January 29, 2005 | Weekly Standard

The Whole Region Is Watching

What Iraq's election means for the Middle East.

By: Ambassador Marc Ginsberg.

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:

It is sad and pathetic that the eyes of the entire world are upon the Palestinian and Iraqi elections that will be held under the lances of foreign occupation, while the peoples of the 'independent, free, and sovereign Arab countries' have no way of expressing their will. It is sad and pathetic that certain [Arab] countries today are treating the Iraqis with the cheapest kind of political hypocrisy, even though no one heard any particular Arab protest during the time of the regime of the mass graves.
But even among the naysayers, Syria stands out. Its Baathist clique has made a great effort to sabotage the elections, leaving its fingerprints all over the violence in Iraq. Its ruling tribe, the Assad Alawites, know full well that if an open election were held in Syria, they would shortly become a reviled minority within a minority. Iraqi prime minister Allawi has pulled no punches with Damascus. He has repeatedly accused Syria of hosting “wanted elements,” including Saddam's former vice president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri–believed to be one of the masterminds responsible for funding and commanding the insurgency.

Coalition and Iraqi intelligence continue to track a steady stream of insurgency financing and communications back to safe havens in Syria. Will Syria ever be held accountable for blatant interference in Iraq's internal affairs? Perhaps.

Arab leaders are under increasing internal pressure to reform. The question facing Arab rulers is whether they are prepared to sail with or against these winds of change. Fortuitously, there are faint stirrings of democratic reform throughout the Arab Middle East.

In Egypt, parliamentary and presidential elections are approaching later this year. Three Egyptians have dared to say they intend to challenge incumbent President Hosni Mubarak, who is almost certainly planning to “run” for a fifth six-year term. There is just one obstacle. Under Egypt's constitution, the challengers must first secure a constitutional amendment, since current law allows for there to be only one candidate for president. That “candidate” is nominated by the Egyptian parliament, 85 percent of whose seats are under the control of Mubarak's party.

In Saudi Arabia, elections for, albeit toothless, town councils are to be held next month. But even this feeble step forward might be seen as the beginning of Saudi Arabia's slow emancipation from the shackles of Wahhabism.

In Morocco, King Mohammed has bravely introduced new laws protecting the rights of women and has undertaken other reforms that deserve admiration and duplication elsewhere in the Arab world.

But, by any objective measure, outside of Palestine and Iraq, serious democratic reform is, sadly, not underway. What one sees elsewhere in the Middle East are baby steps, modest incremental changes that may in fact be nothing more than a distraction intended to buy time for these despotic regimes.

If, as President Bush stated on January 20, “the survival of liberty in our land depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” then the first test of democracy in Iraq will lead to other breakthroughs for democracy in the Middle East. What happens in Iraq on January 30 and what becomes of this great experiment may determine whether George Bush's inaugural challenge to the Arab world is empty rhetoric or a provident foreshadowing of positive change to come.

– Marc Ginsberg, U.S. ambassador to Morocco during the Clinton administration, is managing director of Northstar Equity Group, an affiliate of APCO Worldwide in Washington, D.C.


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