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Ajami: Iraqi Elections 'Gave the Lie' to View That Democracy Is Alien to Middle East

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Fouad Ajami, Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
January 31, 2005


Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, says the outpouring of Iraqis from all walks of life to vote in Sunday’s elections “gave the lie to the idea that democracy is alien or need be alien to this region.” Ajami says that even though some Arab media outlets gave prominent play to the elections, some tried to diminish the vote’s impact by muting their coverage.

As for the U.S. role, Ajami says the elections, combined with enhanced training for Iraq’s security forces, may provide “the twin pillars of our strategy for a graceful exit from that country.”

Ajami, who is a member of the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, was interviewed on January 31, 2005, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

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What are your first thoughts in the wake of Sunday’s elections in Iraq?

It reminded me of just a few weeks ago when people were celebrating the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. The spectacle of ordinary Iraqis; old women, old men, Iraqis returning from far away to vote, people holding up their forefingers dipped in purple ink, gave the lie to the idea that democracy is alien or need be alien to this region. I got up this morning and decided, because I knew I was going to be talking to you, that I would pick up the Arabic press and see how the election was covered to get a sense of how the region responded to this dramatic and big event.

How did they respond?

It was interesting. I would have to say the most shameful of all the responses came from the Egyptians, from the leading paper of the regime of [President] Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was one of the three people in the region that President Bush called to discuss the Iraqi election; the other two being King Abdullah II of Jordan and crown prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

In the lead paper of Egypt, Al Ahram, the elections were treated as some marginal event. The front page went, of course, to Mubarak who was attending a conference of the Organization for African Unity in Abuja, Nigeria. It was as if Mubarak wanted to shield his country from the effect of this Iraqi revolution.

On the other side, the elections received remarkable coverage from a paper which is undergoing a tremendous revolution, I think, in the way it thinks about the world and covers the world. It’s a very influential paper, Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi-owned paper that’s published in London. It was exuberant over the election. The front page was celebratory. The huge banner headline said, “Iraqis Vote for Iraq.” And the two pictures on the front page were of a man holding his forefinger with the purple ink and a woman looking and studying her ballot, perhaps a woman who may even be unable to read, who may actually vote with her thumbprint.

These two responses tell you the story that, among some Arabs, there is a kind of celebration of the freedom of Iraq. And then there is this other approach to the elections of Iraq, a fear of what this election would mean for other Arabs, with a determination to show, of course, that it was just another violent day in Iraq. Mubarak and his press, in my opinion, disgraced themselves. In the midst of history being made in Iraq, you have a situation where Mubarak himself is preparing to run for another six-year term to bring it to 30 years in office. So, he is in the middle of preparing for his own uncontested election.

For our part, we Americans overcame the fear of the Shiite bogeyman that has paralyzed American policy ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Ever since we made the acquaintance of radical Shiism, we’ve been afraid of the Shiites, and we’ve held our politics hostage to that fear. But we had to slay that dragon and set that bogeyman aside. And we had to trust democracy in Iraq; we had to trust the Shiites.

The United States was lucky to have Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf preaching the necessity of voting.

Yes. We were lucky. As a secularist, I’m not very happy with the idea that a Grand Ayatollah could decree, issue a fatwa, that voting is a religious obligation, because my worry about this is we could end up with another Grand Ayatollah who would decree that voting is impermissible. That’s the risk we take. We took this risk in Iraq and we were lucky. We were lucky that the man at the helm of the clerical institution of the Shia of Najaf was a man of tremendous restraint, a man who represented the quietist tradition of Shiism. Now meanwhile across the street, so to speak, the Association of Muslim Scholars, which is the Sunni association, decreed that voting was impermissible. So, in fact, religion was brought into this election on the side of reason and moderation by Sistani, and then on the side of the insurgency, one way or another, by the Association of Muslim Scholars. A secularist cannot be happy with this, but we take it as it is.

A lot of people have been predicting that now that the election is over, there will be a big effort to bring the Sunnis into the constitution-writing process.

Everyone I’ve spoken to in Iraq, Kurdish leaders and Shiite leaders alike, will tell you no one has any intention to put together a new political process in Iraq that eliminates the Sunni Arabs. The Sunni Arabs will have a place at the table. By the way, no one really knows for sure what the Sunni Arabs are as a percentage of the population. I’ve seen figures as low as 13 percent. I’ve seen figures as high as 20 percent. So, cut it any which way you want, the Sunni Arabs are at best 20 percent, at worst 13 percent of the population of Iraq.

I didn’t realize it could be that low.

Absolutely. That’s the problem for them. You know, in fact, look across the border so to speak, and see the Alawites who rule Syria. They are less than 11 percent. The Sunni Arabs will have a place at the table. They may even be overrepresented in the political process to come, if only because the Kurds and the Shiites want them to participate in the making of this new country because no repair can go on without them. So, they will grant them a place. But the Sunni Arabs have to understand that their age of hegemony is over and that’s the hardest thing for them to accept.

Going back to the media, I was struck by the fact that the Arab television networks, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, both covered the election quite heavily and in a positive way.

Absolutely in a positive way. The impact of Al Arabiya has been revolutionary, in particular. The impact of Al Arabiya has to do with the presence at its helm of a man of unbelievably exquisite politics who is liberal to the core. That’s a Saudi journalist by the name of Abdul Rahman al-Rashed. He was editor-in-chief of the same paper I was talking to you about, Asharq Al Awsat, and he lived in London for many years.

Now he lives in Dubai and he works out of “media city,” which is a kind of oasis that the Crown Prince and the prince of Dubai have established in Dubai. And Al Arabiya has become a rival to Al Jazeera, and has given Al Jazeera a good run for its money. And Al Arabiya’s coverage has been remarkably liberal, remarkably supportive of Iraq’s elections, just as the newspaper, Asharq Al Awasat, has been supportive of this process. There is a determination, particularly at the helm of Al Arabiya, to be done with the journalism of incitement, to be done with the journalism of radicalism, and I think Rashed has pretty much put the message out.

Is Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia enthusiastic about these free elections?

No. Let’s say that Iraq has become the battleground between Arab autocracy and Arab liberalism and participatory politics. The autocrats have been hoping, if you will, that this American venture in Iraq would fail. Clearly, there are gradations of difference. Let’s just try to parse them. In the case of Egypt, the Egyptians, meaning Mubarak and the political class around him, desperately want Iraq to fail. For one, they are far away from the scene. They do not share a border with Iraq. They believe they can insulate themselves from Iraq. In the case of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, I think it’s more subtle there. They may not love the spectacle of democracy, they may not love the spectacle of women, not only voting, but competing for national office- here I’m talking about Saudi Arabia. They may not want democracy to come out with flying colors in Iraq, but they also don’t want the mayhem of Iraq to spill over into their borders. So, I think, they would look at these elections as part of their desire to see some kind of stability come to Iraq.

In the case of Jordan, the king of Jordan, young King Abdullah II, got himself into hot water by warning, in a famous interview which he’s had to take back, about what he called the spread of the “Shiite crescent” running from Iran, Iraq, and Syria into Lebanon.

But in the end, the Arab neighbors of Iraq just simply could not stop the process of democracy in Iraq. They couldn’t stop the Iraqis from voting. And here was Anglo-American power, principally American power, insisting on these elections, supporting these elections and protecting these elections.

Let’s talk about the United States, where President Bush is having a lucky streak.

You know, he’s made three bets and he’s won three times. He made a bet in Afghanistan there would be elections. He made a bet in Palestine that he would not have to deal with [former Palestinian Authority President Yasir] Arafat. The death of Arafat and the success of [President of the Palestinian Authority] Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] in the elections earlier in January were a vindication of the Bush policy. Now come the elections in Iraq.

Here is the president, a few days earlier, being ridiculed by the “realists” and by other people presumably “in the know” when he said he had planted the flag of liberty firmly, and people ridiculed him for saying he had planted a flag of liberty in Iraq, of all places. Well, now the elections vindicate him. But, I add, there is much danger for this policy still. The victory is not total and final, but grant this administration these three good outcomes- Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq.

I guess we have to wait and see now what happens in Iraq. It’s going to be a very interesting year.

I think the Iraq elections bought time for our president, not only on the ground in Iraq, but I generally believe they bought him time in the United States. It was almost like we as Americans had grown estranged from the people of Iraq. We came to doubt them. We got used to seeing them in a foul mood. We didn’t see enough gratitude on the ground in Iraq. For a fleeting moment, today, January 31, in the immediate aftermath of the election, it seems as though we’ve closed a circle. We’ve gone back to that dramatic day, April 9, 2003, when that statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Firdos Square [in Baghdad]. We now seem to be bonded with the Iraqis because they were doing the most American of things, voting. There were election banners, there were these simple men and women, peasants, the marsh Arabs, Kurdish mountaineers, all voting.

You could almost forgive our president if he were to say: “I told you so. I said that I planted the flag of freedom and I planted the flag of liberty.” So, I think the news from Iraq is a vindication of this policy. It doesn’t tell us that the gospel of liberty is going to sweep the Arab world, but I think it does buy time for the policy. It does re-hook the American people to Iraq. It tells them something good can come out of Iraq. The elections came at about the time we passed 1,400 U.S. fatalities in Iraq. We have paid a terrible price, a heavy price in Iraq, but the elections vindicate and redeem the policy- there is no doubt about it.

Now, back to Iraq. On the ground, I think we will find that the people who fear the Shiite bogeymen are going to be surprised. They are going to find the Shiites have deep wells of anti-clericalism among them; there are many Shiites who don’t want the “Turbans” in power. Shiite politicians will be looking for deals with Sunni and Kurdish politicians to build alliances. And they will find a constitutional process into which the Sunni Arabs will be invited in every conceivable way.

It may be that [interim Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi will be brought back in as prime minister for yet another round. Why? Well, because he is a Shiite and a secularist. His old Baathist roots make him acceptable to the Sunnis. It may turn out that we will once again find Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim president from Mosul, quite acceptable and quite the proper choice for president, because of his manners, his decorum, and his decency. And although he is a Sunni Arab, he is very close to the Shiites. He is married to a Kurdish woman. And, he is the most consensual figure in Iraq.

Now, it also may turn out for American policy that we may have to swallow our pride and deal with none other than Ahmad Chalabi, because Chalabi is back at the center of the political game. And he was the moving force behind the putting together of the so-called Sistani list, the United Iraq Alliance list. And there were earlier reports that the Americans have already signaled that if Chalabi wanted to be minister of interior, it’s perfectly fine with them. So, I think we will discover the multiplicity of Iraq. We will discover the Sunnis will be back in the political process. We will discover the Shiites are much more divided than we thought. We will discover there will be anti-clericalism among the Shiites. We will discover that the Shiites don’t want theocracy because it isn’t anything that they’ve aspired to in the past. We will see the return of politics to Iraq.

And think of the uniqueness of this spectacle. The communists are back, they fielded a list in the elections. Imagine the irony for George W. Bush, that he waged a war in Iraq to give the Communist Party of Iraq a place at the table. And the constitutional monarchists are back. Sharif Ali, a descent of the Hashemites who survived the regicide of 1958 as an infant of two years of age, is somewhere in the country. We will discover the multiplicity and richness of Iraqi political life. We can hope that these elections, plus the training mission of [Lieutenant] General [David] Petraeus, will become the twin pillars of our strategy for a graceful exit from that country.