Small steps of democratic progress in the Arab world

Some people are saying that Saddam Hussein - the man who told his soldiers to fight to the death - should have shot himself rather than surrender in ignominy and humiliation.

I am glad he did not.

Some people are saying the American soldiers who opened up his underground hiding place should have dropped in a grenade.

I am glad they did not.

Tyrant and mass murder that he is, Hussein, for two reasons, presently serves a much larger purpose alive than dead.

The first reason is that his interrogators may extract information of value, however unlikely. Members of the Iraqi Governing Council who met with him soon after his capture found him unapologetic and dissembling. It seems a far stretch to imagine him being anything but evasive on weapons of mass destruction and ties with Al Qaeda. But he might in time offer clues that might lead intelligence experts to cells and individuals waging a guerrilla war against Iraqis and foreigners in Iraq.

The second reason is that after his questioners are through with him, he will stand trial on charges ranging from war crimes to the torture and mass murder of his own countrymen. It is inconceivable that the trial would take place behind closed doors. It must be open for all the world to hear and see and especially for Al Jazeera to broadcast throughout the Arab world. It should be in a courtroom under Iraqi auspices, even if Iraqis request international participation in the form of foreign judges or advisers.

No matter how Hussein postures, is duplicitous in his testimony, or dismisses the accusations against him, a trial conducted with scrupulous fairness will be an example of democracy in action, in a land that has long been denied it.

Ahmad Chalabi, one of the Governing Council members who met with Hussein after his capture, mused on the irony of the situation. "Had the roles been reversed," he said, "[Hussein] would have torn us apart and cut us into small pieces after torture. This contrast was paramount in my mind, how we treated him and how he would have treated us."

As Hussein's misdeeds are clinically laid out, the contrast must be clear between the tyranny of the past and Iraq's quest for liberty in the future. It is a lesson with profound implication for the Arab world.

Sometimes it is suggested that Islamic lands are unready for democracy. True, the largest freedom gap exists in countries with a majority Muslim population, especially in the Arab world. But as Freedom House, - America's oldest nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting and defending democracy - points out, there is no indissoluble link between Islam and political repression. Half the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live under democratically elected governments in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Yemen, Osama bin Laden's ancestral home and a known refuge for Al Qaeda, moved from Freedom House's "Not Free" column to "Partly Free" this year because of notable progress in civic participation in the country's political process.

Working in various parts of the world over the years, I have heard various arguments advanced for the withholding of democracy. Usually they were made by oppressors who did not want to liberate the oppressed. Whites living in apartheid South Africa who argued blacks were too uneducated to handle freedom. Dictators from fascists to communists who kept their people in thrall. Ethnic groups in power who feared sharing it with other ethnic groups. Male-dominated societies loath to liberate their women.

But the fact is the desire for freedom is universal in mankind, not reserved for the elite. "Freedom and liberty are not restricted to the world's wealthy countries," concludes Freedom House. "Many poor and developing nations boast strong records of respect for political rights and civil liberties.... In the midst of global terrorism ... freedom and democracy continue to make overall progress worldwide."

Clearly Iraq is beset by awesome problems. Terrorists continue to strike. Reconstruction remains difficult. Political factions joust as the pace picks up to hold elections and elect at least an interim government. But the seizure of Hussein - and the trial that awaits - is a defining moment in the country's history. As President Bush said: "Iraqis no longer have to fear.... A dark and painful era is over."

Iraqis have a new opportunity to grasp freedom and wield it constructively.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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