The Magazine

Birth of a Democracy

From the February 14 / February 21, 2005 issue: Soon the whole Middle East will see Iraq's national assembly at work.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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ALL RIGHT. LET US make an analytical bet of high probability and enormous returns: The January 30 elections in Iraq will easily be the most consequential event in modern Arab history since Israel's six-day defeat of Gamal Abdel Nasser's alliance in 1967. Israel's pulverizing defeat of the Arab armies dethroned Nasserism, the romantic pan-Arab dictatorial nationalism that had infected much of the Arab world, particularly its intelligentsia, during the 1950s and '60s. With the collapse of Nasserism, the overtly secular socialist-cum-fascist age in the Middle East closed--except in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Its spirit would soon die there, too, a victim of Saddam's long and disastrous war against Iran (1980-88), which encouraged the Butcher of Baghdad to emblazon "God is Great" upon the Iraqi flag. Responding to the spiritual agony and internal rot of the pan-Arab dream, Islamic activism gained speed throughout the Middle East and has remained--outside of Iraq and now possibly Palestine--the only serious opposition to the vagaries, incompetence, and corruption of princely and dictatorial rule.

The January 30 elections will do for the people of Iraq, and after them, in all likelihood, the rest of the Arab world, what the end of the European imperial period did not: show the way to sovereignty without tyranny. For the first time really in Arab history, people power has expressed itself democratically. Say whatever you want about the coverage of the Arabic-language satellite channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabia, they relayed quite well stunning democratic imagery--the repeated shots of entire families voting together, from pregnant mothers with babies to grandparents in wheelchairs. The rulers of the Middle East will no doubt try to depict Iraq's democratic experiment as a vehicle of anti-Sunni Shiite extremism, but the U.S. government--parts of which (the State Department and the CIA) have a tendency to project the rulers' views onto their people--would be well advised to turn a deaf ear. Anyone who watched the satellite coverage knew those families were putting themselves into harm's way, as were even more the Sunni Arabs, who voted in greater numbers than many expected. Arab satellite television, which is Sunni-dominated except for the Lebanese Hezbollah's Al Manar service, has been playing a game--and Al Jazeera is more dedicated to this game than Al Arabia--of pretending that the insurgents in Iraq were the real Iraqis and that all Iraqis really in their hearts supported the insurgents. The savagery of the suicide bombers has undoubtedly complicated this good guy-bad guy scenario, but the easiest way out of this ethical pit has been to suggest that only the over-the-top holy warriors, like Abu Musab al Zarqawi, kill barbarically. Most insurgents, the good patriotic ones defending the fatherland and the fatherland's true faith, just kill American occupiers and their Iraqi lackeys--this has been, at least up to January 30, the reflexive Al Jazeera spin.

Arab satellite television has accordingly not liked to have long thoughtful discussions about Iraq's Shia Arabs and their near universal approval of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Not much really about Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent Shiite divine, who has usually encouraged cooperation with the Americans and always encouraged the advance of democracy. Not much either on the failure of Moktada al-Sadr, the rabble-rousing young cleric, to oppose violently the American presence in Iraq. (As long as Sadr could be depicted as an insurgent in the Sunni Arab media, he was a hero.)