Date: Mon 08 Sep 2003 - 19:14:15 GMT
THE IRAQ EFFECT
By AMIR TAHERI
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
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
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
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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