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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January 30 and the coming of Iraq's newly elected national assembly will make the past prejudice extremely difficult to maintain. A decent bet today would be that most of the Sunni Arabs who watched the Iraqi elections on satellite television probably both admire and feel ashamed of what happened. However much they may admire the Iraqis for defying the violence to vote in massive numbers, they are also probably ashamed that the Shia displayed such courage, while they in their own countries do not. (It's not at all contradictory for an Egyptian to hope that January 30 will help end President Hosni Mubarak's despised dictatorship and yet feel a bit sickened that it is Shiite Arabs--the black sheep of the Arab Muslim family--who are leading the faithful to a democratic rebirth.) And it is certainly true that the enabling hand of the United States provokes great waves of contradictory passion. It is worthwhile to note that these same emotions are common among the Iraqi Shia: The more religious and nationalistic they are (and the two impulses are quite harmonious among the Shia), the more difficult they find it psychologically to accept their freedom from the Americans. But the Shia have--with the possible exception of the followers of Moktada al-Sadr--gotten over it. So likely will the average non-Iraqi Sunni Arab who wants to see elected leadership in his native land.

But our Muslim "allies" in the Middle East are much less likely to get over it. They saw on television what their subjects saw: The American toppling of Saddam Hussein has allowed the common man to become the agent of change. This is particularly gripping in a region historically addicted--at least the leaders would like to so believe--to a top-down political identity. Go to Jordan, one of the more "progressive," "pro-American" states in the region, and the omnipresence of pictures of King Abdullah, often next to pictures of his late father, King Hussein, does the opposite of what the picture-hangers intend: It suggests a fundamental uneasiness about the monarchy's legitimacy. (As the Hashemite state continues to spend much more than the state can earn, this sense of unease will undoubtedly rise even further. Fiscal profligacy, both in Egypt and Jordan, will continue to be a driving force behind the popular desire to see the political systems open up.)

JUST IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES of pan-Arab dialogue when Iraq begins to broadcast the debates within the new national assembly. And remember, the Iraqi national assembly, not the new president, prime minister, and other cabinet officials, is likely to remain the real power center in Iraq, at least until a new constitution is written. Iraqis are a diverse people--though not as diverse as many civil-war-is-here! Western commentators would like us to believe--and they will have vivid arguments about what belongs in their basic law. It will not be hard for Arabs elsewhere, even for the most Shiite-cursing, American-hating Arab Sunnis who loathe the American-supported dictators above them, to find common ground and aspirations in these debates, which will likely be the most momentous since Egypt's literary and political elite started taking aim at (and advantage of) British dominion over the Nile Valley in the early twentieth century. If the Bush White House were wise, it would ensure that all parliamentary debates are accessible free via satellite throughout the entire Middle East. Such Iraqi C-SPAN coverage could possibly have enormous repercussions. For just a bit of extra money, Washington should dub all of the proceedings into Persian, remembering that Baghdad's echo is easily as loud in Tehran as it is in Amman and Cairo. The president has stated that he wants to stand by those who want to stand by democratic values. This is easily the cheapest and one of the most effective ways of building pressure for democratic reform.

Recalling 1967, or for that matter virtually any memorable date in contemporary Arab history before the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, reminds one acutely how painful the process of Westernization has been in the Near East since Napoleon landed at Alexandria in 1798. The Muslims of the Middle East have tried variations of every intoxicating bad Western idea that promised quick power to peoples, especially to their leaders, whose historical memories were built by a militarily victorious faith. By and large, certainly among the elites, they drank voluntarily and rapaciously. And the results have been awful.