Arabs want democracy, too

Many have been too quick to eulogize Iraqi democracy and celebrate Palestinian democracy.

arab voter 88 (photo credit: )
arab voter 88
(photo credit: )
In a televised speech Wednesday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, urged his fellow citizens to make election day "like a national wedding day, a day of national unity and of triumph over terrorism and forces hostile to democracy." Iraqis indeed streamed to the polls yesterday, apparently in greater numbers even than the high turnouts in the October 2004 vote on the constitution and January's vote for an interim parliament. In Baghdad, Hadi Mishaal, a Shi'ite who was wounded fighting for Saddam against the US in 1991, hobbled two kilometers on a crutch to vote with his wife, saying: "I hope we can have a government that will help me and give me my rights." But it was not just Shi'ites who were determined to vote. In the Sunni stronghold of Falluja, where a year ago some of the fiercest fighting with US forces took place, the worst problem was reportedly a shortage of ballot papers. Far from boycotting the vote, as they did earlier this year, the Sunnis have decided that participating in Iraqi democracy is in their interest. Even in neighboring countries, such as Oman and Kuwait, the Iraqi elections are being dubbed "historic" and a hopeful harbinger for the region. Regional dictators are less enthusiastic. As the preeminent historian of the region, Bernard Lewis, speaking of the European fear that democracy would not work, put it this week, "There is a much more deadly fear in the Middle East that democracy in Iraq will work, and the fact that it is working relatively well is why that shabby collection of tyrants who rule most of the Middle East are dead scared." Lewis continued, "When the terrorists attack a wedding party in Amman, these are desperate measures. They feel they're losing. And they are." It is becoming increasingly evident that, while Iraqi democracy is hardly out of the woods yet, the horrendous terrorism that nation has suffered has not, and most probably will not, succeed in derailing the democratic process. This is remarkable, and has tremendous implications for the future of the region and even the world. In Iraq, there could not be a more head-on collision between terrorism and democracy, and democracy is winning. If anything, there is a danger of Iraqis' hopes and expectations for their new found freedom running too high, and that the messiness and inefficiency of democratic politics will disappoint. Such worries, however, are a luxury that this region a short time ago would not have been able to contemplate. Having lived under a tyrant who murdered them by the millions, Iraqis know this. Indeed, even if Iraq's new government gets off to a rocky start, it will not change what has already been demonstrated: that Arabs are not exempt from the human desire for freedom and democracy. It is in this context that what is going on closer to home, among our Palestinian neighbors, is both illustrative and disappointing. On the one hand, Palestinians are paying Israel the ultimate compliment by attempting to mimic our politics, going as far as holding the first party primaries to be seen in the Arab world. On the other, the widespread anarchy - as pictures of masked and armed Fatah militias emptying the election commission of its computers underline - should remind us that it is simply not possible to build a democracy where there is no rule of law. In Iraq, despite the terrorism, a robust competition has emerged among real, if untested, political parties vying for influence in a real and free political process. Among Palestinians, there is no free press, and the "parties" are essentially armed factions whose power derives as much from the bullet - both fired at Israelis and used to intimidate their own people - as potentially from the ballot. Accordingly, just as many have been too quick to eulogize Iraqi democracy, they have been too quick to celebrate Palestinian democracy. In both cases, however, the popular desire for effective, accountable government has been demonstrated. Though Iraqis and Palestinians may want "a strong leader," they are hardly in the mood for corrupt and brutal dictators on the model of Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat, and they look to democracy as a system to protect them from despotic rule.