Politics & Policy

Give Democracy a Chance

A model for the Arab world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth part of a six-part series on Iraq after Saddam. The first three parts moved earlier this week. The next installment will address. Iraq’s oil ordeal, plus a look at Russia’s petroleum interests.

There can be little doubt: Given a fair chance at it, if the Iraqis win democracy this time, they will hold on to it with all their force and defend it with their lives. Even diehard royalists, romantically loyal to the British-imposed Hashemite rule that held sway for three decades until deposed in 1958 agree that sentiment is overwhelmingly strong for a Western-style democracy.

The democratic dream is far stronger than the purported divisions among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. At the London conference of Iraqi opposition groups, in fact, there was more tension among factions within each of these communities, rather between them. One mid-40′s leader put it almost poetically: “We are an entire nation that has been kept in the darkest corner of a dungeon. There has been no light, no chance to lead a free life, not a spark of liberty. When we get it this time, we will hold the torch high and never let the flame go out.”

Such sentiment may seem melodramatic to those who have not known repression, but the hunger among all classes and kinds of Iraqis is deep and gnawing. The trumped up demonstrations for Saddam Hussein may have looked enthusiastic; in fact, the energy expelled on these occasions was a release of nervous tension at the hopelessly depressing life led by an estimated 90 percent of the population.

Numerous non-Iraqi observers believe that installation of a successful multiparty democratic political system in post-Saddam could become an example for the entire region. The fact that examples of democratic rule are few, partial and fragile in other Arab and Islamic countries does not mean there is not a popular longing for major changes in governance. Fledgling examples such as Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia are viewed with longing by millions who have lived under autocratic rule for centuries.

Quite simply, there is no history of genuine democracy, anywhere in the Islamic world. Yet educated Muslim cadres have called for the equivalent of democracy for centuries. Increasingly, Muslim economists, sociologists and educators are expressing the view that introduction of democracy is a major condition for the rise of a peaceful and prosperous society.

It is also true that democracy in one country surrounded by autocratic regimes cannot possibly survive. The threat to the old autocracies is too great. There must be positive and strategic interaction among democratically leaning Arab states. Iraq, with Egypt the most developed and influential of Arab countries, is an excellent place to set the example.

Not one of the other major Arab states has a regime willing to cultivate a democratic climate. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, and Tunisia all have regimes that have no interest in handing anything more token control to elected representatives. Egypt, the single most influential Arab nation, had taken significant democratic steps under Anwar Sadat. Sadly, with Hosni Mubarak well into his third decade in the presidency and grooming his son to succeed him, it has become a “demockery”

While there exist fears of a U.S. occupation and limited confidence in American protestations that the main aim of the war with Iraq is to “liberate” the Iraqi people; Washington’s promises to introduce democracy are welcomed by a huge majority of Iraqis. There is a firm conviction that democracy can solve the country’s problems at home and abroad, and put an end to the quarter century of strong-arm rule imposed by Saddam.

Iraqi intellectuals and politicians argue that the essential factors of democracy have long existed in the country, having experienced a reasonable level of democracy under a benign royal presence for three decades prior to deposing the Hashemite King Faisal in 1958. In fact, Iraqi historians claim democracy first dawned in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), centuries before it was discovered by the Greeks.

One factor that helps the introduction of democracy in Iraq is the “natural internal plurality,” with the country home to a variety of races, ethnic groups, religions and sects grown military dictatorships.

A second factor is the shared feeling among all Iraqis that “Iraq is for all its citizens without exception.” There is a genuine popular objective to create a political system based on equal rights and responsibilities for all citizens. In addition, long periods of foreign domination have produced a population as opposed of foreign influence as it is to domestic dictatorial rule. Once rid of Saddam, any prolonged occupation by foreign troops will stir thoughts of Turkish Ottoman rule and British occupation, complete with moving memories of bloody rebellion against the foreign presence. Unless benign and brief, Coalition occupation will become a major problem, both in Baghdad and abroad among the disappointed opponents to the current military solution.

In Babylonian times, Iraqis believe the land then known as Mesopotamia enjoyed political, economic and cultural prosperity and attribute it to the democratic model created at the time. “People’s councils” and “senates” existed under Babylonian and Sumerian rule, providing great popular decision-making powers, especially concerning war and peace.

Iraq can secure a better future after Saddam’s departure, despite destruction and corruption of the state institutions by the departing regime. The key lies in one of Saddam’s few positive legacies, carried over from predecessor regimes: a remarkably effective education system. This factor, plus extensive experience by the exile community, provide the capacity to reestablish viable institutions from the corrupted rubble of the ancien regime.

Kanan Makiya, a leading Iraqi dissident in the U.S., firmly believes his country can be “a force for democracy” in the Middle East, based on the broad consensus within the Iraqi opposition that governance in post-Saddam Iraq should be via representative democracy with a federal structure. Indeed, a democratic Iraq provides the only viable solution for the country’s recovery. The widespread realization of this imperative weighs heavily in favor of its chances for success.

In Makiya’s view, the Iraqi people have the ability to form and manage the new institutions needed to replace the departing governmental structure. In a recent interview, he said, “Iraq is rich enough and developed enough, and has the human resources to become as great a force for democracy and economic reconstruction in the Arab and Muslim world as it has been a force for autocracy and destruction in the past.” Millions of his countrymen hope he is right.

Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. This was written for United Press International and is reprinted with permission.

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