To appreciate the full magnitude of what happened in Iraq on Sunday a little thought experiment is in order. Ask yourself, "Would I have voted if I were an Iraqi?" I doubt that many of us could answer that question affirmatively with any degree of confidence.
Consider what Iraqi voters faced. In Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle, walls were covered with the slogan, "Min Al-sanduq il Al-sanduq!," which literally means "from the box to the box," but here meant "from the ballot box into the coffin!" Leaflets threatened to "wash Baghdad streets with voter's blood."
Voters did not fear that there would be violence; they knew that some – perhaps many – would die in the course of voting. Suicide bombers love a crowd, and there is no way to conduct an election without large numbers of people congregating in a small area. And though vehicular traffic, and thus car bombs, could be kept away from polling places, there was no way to keep away would be "martyrs" wired to self-destruct.
Despite this, overall voter turnout throughout the country was around 60%, and even in Sunni areas, where voters were most vulnerable, as high as 40% voted. At one polling station, a bomb went off. Yet a few hours later, the voters had all returned to vote. A man shot in the face on his way to vote was rushed to the hospital. Once treated, he too returned to vote.
The big winners of the election, then, were the Iraqi people who showed the courage to risk their lives without which no people has ever won its freedom.
ONE ELECTION DOES not a democracy make. But the development of Iraqi political culture leading up to the elections contains much cause for optimism. Since liberation, Iraqis have become something of news freaks. They can read more than two hundred papers, and listen to fifty or more privately owned radio stations. They are, in Natan Sharansky’s terms, on their way to creating a free society where everyone can express his opinion in the town square.
Even more encouraging was the maturity shown by the major political parties. Though the turnout in Sunni areas was expected to be much lower than in Shiite and Kurdish regions, the parties expected to do best took great pains to ensure that Sunnis would not be shut out of the process of constitution drafting, which will be the main task of the just elected constituent assembly. Even on the United Iraqi Alliance list, prepared with the blessings of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric, there were many Sunni Arabs. At least 50-60 Sunni Arabs appeared on realistic slots on the various party ballots. If even forty are elected, Sunnis will be represented above their overall percentage of the population.
The United Iraqi Alliance was primarily composed of secular Shiites, and Ayatollah Sistani repeatedly expressed his opposition to a government dominated by clerics or to the imposition of a theocracy. In the period leading up to the election, every party, from the Communists to advocates of a constitutional monarchy, was united by a common desire to make the elections and subsequent constitution drafting a success. The interim constitution is loaded with provisions to prevent any group from completely dominating the political process and to force compromises between different factions and ethnic groups.
Michael Rubin, writing in the Wall Street Journal, described the maturation of Iraqi politics. When he delivered an address at the University of Baghdad under Saddam Hussein, translators struggled with such words as "tolerance," "debate," and "compromise. " They had no reference point for such basic democratic concepts. After the liberation each of the country's major groups began pressing its maximalist demands – Kurds called for the expulsion of all Arabs from Kurdistan, Islamists prevented unveiled girls from attending classes in secular schools, and many Iraqis demanded summary execution for all two million Baath Party members. But, Rubin writes, "as [Iraqis] grew accustomed to their new freedoms of speech, assembly and movement, [they] shed their isolation" and began talking to one another. Amir Taheri describes large conclaves of politicians from different parties gathering nightly in Baghdad in the weeks leading up to the election to plan for the future.
THE ELECTION PRODUCED A CLEAR LIST OF WINNERS AND LOSERS. The big winner, after the Iraqi people themselves, was President Bush's vision of the moral choice facing every ruler and every nation between "oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right." In the wake of a remarkably smooth election in Afghanistan, one of the world's most primitive countries, and now the Iraqi election, the burden of proof has shifted to all those who claim that Arabs are congenitally unfit for democracy and lack any desire for it.
Arabs throughout the Middle East followed the Iraqi election closely. The major Arab satellite stations treated the election on a par with the invasion of Iraq itself. Dubai-based Al Arabiya had eight satellite trucks broadcasting from across Iraq, as well numerous video phone links from Iraq's largest cities. Both Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera relegated news of violence on Election Day to ticker tape at the bottom of the screen and hourly news summaries. But the huge story throughout the Arab world was democracy in action, not Islamist violence.
The list of winners indicates the losers as well. Nearly a year ago, a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born chief executioner and Al Qaeda emissary to Iraq, came to light in which he warned that if democracy came to Iraq the jihadists would have no further excuse for their campaign of terror and would "have to pack our bags and break camp for another land in which we can resume carrying the banner or in which Allah will choose us as martyrs for his sake." It is likely too optimistic to expect that he will make good on that promise, but he has clearly lost a major battle in his declared "fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology."
The portrayal of the Islamist and Baathist terrorists in Iraq as "insurgents" against the American occupying force – the equivalent of the American minutemen in the Revolutionary War in Michael Moore is inapt analogy - who would simply melt away were the Americans to leave is no longer credible. Islamist and Baathists are joined together only by their common desire to deny freedom to Iraqis. (Their alliance, incidentally, disproves the frequently made claim that the secular Saddam could never have made common cause with Al Qaeda. )
The mullahs in Iran have good cause to worry. The sight of their fellow Shiites in Iraq taking a major first step to claiming control over their lives will not be lost on Iran's restive population, and pro-democracy forces in Iran will no doubt be emboldened. That is particularly good news given that a democratic takeover in Iran is the only remotely plausible current scenario for preventing Iran from menacing the rest of the world with nuclear weapons.
Bashir Assad, whose small Alawite minority, comprising little more than 10% of the Syrian population, has ruled Syria for decades, will also have a few disquieting thoughts as he contemplates the end of Sunni dominance in neighboring Iraq. Damascus was among the sites around the world where Iraqi citizens voted, and the image of fellow Arabs voting in a free election will not be lost on Syrian citizens.
The Europeans will hopefully show a little more restraint expressing their disdain for America's cowboy president and his naïve vision of the light of freedom spreading around the globe. Now that the so-called insurgency is revealed to be the last desperate gasp of opponents of freedom, not a rebellion against American oppressors, the Europeans may find themselves forced to ante up their fair share to the reconstruction of Iraq and its transformation into a flourishing modern state. Even without their help, Iraq is already the fastest growing Middle East economy and likely to become the engine driving regional economic development, according to a recent report of the International Monetary Fund.
We are so accustomed to digesting bad news that we often fail to take sufficient note of events rich in promise for better lives for millions around the globe. A decade and a half after the fall of the Soviet Union, we look back as if Communism was doomed by historical inevitability. Perhaps. But almost to the day the Iron Curtain fell, the leading Sovietologists were virtually unanimous in their belief in the long-term stability of the Soviet Union.
We have just witnessed events of great magnitude in Iraq – events with immense implications for the entire Middle East. Let us not treat them as something ho-hum.