Date: Mon 08 Sep 2003 - 19:14:15 GMT

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    September 8, 2003 -- THe conventional wisdom, at least in Europe, is that President Bush's hope of turning Iraq into a catalyst for democratization in the Arab world has already failed. Footage of the carnage from bombings is presented, along with almost daily sabotage operations, to back the claim that democratization is a forlorn cause in the Arab world. But is it? It is too early to tell.

    To be sure, Iraq has not been transformed into a democracy, and may need a generation or more to develop the institutions it needs. But the fact is that Iraqis now enjoy a measure of political freedom they did not know before.

    Iraq is the only Arab country today where all political parties, from communist to conservative, operate freely. Visitors will be impressed by the openness of the political debate there, something not found anywhere else in the Arab world. Also, for the first time, Iraq has no political prisoners.

    Almost 150 newspapers and magazine are now published there, offering a diversity not found in any other Arab country. One theme of these new publications is the need for democratization in the Arab world. This may be putting the cart before the horse. What Arabs, and Muslims in general, most urgently need is basic freedom, without which democracy cannot be built.

    The impact of Iraq's liberation is already felt throughout the region.

    * In Syria, President Bashar Assad has announced an end to 40 years of one-party rule by ordering the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party to no longer "interfere in the affairs of the government." The party is planning a long-overdue national conference to amend its constitution and, among other things, drop the word "socialist" from its official title.


    Assad has also liberated scores of political prisoners and promised to hold multiparty elections soon. In July, a petition signed by over 400 prominent Syrians offered a damning analysis of Ba'athist rule and called for political and economic reform. The fact that the signatories were not arrested, and that their demands were mentioned in the state- controlled media, amount to a retreat by Syrian despotism.

    "What we need is a space of freedom in which to think and speak without fear," says a leading Syrian economist. "Bashar knows that if he does not create that space, many Syrians will immigrate to Iraq and be free under American rule."

    * A similar view is expressed by Hussein Khomeini, a mid-ranking mullah and a grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic in Iran.

    "I decided to leave Iran and settle in Iraq where the Americans have created a space of freedom," Hussein Khomeini says. "The coming of freedom to Iraq will transform the Muslim world."

    Hussein Khomeini is one of more than 200 Iranian mullahs who recently moved from Qom, the main centre of Iranian Shiism, to Najaf and Karbala, in central Iraq, to escape "the suffocating atmosphere of despotism in Iran."

    * Saudi Arabia is also feeling the effects of Iraqi regime change. Last month King Fahd ordered the creation of a Center for National Dialogue where "issues of interest to the people would be debated without constraint." The center will be open to people from all religious communities, including hitherto marginalised Shi'ites. More importantly, the gender apartheid, prevalent in other Saudi institutions, will be waived to let women participate.

    Encouraged by the current state of flux, Saudi women have organized several seminars in the past few weeks, in which they called for equal legal rights.

    The Iraq effect has also been felt in the Saudi media. Newspapers now run stories and comments that were unthinkable last March. Words such as reform (Islahat), opening (infitah) and democracy (dimuqratiah) are appearing in the Saudi media for the first time.

    * Both Kuwait and Jordan have just held general elections in which pro- reform candidates did well. The new Kuwaiti parliament is expected to extend the franchise to women and to over 100,000 people regarded as
    "stateless." In Jordan, the new parliament is expected to revise censorship laws and to relax rules regarding the formation of political parties.

    * In Egypt, the state-controlled media are beginning to break taboos, including reporting President Hosni Mubarak's refusal to name a vice president, as required by the constitution, and to end the tradition of single-candidate presidential elections.

    Some non-governmental organizations are also testing the waters by raising issues such as violence against women, street children and, above all, the state's suffocating presence in all walks of life.

    * In a recent television appearance, Col. Muammar Khadafy (whose one-man rule has been in place since 1969) told astonished Libyans that he now regarded democracy as "the best system for mankind" and that he would soon unveil a package of reforms. These are expected to include a new Constitution to institutionalize his rule and provide for an elected national assembly.

    Having just settled the Lockerbie affair, the Libyan despot is looking for new legitimacy on the international stage.

    * Even in remote Algeria and Morocco, the prospect of a democratic Iraq, emerging as an alternative to the present Arab political model, is causing some excitement. A cultural conference at Asilah, Morocco, last month, heard speakers suggest that liberated Iraq had a chance of becoming "the first Arab tiger" while other Arab states remained
    "nothing but sick cats."

    Similar views are expressed in countless debates, some broadcast on satellite television, throughout the Middle East.

    All this, of course, may be little more than cynical Arabesques designed to confuse critics and please Washington. The proposed Arab reforms may well prove to be purely cosmetic. After all, several Arab regimes played the same trick in 1991 when, in the wake of the war to liberate Kuwait, they came under U.S. pressure to introduce some reforms.

    But as far as the Arab masses are concerned, there is no reason to believe that they hate freedom and, if given a chance, would refuse to choose their governments.

    Many Arab countries (including Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan) already enjoy a degree of freedom that could, in time, lead toward democratization. But, being small and peripheral states, none could have a major impact on the Muslim world as a whole.

    Iraq is in a different category. A free Iraq is already affecting the political landscape of the Middle East; a democratic Iraq could change the whole Arab world. The goal is worth fighting for.

    Despite the current difficulties in Iraq, the United States, Britain and other democratic nations should keep their eyes on the big picture.

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