Iraq’s elections and the paradoxes of Arab reform

The Daily Star – Lebanon
January 11, 2005

The foreign ministers of several Arab regimes met in Jordan recently and issued a call to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to participate in the January 30 parliamentary elections. Turkey and a reluctant Iran signed on to the appeal. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq have threatened to boycott the vote unless it is delayed and their concerns are addressed. After several pro-American Sunni and Shiite politicians voiced sympathy for this demand, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi telephoned President George W. Bush for his advice. Bush told him to stick with the election deadline, no matter what. Arab governments in Iraq’s neighborhood rushed to Amman to plead with Sunni Arab Iraqis to forget about their grievances and get on with the vote. Whether the elections are delayed or held on schedule, Iraq and the region are entering a long era of turbulence that will lead to the evolution of democratic or populist governments in key Arab states. But what does one make of the sudden fervor for Iraqi democracy displayed by autocratic Arab regimes? It reminds me of a picnic that Allied troops were having at the end of World War II on the German-Polish border. A courier brought a copy of a telegram. It said that President Harry Truman had congratulated the Allied forces on their victory over Adolf Hitler’s army and ordered U.S. troops home. Several Americans threw their lunch plates away, got up and began celebrating. “Calm down, Yankees!” A Soviet soldier admonished his American friends. “You don’t need to go crazy over it.” “Commie,” retorted an American, “You won’t know what it means to be back in a free country. I can stand in front of the White House and yell: ‘Truman is an idiot!’ You can’t imagine such a thing.” “Is that a big deal?” replied the Russian. “I too can stand in front of your White House and yell: ‘Truman is an idiot.'” The Russian might have fancied a moment of freedom in America because he couldn’t have it in the U.S.S.R. Today Arab autocracies want the democratic process to work in Iraq because they do not want it spread to their countries. Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general, explained earlier that a Sunni boycott of the vote would “destabilize” not just Iraq, but the whole Middle East, meaning the monarchies and autocracies he represents. Iraq is about finished as a unified country. The Kurdish north will not give up the de-facto independence it has been enjoying since the U.S. began protecting it as a “no-fly zone” after the 1991 Gulf War. The Shiites make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population, and they will almost certainly go through with the vote, form a government and write a constitution. But the writ of that government won’t extend to the so-called “Sunni triangle.” Sunni Arabs, many of whom supported Saddam Hussein, are believed to make up about 20 percent of the Iraqi population. They say the elections, for which they weren’t consulted, are an American trick to do two things: let the Kurds, who are on good terms with Israel, practically secede and serve as Israel’s fifth column against the Arabs; and punish Sunni Arabs for supporting Saddam by placing them under permanent Shiite domination. Some Sunni Arabs have suggested a Lebanese-type arrangement, stipulating power sharing among ethnic and sectarian communities.

The Bush administration is in no mood to heed them because it’s busy trying to salvage its broader objectives in the Iraq war. Last May, as John Negropante was getting ready to take up his post as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, I asked him during a meeting at the State Department about the aims behind having the world’s largest U.S. embassy and largest CIA station in Baghdad. “We consider Iraq very important,” he replied. But he didn’t say why. However, Jay Garner, the first U.S. proconsul in occupied Iraq, did, on another occasion. Garner said America’s interests in the region would require it to have a military presence in Iraq “for the next few decades.” He recalled that the United States had maintained bases in the Philippines for nearly a century. But it’s not working out that way. The Sunni Arab insurgency apart, Shiite leaders told the Bush administration last year that they did not want American troops hanging around Iraq for too long. So the U.S has been trying to create conditions that would persuade them to change their minds. Leaving the “Sunni triangle” in ferment could do just that. An embattled Iraqi government, they believe, wouldn’t last without U.S. military protection. Hence, why would Bush allow the Iraqis to pursue Shiite-Sunni rapprochement now?

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell explained his boss’ position: The “people in Iraq want democracy;” only the “terrorists” don’t. And the U.S. can’t let that nation down and let the terrorists win. Powell knows the American saying: “Beware of what you wish for, you may get it.” Democracy is on the Arab horizon; it may take a generation to unfold. But will the U.S. and the Arab autocracies like it when they see it?

America’s divide-and-rule policy and military excesses in Iraq are fueling opposition to the U.S. not just in Iraq but also in the entire Arab world. Islamists are in the vanguard of these movements, though one should clearly distinguish between Islamist reformers and those, like Al-Qaeda and others, who engage in the wanton killing of innocent human beings, trampling Islamic principles and repelling every sensible Muslim.

In their effort to liberate Arab societies from domestic political repression and outside hegemony, Muslim reform movements could have the same impact as the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe and the 18th century Great Awakening in America. Both began as religious revivalist movements but eventually led to democratic reforms. The Reformation initiated the process that liberated Europeans from the tyranny of the Catholic Church and secular monarchies. The Great Awakening (1720-1740) gave birth to the revolution that ended British rule and ushered in democracy in America.

“If democracy arrives in the Middle East,” write Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers in the current issue of Foreign Policy, “it will not be due to the efforts of liberal activists or their Western supporters, but the very Islamic parties that many now see as the chief obstacle to reform.” I agree.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host and editor of the blog Community, worked three decades as an American journalist and as a researcher for U.S. think tanks. He wrote continually for major U.S. and overseas newspapers and journals. He also conducted fieldwork in Western Europe and the Middle East on U.S. foreign policy options, "crisis of liberalism" and Islamic movements.

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