Building Democracy in Iraq

By Nir Boms | September 11, 2003

Democracy is still a rare phenomenon in the Arab and Muslim world – and as we attempt to bring Democracy to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the discussion concerning the reason for this reality triggers much attention.  George Will recently commented on this “democracy deficit” focusing on the cultural dimension. He noted that the Islamic world lacked an “attachment for freedom” and “social ground for the seeds of democracy”.

Reality proves his point. Out of the 22 member states of the Arab league, none are considered democratic. Out of the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the World Fact book lists only three countries defined as full fledged democracies – Malaysia, Turkey and the mighty republic of Surinam with its 265,0000 inhabitants (some may insist on adding Indonesia and Pakistan to this list).  Elections are a rarity in most of these countries since their governments care very little about the opinion of those who happen to reside within their territory. Nor do they care much about the result of this approach.

It is interesting to point out that the OIC, with its 57-member countries and a population of nearly 1.4 billion has a combined GDP of only one-third of that of the U. S. with a population of 280 Million and significantly less natural resources. This reality was further articulated in the United Nations Arab Development Report that examined the state of human development in the 22 Arab League countries.  The report documented the deficits in political freedoms, economic development, education, human rights and the rights of woman and it sought to make an impact since it was written by Arabs and for Arabs. 

But it didn’t make an impact. Why? Perhaps, Bashar Assad, of Syria can provide us with a beginning of an answer.  In a recent interview he clarified that “openness”, a term he used as a key theme in his hopeful inauguration speech two years ago, means “a reevaluation of the past not the future.” The goal of development, in Assad’s view, is to strengthen governmental institutions rather then to develop institutions of civil society. “The development of civil society institutions,” he admitted, “is not one of my priorities.” 

But the carrying out of democracy in the Arab and Muslim world may be somewhat more prevalent in practice than some of the governments are willing to admit. Take elections for example. It is true that the residents of the 22 Arab league members cannot participate in political elections (with the exception of few countries like Egypt who actually allows their citizens to choose the only political party that is offered on the ballot). But this does not mean that the Egyptians and others receive no training when it comes to suffrage.

For example, take the very successful campaign of Jordan’s Diana Carzoun. Carzoun was crowned as the “Superstar of the Arabs” in the closing episode of a popular television competition that had millions of viewers across the Middle East glued to the box for 21 weeks.  Her weekly Arabic version of UK song competition “Pop Idol” has run for the last several months on TV satellite channels in a well-orchestrated campaign that proved to be taking the Arab world by storm. MobileCom, a Jordanian cell phone company, even placed campaign ads showing Carzon wearing a long traditional embroidered dress with the caption: “A beautiful Jordanian dream” or “Give your vote to Diana for our happiness to be complete.”Carzoun beat Syria’s Roueida Attiya for the title – a surprise result for the conspiracy theorists who thought the exclusion of  Lebanese singer Milhem Zein from the race was a ploy to please Lebanon’s masters and pave for Attiya’s victory.

But at the end, like good candidates, the Jordanian and Syrian women hugged and shed a few tears before taking  back the stage, shoulder-to-shoulder, singing a song that had been dear to both their hearts “Ala Babi Wakef Qamarein” (Two Moons are at My Doorstep) – perhaps a sign for a future coalition. Carzoun scooped 52 percent of the 4.8 million votes cast by the audience on the final day of the 21-week contest. Viewers voted by telephone, text messages or tapped into dedicated internet sites in weekly ballots that narrowed the contestants every week from an initial 53 to the last two.

Future TV, the organizer of the event, has attracted unprecedented popularity, and is already planning a new Superstar season for 2004. Telecommunications executives were overwhelmed, insisting that never before has the Arab world experienced such a rush for telephone voting. Communications often crashed at the weekly Sunday deadline for voting, with servers across the region unable to cope with the volume of calls. Soon enough, the voices of the opposition have joined the campaign that appeared to have scored some points with the moderates. 

The Islamic Action Front in Jordan saw “unethical behavior” in the Superstar fever, cautioning the young generations to pay more attention to their problems and the “plight of Arabs in Palestine and Iraq”, rather than chase after “a pathetic pastime.” 

To be sure, the election of a popular singer is not a strong enough guarantee for the success of our democratization efforts. But unfortunately, for million of Arab and Muslims, the “Superstar of the Arabs” completion has been the only avenue that allowed them to cast their ballot.  For a start, we can look at the successful campaign of Diana Carzoun and her collages as a proof that millions of Arab and Muslims are very much eager to and capable of making a choice. All they ask is for the opportunity to cast their ballot. If we can help, we should try and give them a chance.

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