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.

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.

Politics after Arafat

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.

Violence tests Iraqi electorate

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."

First elections in 40 years

In Saudi Arabia, though its elections will be its first of any kind since the 1960s, they are for largely ceremonial municipal councils and, in practice, won't yield much authority to elected representatives. The Saudi monarchy will remain caught between Islamist clerics who want even more stringent Islamic law and more influence for themselves and the broader mass of Saudi citizens, who would like more input into how their country is run and how its massive oil revenues are spent.

"This government does not want reform and cannot reform even if there is some interest in reform,'' charges Saad al-Faqih, a dissident Saudi exile and political activist who called for rare public protests in two Saudi cities Thursday. "The reason is they know that real reform will be the first step towards bringing them down, Once they allow free expression and freedom of assembly, they'll start to lose control."

The elections will only be for half the members of the municipal councils, which have some control over community health and trash collection, with the other half of the bodies remaining appointed.

"The election is significant within the context in Saudi Arabia - they have to start somewhere,'' says Amy Hawthorne, who focuses on domestic Arab politics for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But they're holding the elections in stages so the process can be halted at any time if it doesn't go well. The vetting process is very strict, and only half of the councils members are elected, so it is nothing close to a solution to the problems that Saudi Arabia is facing," she says.

Ms. Hawthorne says it can be misleading to lump all three elections together "because the contexts and conditions are different" but agrees that in all three cases elections "are not the be-all and end-all."

She's most enthusiastic about the process under way among the Palestinians, who are ironically further on the path to building stable institutions than Saudi Arabia and Iraq, despite not formally having a state of their own yet. While hard-liners like Hamas - or on the Israeli side - could still scuttle attempts at peace, she says the transition since the death of Yasser Arafat has been smooth.

"If [Abbas] is elected, whatever vision he has, is going to be very difficult to achieve given the large amount of uncertainty,'' she says. "But they have a historical anchor for the process of holding a competitive election and there have been people pushing for more reform, and for more open government for a long time now."

The Hamas factor

Hamed of al-Risala underscores the challenges to Abbas's vision for taking the gun out of Palestinian politics. Hamas will stop its attacks only if Israel guarantees it will stop incursions, assassinations, and home demolitions in the occupied territories, he says. "If Israeli troops continue with these actions Abbas will not be able to convince Hamas and other groups," he says.

Even if he nails down a cease-fire, Abbas's ability to show Palestinians improvements in their day to day lives will also depend on Israeli policy, say observers, as will his ability to wrest territorial concessions at the negotiating table with Israel.

It is in Iraq, note analysts, that the risks are highest, particularly for the US since the elections result from an American intervention and are a key element in the Bush administration's foreign policy. If things go well, they could prompt more reform in the Middle East, but if they go badly, they could prove a setback.

"If the Sunnis end up feeling disenfranchised, civil conflict is certainly not a given - the Shiites were disenfranchised for 80 years and the country held. But it's a big risk," says Hiltermann of the ICG.

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