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New kind of awe in the Mideast


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New kind of awe in the Mideast

Iraqis embraced Sunday's historic vote, changing the landscape of a region in which democracy is the exception, and the ruled have had little say. The despots now have good reason to squirm.

By Youssef M. Ibrahim

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Regardless of its flaws and how it came about, Iraq's first free election in half a century is a historic event. Among other things, it has given quite a boost to a liberation process underway in the greater Middle East, sending tremors through both ruled and rulers.

Strange how one day's event can touch so many, even those outside Iraq. But it did not come from nowhere. To autocratic regional despots, the rush to vote by millions of trapped, terrorized and occupied Iraqis was a closure to tired arguments. The despots have never held an honest-to-God election, and now this embarrassing model sits there, across the border, in a major Arab nation.

In one fell swoop, this upset has brought to a halt years of despots' arrogant posturing toward Iraqis or hiding of domestic shortcomings behind missteps of the Americans and Israelis in Iraq and Palestine. Iraqis today stand like a phoenix amid the rubble of mediocre governance and corrupt autocracies.

As for the ruled, what can be gleaned from a quick harvest of views are early signs of separating profound dislikes of President Bush and his Middle East policies from the man's ability to deliver to their Iraqi Arab brethren a home run on human rights. It's like damn G.W. Bush, but, with a wink, also long live G.W. Bush.

Thanks to intensive satellite coverage aimed at a television-driven culture, some 200 million Arabs watched at homes, clubs and coffee shops, aghast at how wrong they may have gotten some of the Iraq equation. American occupation or not, their Iraqi brethren left no doubt that they were thrilled. They flocked to voting stations in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad and to polling centers set up abroad for expatriate Iraqis in Syria, Jordan and Iran to choose a government.

In interview after interview, Iraqis said such things as, “It is like a wedding … It is a great day … This is history.â€

These feelings will take some time to sort out. There is gratefulness at seeing America deploy these Iraqi elections in such grandeur, but there is still a perception that the U.S. wants to control Iraq's future after freeing it from its past, that it is negligent of Palestinian brothers and is only interested in the area's oil riches.

Is that illogical and ungrateful?

Yes, certainly — but all true and deeply felt.

So it follows that these events shall not pass without consequences — especially because Iraq will be there, a living, breathing and evolving model. And, unlike Palestine, Iraq is a pillar of Arab and Muslim civilization.

Then, of course, there will be the day after tomorrow, when Iraqi-elected representatives, men and women, will sit in one of those Arab League summit meetings, no longer shy or demure vis--vis the other 21 Arab member nations. They will be able to look the others straight in the eye, knowing that Iraqis possess a legitimacy not shared by anyone else.

For the United States and Britain, whose troops invaded and occupied Iraq, these elections may ascertain the Arab proverb: Witchcraft can turn against its sorcerer. It is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that an Iraqi government somewhere down this road to democracy will ask the United States to leave.

In many ways, these Iraqi elections will further connect the dots among rebellious Arab populations. The sea change commenced with Arab satellites about a decade ago, when Al-Jazeera and its ilk began to free the Arab mind, challenging conventions of both rulers and the ruled. This has grown into a cacophony of demands:

•The Lebanese, with French and U.S. support, are openly shouting for an end to nearly two decades of Syrian occupation.

•Egyptians are loudly protesting a perennial presidency by one man, Hosni Mubarak, sitting atop power since 1981.

•Moroccans are aghast at the cost of their royal family, $272 million per year — published by domestic newspapers a couple of weeks ago — when many live on $2 a day.

•The nightmarish ruling family of 5,000 greedy royal Saudi princes — the al-Sauds, who have ruled and looted the oil-rich kingdom of Arabia with impunity for more than five decades — is under the worst pressure it has ever faced from Islamic terrorists and homegrown liberals.

If anything, Iraq's successful elections will raise the temperature all around.

They also cast some serious doubt on how many Iraqis support a murderous insurgency. On a day when 44 people were killed by insurgents opposed to elections, an estimated 60% of eligible voters turned out to vote, a higher percentage than in most democracies.

Confusing to be sure: An American occupation seen as all bad has now produced a phenomenon that is admirable. An Iraqi government viewed as a puppet, profoundly corrupt and inefficient, is now going to be replaced with one subject to some serious accountability from newly empowered voters.

Ethnic groups, Shiites and Kurds among others, long-deprived of their place in their society, are going to be in power. Elsewhere, oppressed Christians and Muslim fundamentalists must be keeping count. As things stand right now, the whole Middle East political map is up for change. Too early to say how this will turn out, but certainly this is one Sunday when all assumptions seemed to collapse.

Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former senior Middle East correspondent for The New York Times and energy editor of The Wall Street Journal, is managing director of a political risk-assessment group.

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