Fat lady on democracy’s ladder

Something is stirring in the Arab world. It may not be exactly what US President George W. Bush had in mind when he set out to spread democracy in the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq, but it appears that the risky act broke the deadlock in the region and set in motion a chain of events with an unpredictable outcome. The first and most obvious consequence is that the United States has become an inextricable part of the predicament in the most problematic region on earth. Now America has two options: To stick it out and fight on until it manages to impose the peace it wants or to find a way to disentangle itself before withdrawing into a period of isolationism. Whatever the immediate future, the continued presence of the United States on the battle grounds of the Middle East or its withdrawal will have serious consequences for the whole region. There will either be a vacuum that will oblige every country to work out new alliances and strategies or America’s continued commitment will raise new demands on its allies – including Greece – who will have to make themselves as useful as possible. The second result of the occupation of Iraq is that the United States has applied pressure on its regional allies to show greater sensitivity to democratic principles. Whether or not one accepts Washington’s sincerity, this demand has opened the way for new political developments in countries that did not have a direct involvement in the Iraq caper, such as Egypt. A series of photographs from the town of Talha near Cairo last Thursday demonstrated in the clearest way the earthquake that is shaking up the Arab world. Dozens of citizens – including stout ladies with headscarves, long robes and dusty slippers – were scrambling up rough, wooden ladders to enter a polling station through the second floor windows. As The Associated Press reported, riot police had blocked the entrance because the authorities were trying to limit voter participation in areas where the Islamic opposition has a strong presence. But the citizens wanted to vote and nothing would stop them. The ruling party may still be in power but the change has begun. Maybe in the near future extremists will win elections and put democracy to a new test. But anyone who believes in democracy has to respect a people’s mandate and to have confidence in the fact that those who tasted the sweetness of a voter’s power will not give it up easily. But as Algeria has shown, the road ahead is not easy when autocratic secular regimes are threatened by equally autocratic Islamic ideas. The wind of change may appear weak now, at a time when the carnage in Iraq is dominating the news – when Syria is being threatened with UN sanctions and worse for its alleged involvement in political murder in Lebanon, when hardliners in Iran are asserting their power over a restive population. But the seeds of democracy – irrespective of the way in which they are planted – may have other unforeseen consequences. The stout ladies and intense young men of Talha may have appeared a threat to Egypt’s secular system, but their passionate desire to vote is a greater threat to the extremist followers of Osama bin Laden. We need only remember that before the first round of national elections in Iraq last January, bin Laden had warned that «anyone taking part will be considered an apostate.» An organization that swears allegiance to him, Ansar al-Sunna, elaborated: «Democracy is a Greek word which means the people have power, in other words, the people do what they like. This is apostasy, it is against Muslim doctrine, which is that there is only one God.» For the fanatics, in other words, democracy is unacceptable because it gives people the power that belongs to God. But this idea does not appear to have gained much ground even in Iraq, where bin Laden’s supporters are playing a leading role in the resistance against the Americans and have both gained greater legitimacy in the eyes of other Muslims but have also squandered it with wanton acts of carnage. Having seen that they were left behind after the elections in January, important organizations of Iraq’s Sunni religious minority are now taking part in the elections slated for December 15. It is therefore quite possible that when the people of Arab and other Muslim countries express their will freely, their next great battle may be with the forces that dream of imposing a new dark ages in the region. But the voters on the ladders will not be turning back.