by David-Pryce Jones
The delight and the dignity of Iraqis with stained fingers proving they had just participated in choosing their leaders has been a memorable spectacle of hope. Like the peoples of the old Soviet empire, the Arabs are beginning to democratize. Decent governance in Baghdad is the immediate issue, but in due course democracy — and democracy alone — may place the Arab and Muslim world and the West on an equal footing. Huge historic forces are in play.
Power in the Arab and Muslim world has always been in the hands of those who could seize and hold it, founding dynasties if they could. Absolute rule by the strongest was a mechanism endlessly perpetuating violence and therefore stagnation. Iraq is a particularly tragic example. Saddam Hussein and his two sons were only the latest in the long and bloody line of rulers bent on exploiting that unfortunate country and its riches. What determined everything, of course, was that they controlled the security and secret-police apparatus, and this was almost entirely recruited from Sunni Arabs like themselves, a minority but one traditionally powerful enough to ensure the succession of one-man rulers. Shia Arabs and Kurds and other minorities always outnumbered the dominant Sunnis by a factor of four or five to one, but they had no access to power, unless as collaborators and quislings. Saddam’s regime piled their corpses by the hundreds of thousands into mass graves.
The complexity of the election reflects the immensity of the task of replacing absolutism by due process: There were over 7,000 candidates on more than 100 lists. Having the numbers, the Shia are certain to be the winners in the election, therefore preponderant in the forthcoming assembly and in the constitutional debate to follow. Last year, to be sure, Moqtada al-Sadr, a junior Shia cleric, tried to take a leaf out of the Sunni book by recruiting a militia and forcing his way into power at gunpoint. Bringing him to heel peacefully, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani proved that the Shia establishment is both responsible and capable. Sunni terrorists including the Zarqawi group have committed unspeakable atrocities in order to provoke the Shia into reprisals, and perhaps civil war. Sistani and other ayatollahs have restrained what would otherwise have been willing hotheads from falling into that trap.
In Iraq now, the whole spectrum of prominent personalities — politicians, ayatollahs, and clerics, tribal sheikhs, ethnic leaders, and representatives of minorities — are visiting each other in processions of Mercedes-Benzes along dusty and often shattered roads, and then sitting in backrooms to drink coffee and cut deals among themselves. The questions to be resolved are how much power the Shia are going to want for themselves, and how much they will concede; and beyond that how the state taking shape is to reconcile Islamic and secular values.
Here is an Arab version of the process that collapsed absolutism in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of elections was also complicated, and seemingly controlled, but it was enough to break the militarized monopoly of power. In his refusal to sanction the use of violence for his own ends, Ayatollah Sistani is in the mold of Gorbachev, and he wants to incorporate the Sunnis much as Gorbachev also hoped to make allies of his critics and other dissidents. His approved electoral list included 30 Sunnis, because they and many others like them well understand that a boycott of this process will effectively shut them out of power. Iraq’s backroom debates are the local equivalent of the “round tables” in former Soviet republics and satellites where political and ideological opponents negotiated the concessions necessary for power-sharing.
Al-Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman Zawahiri and Zarqawi and the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars object to these developments, and it is easy to see why: For them, and for Saddam’s Baathists too, this version of a round table spells the imminent replacement of Arab and Muslim absolutism with a social model taken from the West. Such people resent the accommodations already made to the West over the last 200 years, and fear that any more will finally undermine their identity.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 first exposed the imbalance between the creative energies of the West and the stagnation bred by absolutism in the Middle East. Occupying Egypt in 1882 — and Palestine and Iraq subsequently — the British enforced reforms whose thrust was the institutionalization of these countries in order to close the gap between Us and Them. This was done so clumsily that Arabs instead formed a sense of their continuing subordination, and responded with nationalism. Nationalist leaders from Nasser to Saddam Hussein turned out to be nothing more than absolute rulers in another guise, extending the vicious circle of violence and stagnation. The present American-led intervention is therefore the third — and by far the most urgent — challenge from the West to the Arabs to define for themselves their place in the modern world.
Iraq’s version of a round table is already having positive repercussions. In Beirut, Rami G. Khouri, one of the most prominent and articulate Arab commentators, writes that “the sight of Iraqis enthusiastically choosing their leaders from among a wide range of options is causing many Arabs to reassess the political implications of developments inside Iraq.” This May, elections are due in Lebanon. Except for the usual collaborators and quislings, the Lebanese actively want an end to the Syrian occupation of their country, and may use the elections as a means of showing that they too can choose leaders able to hand their state to them.
No absolute ruler in the region is more threatened by the Iraqi example than Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, a country mired in violence and stagnation. He is a fine example of a contemporary dynast, with no legitimacy except being the son of Hafez, the previous strongman and president. Recently he has been suppressing his Kurds and arresting anyone pleading for democracy. However, Syrians have had the extraordinary experience of observing Iraqi expatriates among them enjoying a free vote when they themselves have no such opportunity.
In Libya and Egypt, sons of Col. Moammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak appear ambitious to succeed their fathers as dynastic president. In both countries, on the other hand, it looks unlikely that democratic reform can continue to be thwarted by the simple expedient of imprisoning anyone with ideas. In his late seventies, Mubarak has ruled by emergency decree for over 20 years, and later this year in an unopposed election will “seek” a fifth six-year term. After serving a prison sentence for promoting democracy, the admirable Saad Ibrahim aims to stand against him. Ayman Nur is another democrat and one of the few parliamentarians who do not belong to Mubarak’s monopolistic party. Stripped of immunity by Mubarak’s party, he was arrested minutes later, and is being held without trial. A crowd about 1,000 strong demonstrated, chanting, “Mubarak is a disgrace and a traitor!” They too follow events in Iraq.
Bahrain is to hold legislative elections this year. As for Saudi Arabia, it takes pride in maintaining its Muslim identity and absolute rule, but even there the retrograde royal family has agreed to hold municipal elections, limited, to be sure, because women will have no vote and a proportion of candidates are to be appointed rather than elected. Still, nothing like it has ever taken place. Nor has anything ever taken place in Morocco like the commission now trying to establish the extent of injustice and torture in that country’s concentration camps under the previous ruler.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush paid tribute to elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Afghanistan, pursed his lips over Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and went on to say that “hopeful reform is already taking hold in an arc from Morocco to Jordan to Bahrain.” The Iranians, he added meaningfully, should stand up for their own liberty. Perhaps nothing immediate will come of this pressure to reform. Perhaps absolutism is too strong for the people to rid themselves of it, and cunning rulers will do just enough to keep the United States off their backs. At the last moment, the Shia may decide that it is payback time and they aren’t about to share power with the Sunnis. But even so, this Iraqi election has put down a permanent marker.
At this defining moment, Sen. John Kerry sees fit to deny reality with a warning not to “over-hype” the election. Sen. Edward Kennedy speaks of Iraq as a “catastrophic failure.” Everywhere politicians, academics, commentators, reporters in the hundreds, cannot go beyond the parrot-cry of “exit strategy,” too caught up in partisan politics to consider the historic context of the Iraqi election. The phenomenon reveals ignorance, and condescension too, as if Arabs are to be condemned forever to violence and stagnation, and the rights and privileges of democracy are quite beyond their benighted reach.
Mr. Pryce-Jones is an NR senior editor. Among his books is The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.