Democracy stirs in the Arab world
Upcoming elections in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian territories are initial steps on still rocky paths to democracy.
Over the next two months, three of the Arab world's most troubled polities will hold elections, an unprecedented flurry of democratic activity in a region that has long been marked by dictatorship, corrupt governments, and conflict.Skip to next paragraph
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Millions of votes could set a precedent for a continuing process of elections and a gradual political opening, and at least will send a rare ray of light into a politically cloistered world where public attitudes are difficult to gauge and citizens rarely have a chance to pass judgment on their leaders.
But analysts also say that the elections in the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq - each for local reasons - will be less a triumph for democracy than a tentative step on an arduous path to change littered with obstacles and with few previous examples of success to build on.
Voters in each place live with weak institutions, longstanding authoritarianism, and violent internal movements.
For the Palestinians, the almost certain presidential election of Mahmoud Abbas in early January, a moderate who called this week for Palestinians to abandon violence in their political struggle, is a necessary - but not nearly sufficient - first step, to persuade hard-line factions to abandon violence, say analysts. Nor does his election guarantee restraint by the Israeli army or a negotiated concession by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
With the withdrawal of popular firebrand Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi from the race on Sunday, the question has become the size of Abbas's victory. Analysts say he needs at least 70 percent of the vote in order to claim a real mandate for his program of ending the armed intifada and resuming peace talks with Israel.
"He is a man not well known to people, there are question marks about his political thoughts, and he can get support only through elections," says Ghazi Hamed, editor of the Hamas affiliated al-Risala weekly newspaper.
Though the voices of Hamas and other militants have not been audible in the campaign, they exploded in the form of an attack Monday on an Israeli army position that killed five soldiers in Gaza.
In Iraq, the chances that large numbers of Sunni Arabs won't vote in the elections, either as part of a boycott or because of the ongoing violence in the central part of the country where they dominate, raises fears of a Shiite-dominated interim assembly that could exacerbate already rising sectarian tensions. The Shiite make up about 60 percent of Iraq. "It's the first step toward democracy, that's one way to look at it,'' says Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "Or it could be the first step on the road to disaster."
Mr. Hiltermann says the best option now would be to postpone elections, both to create conditions for more Sunni participation and to urge Shiites to consider cooperation and conciliation in the constitutional process, rather than domination, something many say is now their right after 80 years living under the thumbs of Sunni-controlled regimes. But he admits that delay also holds peril.
"Iraq has deteriorated to such a point that there are no good choices,'' he says. "It's great to have these elections in Iraq after so many years without them - people are very enthusiastic to vote - but a likely outcome is that Sunnis who feel disenfranchised by them will put their weight much more actively behind the insurgency than they have done."