Iraqi elections not cure-all, but definitely a start

CNJ staff

Maybe, just maybe, the transformationists were right. We use the term to describe those inside the Bush administration and out who predicted that the democratization of Iraq would spark a wider transformation in a part of the world, the Mideast, where tyranny still largely reigns in one form or another. And while the dominos in this reverse domino theory aren’t exactly falling, some seem to be swaying, or at least teetering in the right direction.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week ordered a change in the country’s constitution that could help loosen the grip of one party rule, and might eventually open the way for the nation’s first multiparty presidential elections. This follows Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it, too, would be moving toward a more inclusive political process.

Events in Egypt probably won’t mean an end to Mubarak’s 24-year rule, or immediately transform the world’s most populous Arab nation into a Western-style democracy. There are plenty of skeptics who will call the proposals window dressing. But some are saying that it probably wouldn’t have happened were it not for the Bush administration’s well advertised intention of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the region, and the stir caused in the Muslim world by elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

“U.S. pressure was certainly material” in getting Mubarak to act, one U.S. official was quoted as saying in a wire story. “But (Mubarak’s) people are sitting watching TV. You’ve seen free elections in Palestine, free elections in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating on the streets in Lebanon, illegitimate elections overturned in Georgia, illegitimate elections being overturned in Ukraine. … It’s a combination of all these things.”

In addition, many Sunnis who boycotted Iraq’s elections are reportedly having a change of heart. Some now are saying, even if belatedly, that they want to participate in the Iraqi political process. And Shiite leaders who dominated at the polls are, at least for now, saying the right things. “Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds will all be treated as Iraqi nationals first and foremost, and we will respect their ethnic or religious identity,” said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who has been tapped as prime minister by the most powerful Shiite faction.

The success of the Iraq vote has reportedly inspired Shiites in eastern Saudi Arabia, who will be voting today (for the first time ever) for representation on newly created governing councils. “Inspired by the Shiites’ success in Iraq’s elections, Shiite leaders here say they intend to sweep to victory in municipal voting scheduled for (today) and begin using the authority of elective office to push for equal rights,” according to a wire service report out of Saudi Arabia, where Sunnis run the show.

And in what some are calling “Beirut Spring,” the Lebanese are rising up against Syrian occupiers, enraged by the assassination two weeks ago of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, in a bombing in which Syria is suspected of having a role.

Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami, widely seen as a Syrian puppet, was forced to resign Monday as protests mounted. Elated protesters were quick to call for the resignation of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. “Lahoud, your turn is coming!” they reportedly cried.

Perhaps in an effort to deflect heat from the Bush administration — the president recalled the U.S. ambassador after Hariri’s death, saying Damascus was “out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East” — the Syrians announced Sunday the arrest of Saddam Hussein’s half brother, who is accused of torture and murder as head of the deposed regime’s General Security Directorate.

What Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon might mean for the long-suffering Lebanese is uncertain — the country could backslide into factional warring and chaos. But a Syrian pull back would have tremendous symbolic importance, signaling that one of the region’s most despotic regimes — which is neck deep in terrorism and fomenting regional instability, including the Iraqi insurgency — is on the defensive.

“The Iraq elections may not be the end of the Middle East Berlin Wall, but they certainly demonstrate it’s crumbling,” writer Andrew Sullivan has observed on his blog. He credits the U.S. invasion of Iraq with almost all the developments above. “Nothing else would have persuaded the thugs and mafia bosses who run so many Arab nations that the West is serious about democracy.” The hardest thing for administration critics, notes Sullivan, “will be to acknowledge this president’s critical role in moving this region toward democracy.”