Published on Friday, January 28, 2005 by Reuters
Arabs Say Iraq Vote Gives Democracy a Bad Name
by Tom Perry
CAIRO - President Bush sees Sunday's election in Iraq as a beacon for freedom in the Middle East, but Arab reformers say the poll will set back their cause.
Arab human rights activists say the Iraqi election is deeply flawed and will give democracy a bad name. They say violence and the prospect of a Sunni Arab boycott will undermine the poll. Many Arabs, already suspicious of U.S. intentions in Iraq, are also dismissing the vote's credibility because of the presence of the 150,000 U.S. troops there.
"The influence of the elections for us as democrats is disastrous," Syrian human rights activist Haytham Manna told Reuters from Paris. "When you marginalize wide sections of society from the political process ... this is not democracy."
"With this example, all the Arab extremists will say to us: 'You democrats, go to hell, because you haven't been able to solve our problems with your democracy and elections'," said Manna, who left Syria in 1978 as a political exile.
Some Iraqi Sunni Arab groups are boycotting the election, saying it cannot be free and fair because of the U.S. military presence and daily bloodshed in Sunni heartlands.
The prospect that majority Shi'ites and minority Kurds will dominate Iraq's first parliamentary election since Saddam Hussein fell in April 2003 has fueled fears of communal strife.
"If the U.S. really sees the Iraqi elections as a step to usher in democracy, Arabs don't need it because it would be a leap into more bloodshed and chaos," said Mokhtar Trifi, head of Tunisia's only independent human rights group.
Many Arabs think elections held under U.S. occupation can only produce a government similar to the U.S.-backed interim government, which they view as an American puppet.
"The elections depict democracy as if it is connected to the idea of submission to the American occupier," said Abdel Halim Qandil, who is campaigning against an extension of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 23-year-old rule.
"The idea of democracy will lose its reputation in the Arab world entirely," Qandil said, comparing the Iraqi election with 20th-century polls held in Egypt under British occupation. "Democratic charades of this type were going on then," he said.
Some Arab dissidents also say violence in Iraq has given Arab governments an excuse to deflect pressure from the Bush administration for democratic reform across the Middle East.
Egyptian civil rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim said the chaos in Iraq had allowed the Egypt government to discredit the U.S. project at home. Cairo was also warning Washington that political reform in Egypt might unleash extremism.
Rights campaigners say U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad had also put back the cause of human rights in Arab states accused of torturing prisoners.
Manaa, spokesman for the Arab Commission for Human Rights, said cases of torture in Arab jails had increased since the Abu Ghraib scandal. U.S. soldiers involved have faced court martial.
"Arab governments say: 'This is the reform carried out by the one who calls on us to reform,"' Manaa said.
Saudi academic Madawi al-Rasheed said the Abu Ghraib scandal coupled with air strikes on Falluja, which the U.S. military said was a stronghold for Sunni insurgents, had lost America the support of its natural Arab allies in pushing for democracy.
"The educated, liberal classes, they cannot possibly have positive views vis-a-vis America when these things are going on," she told Reuters from London.
But Rasheed said if democracy did take root in Iraq it would be an example to other Arabs, a view echoed by Shafiq Ghabra, president of the American University of Kuwait.
"Today there are few places in the Arab world where you can have this dynamic expression of ideas, lists, candidates," he said.
Additional reporting by Lamine Ghanmi in Tunis and Noora Kassem in Kuwait
© 2005 Reuters Ltd.