Iraqi Elections: Not Yet Historic

Sunday's elections in Iraq were an unprecedented step towards self-rule for a nation that had long suffered under autocracy. While the vote was certainly historical, it by no means assures the birth of a genuine democracy. Whether this moment becomes historic – producing lasting, meaningful change – or descends into chaos depends on the events of the coming months and years, says Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. The new democracy must deal with the unification of a fractious population, the reconstruction of a secure state, the political complexities of Washington's involvement, and the reaction of Arab neighbors. Mixed sentiments exist within the Middle East on the value of the elections, which were democratically held, but brought about by foreign intervention. Smooth US troop withdrawal will be a major factor in healing divisions, as well as assuring Arabs that self-determination – with a balance between ethnic groups, political philosophies, and religious beliefs – is indeed possible. – YaleGlobal

Iraqi Elections: Not Yet Historic

Only hard work by the elected assembly and occupation forces can transform the vote into a truly historic event
Rami G. Khouri
Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Dance for democracy: Hard task of building a pluralist society lies ahead for Iraq's elected constituent assembly. (Photo: U.S. Central Command -

BEIRUT: The relatively high voter turnout by Iraqis on January 30 propels Iraq into the potentially historic territory of democratic self-determination. Despite the irritating fact of foreign inspiration, no other Arab government has gone there before. Still, the election was the easy part. The hard part begins when the newly elected constituent assembly goes to work, making decisions about power-sharing, the foreign military presence, and other crucial issues.

The foreign occupation accounts for ambivalence in the Arab response to the election. According to Bahraini lawyer and political activist Essa Mohammed, "The new Iraqi government to be formed soon will have 'relative legitimacy'. It is legitimate because of the elections, but somewhat less legitimate because the elections happened under the aegis of the American military." Sure, ordinary Iraqis sent a strong, clear signal to the world of their eagerness to determine their own destiny. And in shifting the onus for change from the Americans to Iraqis, the election is, indeed, historical. But it is unclear if the results will be historic – that is, generating unique, meaningful, and lasting change.

Middle Eastern political observers have quickly assessed the elections as just one noteworthy milestone on a very long journey. What happens in the coming year is crucial. The broadly successful election, despite the expected boycott by Sunnis and a few other Iraqis, now sparks separate but related dynamics in three concentric circles: Iraq, the Arab world, and the United States.

In these circles of priority, Iraqis must simultaneously address the domestic challenges of socio-economic reconstruction, religious/tribal/ethnic reconciliation, national reconfiguration, and political power-sharing. Meanwhile, Washington must soon decide if Iraq will be the successful beginning or the ignominious end to its strategy of promoting Mideast democracy. Finally, Arab societies will have to assess developments in both Baghdad and Washington to determine the implications for their own government.

Developments inside Iraq are the most important to determining attitudes and policies among Arabs and Americans. The critical challenges ahead are promoting reconciliation among all Iraqis; ending the armed resistance against foreign forces and the terror attacks; winding down the US-led foreign military occupation and administration; ratifying a legitimate and effective permanent constitution; striking balances among religiosity and secularism, the center and the periphery, and the Kurds and the Arabs; and restoring daily security, basic services, and economic activity.

How Iraqis start to tackle these tasks in the months ahead will determine whether the country emerges as a shining example of Arab democratic pluralism, or sinks into a permanent state of violence – and possibly breaks up into several countries. As Iraqis prepare for self-rule, their goal must be to create a government that espouses democratic pluralism, while respecting the ethnic and religious values that are clearly the society's strongest forces.

Iraqis can pull this off if external meddling is kept to a minimum. If so, Iraq's transformation into a democratic multi-ethnic state will have powerful repercussions throughout the region, perhaps convincing others to move in that same direction. Should that be the case, how might Middle Eastern leaders and citizens themselves reform their autocracies into more humane and responsive systems? Key needs include much stronger rule of law; independent judiciaries, presidencies, and executive leaderships; civilian oversight of military and security services; and free expression in media, academia, and the arts.

And what will be the appropriate role for foreign countries in promoting democracy in the region? The West must end its double-standards of pressuring or toppling autocratic regimes in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Iran while working hand-in-hand with top-heavy, military-run states such as Pakistan, Egypt, and Tunisia. Security in a region awash with oil is obviously more important to the United States than promoting democracy or freedom.

Already, 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. The prevalent anti-American criticism of the war, though remaining strong and genuine, is joined now by a new appreciation of the potentially positive choices before the Iraqi people. This week, quiet soul-searching in many Arab minds and lands is as intense as the triumphalist exuberance of the US administration.

Many – perhaps even most – Arabs are skeptical of a quick, smooth transition to Iraqi democracy. Prevalent public opinion doubts the United States will ever leave Iraq or truly allow it to define its own political future, should Iraqis, for example, choose a theocratic political system similar to Iran's. Some Arabs are frightened by the implications of a Shia-dominated Iraqi government – the inevitable and presumably acceptable verdict of a majority-rule democracy. Such fears reflect concerns about undue Iranian influence, or emboldening other Shia Arabs in places like Lebanon, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

Oussama Safa, general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, a leading regional research center, expressed the prevalent ambivalence in an interview Monday: "Despite its many flaws and contested origins, the election in Iraq was a very significant and positive development that allowed Iraqis to express themselves freely for the first time in over three decades. The momentum from this process in Iraq should be fully embraced and supported by all Arabs." This sentiment sharply contrasts the tepid endorsement of the election by the Arab League, whose secretary-general Amr Moussa shares the strong skepticism of US intentions that prevails in Arab societies.

The truly novel, and potentially historic, dimension to all this would be if the Iraqi people actually ended up exercising genuine national self-determination – to define their national identity, foreign relations, state obligations, citizens' rights, and the means of exercising political, economic, and police powers. However, one election under the protection of foreign guns does not yet count as self-determination, or even meaningful democracy.

That election, meanwhile, challenges Washington to correctly interpret and grasp the message the Iraqi voters sent about their desire to run their own country. The critical criterion of US policy in Iraq will now be a willingness to move reasonably quickly to separate the American military administration of Iraq from that country's domestic political and economic development. The specter – better yet, the announced preliminary schedule – of an US military withdrawal is now vital for the two most urgent Iraqi priorities in the coming months: generating political legitimacy for the new government and speeding up efforts to restore order throughout the country. Both developments will be retarded as long as the US military is perceived to be calling the shots. Washington's implementing a phased troop withdrawal would increase the chances of moving Iraq into the next phase of real democratization and genuine restoration of sovereignty – the two primary reasons Iraqis braved death to go out and vote.

Bravery notwithstanding, the election Sunday was the easy part. Now the hard political tests begin. Perhaps one of the reasons for Iraqi voters' enthusiasm was that they were vicariously exercising the right to self-determination on behalf of the other 250 million Arabs watching this process with both concern and hope. The concern is about the continuing impact of Western armies that occupy and reconfigure Arab countries; the hope is for a day when Arabs can define and rule themselves in genuine freedom. The tragedy is that the combination of these two sentiments continues to shape and plague the Arab world, as it has for well over a century.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization