IRAQ: The meaning of Iraq's vote to the Arabs
Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

A man who had lost a leg to a suicide bomber's blast was one of an estimated eight million Iraqis who on January 30 defied the threats of terrorists to go to polling stations and vote. "I would have come here if I had to crawl," the man said.

After January 30, no more could anyone say that Arabs or Muslims are not suited to democracy, or that they are too indifferent about who leads them to bother to vote. Ordinary Iraqi citizens proved once and for all that Arabs and Muslims love democracy as much as anyone else, and in this case were prepared to make extraordinary sacrifices to achieve it.

It is difficult to measure the full significance of the election in Iraq. Only history will put it in its true perspective. But there are many things we can say about it now.

In many respects, it is the first real election in the Arab World. To date, Arab regimes have not held elections or been very reluctant to hold credible elections, because no ruler could accept loss of power. For ordinary Arab citizens, this has meant that they have either ignored elections or participated in them reluctantly or cynically, knowing that the outcome would be fixed to favor their rulers.

There have been no greater victims of this type of phony electoral process than the Iraqis themselves, who voted for anyone other than Saddam Hussein at the risk of their lives. And no Arabs have suffered the abuse of ruthless leaders more than the Iraqi people. In this election, for once the intimidation came not from the rulers but from a collection of sick losers, people who claim they are fighting a jihad allied with people who are fighting to regain power and reclaim the reins of terror they once held as officials in the Baath Party regime that ruled Iraq.

What insane rationale would motivate someone to blow himself up so as to kill innocent civilians going about the business of choosing who they want as their leaders? Is there any reasonable Arab who cannot see just how sick this "resistance" is? It embodies all that is wrong with Arab regimes themselves: using intimidation and terror to achieve unjust ends.

January 30, 2005 will go down in history as the day that ordinary Arab citizens said: "Enough!" The brave Iraqis refused to be cowed by intimidation and terror, even though 44 lost their lives to terror attacks that day. They were simply determined to vote, at any cost.

For Iraq, this means the nation is firmly set on the path towards establishing a viable democracy. A new constitution will be drawn up with the participation of all religious and ethnic groups, more elections will be held and a government elected by the people will take office. It will take months for the process to be completed, and it will not be achieved without more trouble. But the Iraqi people have decided that they want to live in a real democracy and that they are willing to risk all to achieve that.

For the rest of the Arab world, January 30 will be a day that stands as a call to action. Too many Arab governments have put off democratic reforms in the name of everything from the Palestinian Problem to the unready state of their people to make educated choices. And, by and large, Arabs have let their leaders get away with these excuses, as pathetic and empty as they are. If Iraqis can forge a real democracy out of the ashes of the worst dictatorship the Arab World has seen in modern times and in the midst of a bloody terror campaign, all other Arab countries can find their way forward to democracy too. It is time for Arabs everywhere to say: "Enough!"

One final positive note about January 30. On that day, Arab satellite TV stations finally began reporting the real story in Iraq, the story of how most Iraqis want democracy, want to live in a peaceful, secure country. For once the cameras focused on these people, as they went to vote, and not the creators of chaos. After all, a real election is real news in the Arab world!

The message of Iraq is not complicated or subtle. The enemies of ordinary Iraqis have always been the terrorists and Baathist holdovers who continue to create mayhem. The friends of Iraq and Iraqis are the coalition partners who have been willing to sacrifice their own people and resources to give all Iraqis a chance to decide their own future. It is high time the Arab media broadcast this basic truth and helped the rest of the region learn the vital lessons being taught by Iraq and its long-suffering and heroic people.

Thomas Cromwell is the president of East West Communications