CAIRO -- While Cairo officially stands behind U.S. plans to hold elections in Iraq early next year, many observers here question the sincerity of Washington-style 'democratization', and the notion that legitimate elections can be held under occupation.
Last week Cairo spelt out its official position on upcoming Iraqi elections at an international ministerial conference on the future of Iraq held at the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh.
At the meeting, foreign ministers from 20 countries, including Iraq's Arab neighbors, along with representatives from the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic States, cautiously endorsed U.S.- sponsored plans for national elections in Iraq, scheduled for Jan. 30.
Foreign ministers and representatives at the conference approved a final declaration, which stressed - along with the condemnation of "terrorism" and pledges of "non- interference" from neighboring countries - a commitment to Iraqi elections for a transitional government, to be held under the auspices of the UN, responsible for drafting a permanent constitution.
According to the document's fifth article, attendees vowed "...to encourage the interim government of Iraq to continue the political process by holding general elections before the end of January 2005."
Notably, even critics of the war, including Egypt, signed on to the 14-point declaration. Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was quoted by the media as saying, "All at today's conference pledged to support national reconciliation through dialogue and democratic participation. All of us will encourage Iraqis... to organize themselves and to vote in the coming elections."
But while UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called elections in Iraq "critical" to quelling the rampant violence in that country, some in Cairo - despite the official vote of support given at Sharm - view the notion of democratic elections in Iraq with skepticism. "Elections are a political show for the interim government of Iraq to say they have made a political achievement - like the elections in Afghanistan," said Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
Few put much faith in the U.S. neoconservative 'domino theory' of democratization - that a democratic Iraq will inevitably accelerate the pace of political reform in neighboring countries. In June, Cairo rejected the U.S.-proposed Greater Middle East Initiative which aimed to promote democratization in the countries of the Middle East, when it declined an invitation to participate in a G8 meeting on reform held in the United States. Washington - in a rare show of moderation - backed off, conceding that social and economic reform "had to come from within."
For its part, Cairo has been fighting a long, rearguard action against democratic reform for the last 20 years. The government's latest strategy - as evinced in a recent cabinet reshuffle - has been to make economic reform, such as tariff reduction and privatization, a priority at the expense of political reform.
In July's cabinet shake-up, all the major economy portfolios changed hands, while security posts like the interior ministry remained in the hands of their longtime masters. "It's fair to say that the government is focusing on economic rather than political reform," said Kazziha. "According to the government, we cannot have political reform unless we have social and economic reform preceding it."
Mohamed Said, deputy director of the state-run al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agrees with Kazziha. "The government has opened the way for a selective, ad-hoc approach to reform, based on emphasizing the economy and greater liberalization," he says, "and has ruled out the likelihood of eliminating the state of emergency." This has been in effect since the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Few policy watchers, therefore, expect the Egyptian political environment to open up any time soon, with or without elections in Iraq. "The Sharm conference saw Arab regimes placating the Bush administration after the U.S. elections," Kazziha said. "This outside pressure (to reform) can be accommodated, but with few substantial changes taking place. They can spread a façade of democratization, but they know that, after four years, the United States will have a change of administration - or a change of heart - and everything will return to how it was."
Said says democracy in Iraq, if it is founded on illegitimate elections, will never be able to lead by example. "Iraq will not be a model of democracy. Elections won't be credible because input from the UN will be meager," he says. "At this point, elections are run by the Iraqi executive" which suffers from a lack of legitimacy. "Whatever comes of the elections, they won't have any inspirational impact on the region, particularly with the security situation being so bad."
A source at the Egyptian foreign ministry, while conceding that Cairo "really supports elections in Iraq" sees no connection between elections there and the pace of domestic political reform. "Elections in Iraq will affect Iraqis," he says. "I don't see how the elections in Iraq could effect elections in, let's say, Kuwait."
Regardless of the implications for the rest of the region, many in the Arab world also express skepticism over the legitimacy of elections held under foreign occupation. "In all cases, the credibility of any popular consultation, regardless of the guarantees surrounding it, is deeply affected by the occupation's presence," wrote Mohamad al- Ashab in a Nov. 28 editorial in pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.
The recent Iraq conference, despite the objections of some attendees, neglected to provide a concrete withdrawal date for the more than 150,000 foreign troops - 138,000 of which are American - currently occupying the country. While the declaration's tenth article concedes that "the mandate of the multi-national forces in Iraq is not open-ended," it goes on to stipulate that the mandate will expire in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1546. The resolution itself sets no specific date for withdrawal, stating only that the mandate will be reviewed upon "the completion of the political process."
To most observers, the notion of holding fair elections under the circumstances - a simmering guerilla war and a foreign occupation - just does not tally. "The reality is this: you don't have a state, because society has been destroyed," says Kazziha. "Elections are an exercise in futility, because Iraq has been un-made."
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