Experts Analyze the Middle East’s Reaction to the Iraqi Elections
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RAY SUAREZ: For millions of people across the Middle East Sunday’s election in Iraq was an event they could see, but not touch. Pictures of voters in Iraq heading to the polls were beamed via satellite across a region that has little experience with democracy. Mahmoud Abbas, who was recently elected president of the Palestinian Authority, in a contest judged fair and open, applauded the effort during an official visit to Moscow.
MAHMOUD ABBAS (Translated): The event that happened in Iraq is an important development towards democracy. We Palestinians would like to see Iraq a united and sovereign state.
RAY SUAREZ: Abbas’ comments were echoed by Jordan’s King Abdullah.
KING ABDULLAH: People are waking up. Leaders are understanding that they have to push reform forward. And I don’t think there’s any looking back.
RAY SUAREZ: But Abdullah also bemoaned the lack of Sunni participation and today the head of the Arab League, Amar Musa, in a speech in Houston was far more cautious in his comments saying: “The election is but one component of large problems: the lack of security, the presence of the U.S. Military, the vagueness of purpose in Iraq. So many negative things loom in the horizon, one step will not solve it all.”
His caution was shared by many in the largely Sunni-led member nations of the Arab League. A pro-government newspaper in Egypt said the election will escalate existing fears concerning increased regional Shiite influence.
The power center of that influence is in Iraq’s eastern neighbor, Iran, where a government spokesman said, “We’re ready to cooperate with the future government of Iraq, regardless of its tendency.” What has yet to be measured in the region is the reaction of ordinary citizens, who saw millions of Iraqis, people like themselves, heading to the polls.
RAY SUAREZ: For more we’re joined by: Hisham Melhem, who hosts a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya; Khaled Dawoud, Washington correspondent for the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram; and Shibley Telhami, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and author of “The Stakes,” about U.S. policy in the Middle East.
And Shibley, as you look over the whole region and compile what regular people, what press and leadership are saying, what was the reaction?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, one has to differentiate between public reaction and official reaction. I think official reaction, which was skeptical before, is a little more positive now, in part because they’re echoing the Bush administration. They’re looking at the Jordanian reaction, the Egyptian reaction, the Saudi reaction.
You’re talking about people who want to cooperate with Washington and they don’t want to put this down. And they also want to sound positive about democracy because they know they’re under threat. Public opinion, I think, is split. There are conflictive pressures on the public. The public in the Middle East wants reform. They want change. They don’t like authoritarianism.
But they also fear anarchy in Iraq and they fear anarchy in the Arab world. They don’t want outside presence. They don’t want occupation. They don’t want the U.S. to succeed. So you have all these conflictive issues, and when they look at Iraq, they see all of them together. And they have mixed views and they have skepticism, even if they hope that there will be change for the better in the Arab world.
RAY SUAREZ: Hisham Melhem, what do you think? Were these high-impact pictures on Sunday?
HISHAM MELHEM: Powerful, very powerful because the whole Arab world saw them. They were covered extensively by Arab satellite television and by radio. I think the reaction in general — it changes from trepidation, concern, cautious optimism.
On the official level, Arab governments don’t like necessarily electoral politics, especially in a complex society like Iraq that’s very influential in the heart of the Middle East. This is — I mean, those pictures, millions of Iraqis, whatever you thought of the war, standing in line and not being afraid of a campaign of intimidation that’s been waged against them, exercising the right to empower themselves under abnormal conditions — the presence of occupation, coalition, name it what you will — those pictures are going to give people reason to pause in the Middle East, particularly governments.
It’s going to be extremely difficult from now on for the president of Syria, the president of Egypt, the president of Tunisia to run unopposed in sham elections in which the president get 95 percent, 98 percent, 99 percent. This is — that’s why it’s extremely important. I mean, these are powerful images that we saw, notwithstanding the problems, notwithstanding the fact that these are problematic elections, imperfect elections.
And yet, like the Palestinian election– under occupation again; that’s the irony of ironies– yet nobody questioned the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas. Now, when we see the final results from Iraq, and if no party wins everything, as I expect, again they’ll be forced to engage in the politics of coalition building, something that is alien to the rest of the Arab world.
RAY SUAREZ: Khaled Dawoud, when you look at the elections and you look at the reaction, what do you see?
KHALED DAWOUD: Well, I slightly disagree with what Hisham was saying about the Arab people, you know, seeing it as something very powerful, because there is originally a lot of suspicion towards the Bush administration, and towards the entire project of invading and occupying Iraq.
So you’re already talking about a public in the Arab world and in Arab Muslim countries who are rather against this entire, you know, invasion and occupation of Iraq. Therefore, they were not really going to trust that this is a step forward towards democracy. There’s a lot of suspicion, as even in your report said about the future of Iraq, in terms of maintaining its integrity, maintaining its unity, what’s the future of Iraq after possibly a Shiite government now or a pro-Iranian, more or less, you know, taking place — taking hold of power there.
What’s the future of the Sunni insurgency? There are a lot of legitimate questions, I guess, about what does it mean for elections when you have entire sections of the country being, you know, cut out of that vote, out of that vote meaning particularly the Sunnis. So, I mean, because of this mistrust towards the Bush administration, and the fact over the past two years since this occupation has started, we have seen so many unfulfilled promises, people are not really as optimistic and not necessarily seeing it as something that will move to the rest of the Arab world and the country.
RAY SUAREZ: But what do you think of Hisham’s point that for someone sitting in front of their television in Cairo, Amman, that watching an election go on in the midst of a war might make them wonder why they don’t have that same opportunity?
KHALED DAWOUD: Well, like, first of all, I mean, I can speak for a country like Egypt or maybe for places like Jordan. You know, for example, there was already like movements asking for democracy and pressing for democracy for many years. And the problem that actually this administration does not really put into consideration is what’s happening in Iraq is being used by the governments, some governments in the region, to warn against like democracy, for example, even in itself.
And so, Iraq is being betrayed as a model of chaos rather than a model of stability in the future. I mean, even in Egypt, if I want democracy right away, I mean, and then compared to the Iraqi model of bombs every day, of certain parts of the population being cut out of the vote, uncertainty about the future of my entire country, I won’t necessarily think of it as being a very positive development
Besides the fact that I mentioned that there is a feeling that those who are going to be elected in the Iraqi government, or someone like Prime Minister Allawi himself, you know, he’s been very much pro-American. And he’s there to implement something which the United States wants to happen, whether in terms of long-term presence of U.S. troops or a certain model of government.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Telhami, let’s talk a little bit about the change in the tone of the coverage. And Khaled Dawoud mentioned how there was so much emphasis put on, early on, about the chaos inside Iraq when the polls finally opened. Is that what people were seeing on the big satellite channels, in their local newspapers?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, it is true that on Sunday, the day of the election, the coverage was more negative, and also the Iraq story was actually not the prominent story in the newspapers mostly.
I mean, I think on the television screens that you saw the Iraq story a little bit more, but it was actually downplayed, and mostly the report was about the violence. The day after, I think once President Bush made a statement, and then Arab leaders sort of laid markers you found a lot of the Arab elites responding favorably in the newspaper columns and on television.
But there were mixed picture. I mean, when you went to al- Jazeera, for example, they not only reported the fact that there was participation, but they also highlighted the fact that about nearly 50 people got killed. They highlighted the fact that the Sunni religious leadership called into question the legitimacy. They highlighted the fact that there was an absence of Sunni participation on a large scale, so all of these negatives were there.
The reports were slightly more positive. You found more columnists writing positively. But we ought to – you know, we ought to make a separation here. There is a question related to how people interpret what’s happening in Iraq, a question related to what the U.S. is up to. It is clear that –
RAY SUAREZ: And those are two separate things?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Two separate questions. I think that people want democracy in the Middle East. I think there has been a reformist movement prior to the Iraq War. One can argue that the Iraq War actually, in a way, stopped it, for two reasons.
One is, when the focus was on national security, it took away from the momentum of reformists. And also, reformers– some of them– found the relation with the U.S. to be a kiss of death. Some– and I think a minority– actually are willing to accept anything to change, including the U.S. but in general, in my public opinion polls, majorities of people don’t believe the U.S. wants democracy in the Middle East.
They don’t believe that it’s a priority for American foreign policy. And even if it happens in Iraq, they will see it as an accidental outcome. So they think that the U.S. is out there to advance its own interests. When they look at Iraq, they want to believe democracy is possible, but mostly they still focus on the occupation and the violence, even the day after.
Also, they focus on the marginalization of the Sunni. Remember, most Arabs are Sunni. And this, if there was anything important about this election, it was the empowerment of the Shia; they are the majority. But for them, that’s an important event democratically, but it also is a troubling event, and they have mixed views of this.
RAY SUAREZ: And Hisham Melhem, a lot of regular people, interviewed by both western and Arabic press reporters in these latest days, have– housewives, storekeepers, students — been talking about that idea, that there will now be a Shia-led Arab state.
HISHAM MELHEM: Look, everybody is talking about the formerly Arab world, because Arab civil society and Arab academics and journalists and human rights advocates are pushing their own governments to do so, and because the Bush administration, to put it bluntly, is forcing them to talk this language.
Those people are using Iraq. Those people are using the Shia as bogeymen in Iraq, as the Jordanian king did, as the Egyptian president did, as the Saudi royal family did, to scare their own people of the rise of this Shia bogeyman. There’s a great deal of chauvinism in it, if not even racism. These are the majority of the people of Iraq.
Whether these elections are going to be seen as legitimate or not, the Iraqis themselves should decide that issue, not the Egyptians, not the Lebanese, not the Palestinians. It’s extremely important. Now, all these governments are not interested necessarily in reform unless they’re pushed to do reform, and they do reform from above. It’s managed reform, Ray.
And that’s why I don’t believe that they want reform. They use Iraq and the violence in Iraq and the chaos in Iraq to justify – and then they use the Islamist bogeymen in general, but the Shia bogeymen in particular, to scare the Americans and everybody else who are pushing for reform. We know that, because there is a debate about it in the Arab world.
Every time we ask a certain government, “open up the system,” they say, “the Islamists will win.” Then why didn’t you allow people in civil society to organize– nationalists, liberals, leftists, rightist, whatever? Now you’re telling us that there is the Islamists, and in the case of Iraq, you have the Jordanian monarch telling the Americans to postpone the elections because there is a Shia bogeyman. And then, when the elections occurred and they saw the pictures that you and I saw, he changed his mind. Now he’s one of the leaders for reform.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn to Khaled Dawoud. A bogeyman? Because there are sizeable Shia populations in Lebanon, in Syria, in Bahrain –
KHALED DAWOUD: There are so many things we can say about the bogeyman theory. I just want to mention that the night before the elections I got a call from the Iranian Radio. And the first question they asked me in that interview was, “What do you want to tell the Iraqi people in order to encourage them to take part in the vote?”
And it just occurred me, isn’t it really strange that it’s only Iran and the United States, the only two parties that are so vehement and so much in favor of those elections? It just definitely should tell you something that the Iranians, despite all the differences with the United States, they also want elections, because they definitely think it’s going to be in their favor in the long term, that they’re going to have a very friendly government in Iraq which is going to definitely increase their influence one way or the other.
And we cannot ignore the fact, for example, that at one stage, the president, or American administrations here– you know, the Reagan administration, and even Bush the father– supported Saddam at one stage because he was facing the Iranians. So the fact — it’s a fact that Iran is a very strong regional power.
They do want to increase their influence. And there is a problem. There is serious worry among the majority Sunni population, whether right or wrong, but there is serious worry that this, you know, Bush administration policy is actually feeding sectarianism within Iraq because since they went into Iraq, they’ve been saying, oh, the Sunni minority should end its rule about the majority, ignoring many facts that Saddam was a dictatorship against everybody, and not just against the Sunni.
RAY SUAREZ: Wait, let — very brief.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: First, I agree with Hisham that a lot of the governments use Iraq and everything else to scare people. Obviously, they don’t want real reform. They want to keep power. But there are a lot of Arab elites who actually legitimately and profoundly are conflicted for other reasons.
And I think there are ramifications for the Iraq issue beyond the issue of the Shia. Obviously the Shia are majority; they deserve to have the power. I think the question here is: is there a chance for more sectarian conflict? I think there is today. And is there a chance for Iraq not being able to withstand an emergent Iran?
Yes, there is. I mean those two are legitimate questions for the debate, and they do worry legitimately a lot of people in the region. But clearly governments overuse these examples to justify the lack of reform. That’s a reality.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, gentlemen, thanks a lot.