The Iraqis have their say

by Tony Parkinson of The Age


February 2, 2005

Iraq's poll has given democracy a foothold in the Arab world, writes Tony Parkinson. The best thing about Iraq's elections is that we no longer have to take someone else's word for what the citizens of an Arab nation are thinking. It makes for a new conversation within, and about, the Middle East and, in this, potentially, lie the seeds of a popular revolution.

For the region's entrenched power elites, those inky fingers displayed so proudly outside polling stations in Iraq should be cause for white-knuckle panic. Their world is about to change. Probably irreversibly.

Why? Because the free expression of popular will in Iraq threatens to demolish a vast, self-serving industry of myth-making about Arab attitudes and aspirations. The most unseemly myth of all? That the Arab masses neither need nor want democratic freedom. That game is up. No longer do we have to endure the spectacle of staged government rallies to parade the love of the people for this or that dictator. No longer do we have to tolerate the insufferable pomposity of experts (more often ideologues) lecturing us on their unique insights into what the so-called "Arab street" says or believes.

Today, the Iraqi people can speak for themselves, and they have done so in vast numbers. According to Australian officials, the final turnout could be as high as 9.2 million, or roughly two-thirds of the eligible vote.

This represents, first of all, a massive popular repudiation of the violent insurgency. But when we listen to what some of the Iraqi people had to say about their first experience in democracy, we can begin to understand why the outcome was also less than reassuring for the collection of monarchs, presidents-for-life, mullahs and militarists holding power in the greater Middle East.

Here is a selection of first-person snapshots from Iraq's big day out:

"I moved to mark my finger with ink. I dipped it deep as if I was poking the eyes of all the world's tyrants."

"I felt like a king walking in his own kingdom."

"Iraq will be OK with so many brave people."

"We never believed that this day will come. It is a true feast for us."

"God willing, it will be remembered through the ages."

"This is the first step in one thousand miles towards freedom."

"Now I own my home."

Across much of the Arab world, media coverage of the elections was subject to official filtering. Not all of these messages will have got through in undiluted form. But some did. Unavoidably.

The Dubai-based satellite network, al-Arabiya, was among several to run extensive coverage of Iraqis celebrating as they queued outside polling stations. Said the network's director of news, Nakhle el-Hage: "We think it is a very important event, not just in Iraq but in the Arab world. It's the first real democratic event in the whole region and it deserved the attention."

In a November 2003 speech, George Bush declared that Iraq was to be but the first installment in a new American project. He argued that 60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East—all in the name of stability and security—had only contributed to the poisoning of the political order.

Bush Administration officials drafted a plan, the Greater Middle East Initiative, to promote political and economic reform in the region. This was a radical departure from the Cold War practice of coddling dictators, feudal hierarchies and autocrats.

You would have thought this might have been a cause for some celebration by the so-called progressive left. Instead, oddly, they pooh-poohed the concept, declaring it mission impossible. Much the same was said in the Arab capitals, where the Bush initiative was portrayed as a crass attempt to impose Western democratic culture on an unwelcoming Arab society.

I could never quite fathom the reasons for these strident voices of opposition. Surely there was no dispute that Arab societies lagged when it came to allowing the full participation of their citizens in political life.

So what was so fundamentally wrong with the notion of leading democracies taking up an advocacy role in encouraging more choices, more open dialogue, more opportunities for advancing individual and minority rights? Why were 200 million Arabs to be denied the possibilities extended to 400 million eastern Europeans only 15 years earlier? What is liberal internationalism if not the belief in the spread of freedom, the defeat of tyranny, and the universality of civil and human rights?

The only obvious explanation, sadly, was that, for some people, the need to demonstrate failure on the part of Bush and his allies was a more important priority than the fate of the Iraqi people. [emphasis added]

On Sunday, the Iraqi people had a bit to say about all this. They gave the nay-sayers something to chew on.

Self-evidently, the democratic evolution of Iraq is still in its embryonic phase. But Iraq is a reminder that nothing stays the same forever.

The Arab world is facing severe demographic, economic and social challenges. Reforms have been incremental at best, and leaders remain largely unaccountable.

Across the neighborhood, the debate on political liberalization is being conducted cautiously, sotto voce. But voices are stirring. Like the Iraqis, the day will come when they, too, are heard.

Tony Parkinson is international editor of The Age which is a 10-year old Australian publication. (replace the "AT" with "@")


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