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Iraq: a model of Arab democracy?

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Robin Lustig | 21:10 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

How remarkable is this? I've just read the following sentence in a news report from Baghdad: "The (Iraqi) poll's outcome is still unclear."

Remarkable? How so? Well, consider this: in no Arab country other than Lebanon are you likely to read those words after an election. Not in Egypt, or Syria, or Morocco, or Saudi Arabia. If you regard Palestine as a country, then yes, admittedly, there too they have elections whose results are not pre-determined.

It's an odd thing, isn't it? Throughout Latin America, and east Asia, and in many parts of Africa, a democratic wind has blown over the past 20-30 years. Yet much of the Arab world seems to have remained immune, for reasons which you may like to discuss.

Now, whenever the words "election" and "democracy" crop up in the same sentence, I am reminded of what a Ugandan MP once told me as we sat on the green leather benches of the parliament building in Kampala. "An election is no more democracy than a wedding is a marriage."

In other words, yes, of course, you need the one before you can have the other - but on its own, it's not enough.

So elections in Iraq with no predetermined outcome do not necessarily mean that democracy has come to Iraq. Is there a free and impartial judicial system? Do all citizens have equal recourse to the courts? Is there guaranteed freedom of expression and assembly? The questions answer themselves.

You may think that the people of Iraq have paid a terrible price in order to be able to vote (semi-) freely in parliamentary elections. Or you may think that freedom from tyranny is rarely won without bloodshed.

If you were to ask an Iraqi: "Has democracy come to your country?", I suspect as many would answer No as Yes. But as someone who visited Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power, I well remember the all-pervasive, and paralysing, atmosphere of fear.

It is not for me to say whether the US-led invasion was justified or not. My point is simply to draw your attention to how rare it still is in the Arab world to find elections in which a genuine choice is on offer. (Not that the choice was a perfect one in Iraq by any means - but it was more of a choice than what went before.)

And by the way, to speak of the Arab world is not the same as to speak of the Muslim world. In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, in Pakistan, even in Iran, there have been elections that could well be judged free-er than many in the Arab world.

So Iraq joins Lebanon - and perhaps Palestine - on a rare roll of honour. As in Lebanon, the political process is largely dominated by sectarian considerations. In neither country will you find many Sunni Muslims voting for a Shia party, or vice versa. In Lebanon, to find a Maronite Christian voting for a Muslim party is about as rare as to find a Kurd in northern Iraq voting for a non-Kurdish party.

Think politics in northern Ireland and you'll get the general idea. Sectarian politics is not confined to the Middle East.

As for Iraq, the strong likelihood is that prime minister Nouri al-Maliki will be able to put together a new government coalition able to command a majority in parliament. What he does with it we'll have to wait to see.

I've just arrived in Brazil, from where I'll be reporting (and blogging, of course) next week on a country emerging ever more strongly onto the world stage. I hope you'll listen out for my reports.


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