IRAQ: Iraqis getting used to the sights and sounds of freedom
Youssef M. Ibrahim

Regardless of its flaws and how it came about, Iraq`s first free election on January 30 was an historic event, the start of a liberation process from which there will be no return.

For Arab and Middle Eastern rulers, the time of arrogant posturing toward Iraqis is over. Indeed they will now be on the receiving end of an empowered Iraqi government, no matter how flawed it may be in a region infested with mediocre autocracies.

Freedom for Iraqis and their neighbors may prove to be a fever both infectious and missionary in zeal.

Sights and sounds of millions of Iraqis marching toward voting stations to choose a government at home in Basra, Mosul, Baghdad and abroad in Syria, Jordan, Iran and in cities of the Arabian Gulf, were filmed, photographed, recorded and absorbed by vast swaths of populations deprived of any choice. This cannot pass without consequences.

Then there will be the day after tomorrow, when Iraqi elected representatives, men and women, will sit in an Arab League summit meeting, no longer shy or demure.

They will not suffer fools lightly, and will be able to look others straight in the eye knowing that they possess a legitimacy not shared by anyone around that Arab League table.

For the United States and Britain whose troops invaded and occupied Iraq, these elections may ascertain the Arab proverb that says that 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.

It is almost certain that the Iraqi government that will be put in place in a few days will be far more argumentative than the one that the Americans appointed, even if it consists of the same folks.

Basically these Iraqi elections, and before them the Palestinian presidential elections, were a significant increment to an ongoing process of liberation in the Greater Middle East.

A sea change of rebellion has been underway ever since Arab freewheeling satellites with the leadership of Al Jazeera began to free the mind and challenge the people and the leaders over the past few years.

The Lebanese are openly demanding an end to Syrian occupation. Egyptians are raising their voice in objection to a perennial presidency by one man. Moroccans were aghast at the costs of the top family ($120 million) per year recently revealed by newspapers at home.

Interestingly, the autocratic governments of Syria, Egypt, Libya and many other countries are all talking loudly about reforms.

If anything, Iraqi`s successful elections will raise the temperature. As far as the United States and its policies in this region, the Iraqi invasion followed now by the Iraqi elections have engendered the hardest questions ever posed. American Middle East policy has been under microscopic examination out here for two years now.

Most of the people of the Middle East have said in public opinion poll after poll that they do not like any of it. It is highly doubtful the United States will get any credit for it as it is perceived as desiring to control Iraq`s future after freeing it from its past. Illogical maybe, ungrateful possibly, but nevertheless all true and deeply felt.

For Arabs these are confusing times too. What you saw is not what you got. For example, the American occupation of Iraq was seen as all bad, yet it has now produced a phenomenon that is admirable.

An Iraqi government widely viewed as a puppet, profoundly corrupt and inefficient, is now going to be replaced with a government possessing a mandate and subjected to some serious accountability by newly empowered voters.

The event`s ample dimensions grew before our eyes as Al Jazeera as well as its Western counterparts such as CNN and others went into full court coverage. In this region, people watched with fascination something many of them yearn to see happen in their own backyards.

Pundits on the payroll of the region`s various dictatorships can say that both Palestinian and Iraqi elections were rigged, that the sound of the battle of liberation cannot be overcome until they are blue in the face, but this destructive logic isn`t catching anymore.

The seminal nature of last Sunday`s events was more sharply defined when projected against sectarian violence by insurgents, foreign and domestic.

The `lions` and `martyrs brigades` of Al Qaeda`s Iraqi branch led by Abu Mussab Al Zarqawi found no takers for their slate of mayhem and murder posing as policy.

More than 30 people were killed, but more than 60 percent of Iraqis turned out to vote, which is on par with the most advanced democracies on earth.

Interestingly, a statement by the Al Qaeda Organizational branch in Iraq denouncing `the centers of infidelity and apostasy` - meaning polling stations in various regions of Iraq - appeared limp, pathetic and empty.

That so many millions of Arabs when invited to speak freely did not hesitate to do so says volumes. It drowns the nihilists such as Zarqawi and his boss-friend, Osama Bin Laden.

In the coffee shops and streets of Middle Eastern bazaars the murmur building up is that something big is happening here, something new and refreshing.

Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times and energy editor of the Wall Street Journal, is managing director of the Dubai-based Strategic Energy Investment Group