The Magazine

The Whole Region Is Watching

From the January 31, 2004 issue: What Iraq's election means for the Middle East.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By MARC GINSBERG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

RICHARD DALEY, THE LATE mayor of Chicago and a master of ward politics, would have been proud. In a Baghdad suburb last week, activists for Prime Minister Allawi's "Iraqi List" were handing out the Middle Eastern equivalent of "walking around money" to Arab media covering the election--a little "baksheesh," in advance, for a kind story. Each journalist received a spanking new one-hundred dollar bill, ostensibly for braving the perils of Iraq's mean streets.

It's election time in Iraq. Campaign posters are plastered all over Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad. Political ads are filling daily newspapers, extolling parties and candidates, only a few of whom dare go door to door looking for votes. Even Iraq's fledgling Communist party is getting in on the act. Their slogan, "Communism is stronger than death and higher than the gallows," refers to the many Communist party leaders who were hanged by Saddam.

If prime minister Allawi has his way, on January 30 millions of Iraqis will courageously venture to polling stations (their locations as yet unknown to protect them from attack). This unprecedented expression of Iraqi democratic will should make for a remarkable testimony to the people's courage and their determination to be done with the old order.

Iraq's voters are the principal players in the great moral showdown, taking place in Osama bin Laden's backyard, between democracy and Islamic dictatorship. Next Sunday's vote will represent an unprecedented experiment in Arab democracy, a major step in fulfilling President Bush's ambitious goal, as laid down in his second inaugural speech, to set the Middle East on a path to liberty and freedom from tyranny.

Bin Laden and extremist clerics have brainwashed their followers into believing that Muslims must only be governed by Islamic religious laws, and not by man-made laws promulgated by mere elected officials. Voting in elections is, in their book, a defiance of Allah's ultimate jurisdiction over the conduct of humans. This edict finds its roots in Signposts on the Road by Sayyid Qutb, the ideological godfather of Osma bin Laden: "In the world there is only one party, the party of Allah; all of the others are parties of Satan and rebellion."

The election, granted, won't be perfect. It will proceed under a boycott, called by many Sunni leaders, and in the face of insurgent violence as well as a dire warning from Osama bin Laden that "anyone who participates in these elections has committed apostasy against Allah."

And while the precise outcome--including whether the election will steal the thunder from the insurgents or the insurgents will succeed in their efforts to significantly disrupt voting--cannot be known, it is sure to be an incredible day. Oh, what a spectacle this event will make as televisions all over the election-starved Arab and Muslim world broadcast images of Iraqis exercising their suffrage.

From Casablanca to Tehran, the chattering masses are surely already pondering how open democratic elections can be held in Iraq--and Palestine--and not elsewhere in the region. Why not also in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and Egypt?

While Washington hopes that the elections will represent an important first step toward freedom and prosperity throughout the Middle East, Arab heads of state worry that uncorking the democratic genie could escalate the threat of civil war in Iraq, perhaps leading to its disintegration. They also fear it could unleash unquenchable demands for democratic reform at home with dire consequences to their own hold on power.

For Sunni enemies of freedom, there is also the added discomfort of watching a member of the home team--a Sunni-dominated regime--on the run. The terrorist Abu Musab al arqawi has referred to the Shia as "the lurking snakes and the crafty scorpions, the spying enemy and the penetrating venom."

Rather than applaud the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Iraq, some Arab leaders and commentators have dismissed the elections, deeming the process illegitimate and unrepresentative.

In November 2004, during a visit to Egypt, Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite, appealed to his fellow Arab leaders to help him persuade Sunnis to participate in the election. Several leaders gave him the cold shoulder, or paid only lip service to his pleas. Others demanded that representatives of the Sunni insurgency be invited to the resulting summit, since otherwise their interests would not be "represented" at the gathering. (What is the Arab word for "chutzpah"?)

In a November 25 article entitled "Democratic Occupation?" columnist Salama Ni'mat, the Washington bureau chief of the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, irately noted Arab leaders' contempt for democracy and lack of concern for their Muslim brethren in Iraq: