arabic versions, some take this to read this as “parliament is dissolved by an absolute majority… or by a request from the prime minister with the consent of the president.”
That, of course, is dramatically different since it would leave the executive in a far stronger position vis-a-vis the legislature. But is it right? Thankfully, we do not need to rely on non-existing Arabic punctuation rules to serve as arbiter in this case. Instead, relax, breathe easy, and look for prepositions in the rump sentence in the case an attempt is made to link the dissolution of parliament directly to the prime ministerial request:
يُحل مجلس النواب او طلبٍ من رئيس مجلس الوزراء وبموافقة رئيس الجمهورية
“Parliament is dissolved or a request from the prime minister and the president.” The preposition “by” is lacking. This sentence wouldn’t have passed a secondary school exam and it cannot be the Iraqi constitution. If the intention had been to give the prime minister the right to dissolve parliament with the mere consent of the president, the relevant clause would instead have read aw bi talab min rais al-wuzara. But it doesn’t. It just says aw talab min rais al-wuzara. In this case, the preposition “by” (bi) is exclusively linked to the “absolute majority” of the parliament. This makes it clear that the prime ministerial involvement relates to the procedure for introducing the motion about parliamentary dissolution to parliament itself, which in turn will make the big decision about dissolving the assembly.
At any rate, at this point there is nothing to suggest that Maliki’s comments should be seen as anything more than a threat (“he feels forced/under pressure to call early elections”). There is no indication that there is even presidential agreement to introduce the motion to parliament, and in any case Maliki would probably be unlikely to win it. He probably knows it; why would Iraqi parliamentarians risk their own privileges?
The more worrying point is the tone of Maliki’s comments after meeting with Ibrahim al-Jaafari last Sunday, asking parliament to clean up its act before questioning him. There is much to suggest that Maliki may have a stronger parliamentary base than his opponents claim, but language of the kind he used over the weekend may soon lead to the evaporation over any additional support he got recently from disgruntled Iraqiyya MPs unhappy with the no confidence proposal.
Much as his enemies appear unable to muster the 163 votes needed to unseat him, Maliki needs to understand that the implication of this is not that he himself controls 163 votes in the Iraqi parliament.