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Arab Media Calls Iraq Election Day "Historic"

by Mohamad Ozeir

Arab Media Split Over Iraq Election

(PNS) -- Arab newspapers of all political stripes agreed that election day in Iraq was as historic as the day Baghdad fell to American forces in April of 2003.

Even state-owned newspapers, which by custom lead their front pages with stories on their own kings and leaders, nevertheless left room for front-page reports, editorials, and analysis spotlighting the most significant election experiment in the modern history of the Arab World.

The simple fact that the Iraqi elections took place as planned, on schedule, will resonate throughout the Arab world.

Since the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, it seems that everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And yet, for the Arab masses, it is remarkable that the Americans have kept their word when it comes to deadlines. First came the call to create a national governing council. Arab newspapers and talk shows were filled with skepticism, but this body was formed on time. Next came plans to transfer power from the American administrator, Paul Bremer, to an Iraqi interim government. More voices were raized and more speculations advanced, especially when the rift between the Americans and their ex-ally, Ahmad Chalabi, became public. But the step was completed on time, and Ayad Allawi became the interim rime minister.

Now, despite significant opposition and local, regional, and international calls to delay it, elections to chose leaders who will write the country's constitution took place on time.

For Americans and citizens of other stable democracies, dates of elections and voting are known, respected and routine. In the Arab world, however, where elections are insignificant or non-existent, keeping a scheduled political or reform date is an unexpected and pleasant surprise. In the absence of constitutional institutions there is no political process. The only viable power is the will of the ruler, whether that be a king, a prince, a president or, in the case of Moammar Qaddafi of Libya, just a "leader." And chances are that the ruler's will may very well depend on his mood.

That the Iraqi election has gone forward on time will help the Bush administration gain credibility in the region and win the favor of many Arabs, who will feel that reform is closer than ever before. However, maintaining this new level of credibility will not depend exclusively on Iraq. The challenge will be elsewhere, on the other side of the region. If the aspirations of the new Palestinian-Israeli track come to fruition and the situation of the Palestinians starts to improve, then the reform of the Middle East could gain more momentum than even the most optimistic adviser of President Bush could hope.

Carrying out the Iraqi election on the appointed date is as significant as taking down the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The new political trend in so many parts of the Arab World is a clear indication that people in the region are receptive to the idea of democracy, and the key to any success on that front will depend upon American credibility.


Most Arab media reported better-than-expected voting participation throughout Iraq, along with fewer-than-feared attacks on polling stations and election activities. Political commentary and analysis, however, was a different matter. There were three different reactions toward this historical day. Liberal and independent publications, including the Lebanese press and Arabic print media published outside the Arab world, were clearly jubilant about an experiment in democracy. State-owned press, especially where independent press is not allowed or not effective (as in Syria, Egypt and Jordan), downplayed the political meaning of the elections or raised questions about the future of Iraq. Gulf Area newspapers, which usually enjoy a remarkable degree of freedom on certain matters, concentrated on the news elements of the long day.

"A New Chapter in Iraq: Democracy Under Occupation," read the headline of the Assafir daily newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon. Assafir publisher Talal Salman, who strongly opposes the American occupation of Iraq, did not dismiss the importance of the day: "No one can underestimate the political gain for the Americans through the election." However, he blamed the dictatorship of Saddam's regime for making the "American tanks as acceptable as voting boxes for the Iraqi people."

Dr. Clovis Maksud, a leading Arab diplomat and intellectual who served for many years as the Arab League representative in Washington, D.C, captured the attitudes of the majority of Arab intelligentsia. In an editorial published by the Lebanese leading daily Annahar in its Election Day edition, Maksud described the election as an intellectual, political and emotional conflict for Arabs. "Why do the only acceptable Arabic elections take place under rejected occupations such as Iraq and Palestine?" he asked. "And is nationalism the opposite of democracy in the Arab World?" He concluded with the hope that democracy will be the way out of all conflicts for Arabs.

The publisher of Annahar, Ghassan Tueni, answered Maksud's questions in his editorial the following day. The "not-so-perfect" election, he observed, was better than half a century of dictatorship in Iraq. Similar experiences under occupation were better for the people of Germany, Japan, and India. Iraqis, he wrote, could learn that lesson as well.

Another Lebanese daily, Almustaqbal, declared in its front-page story that the election was a successful experience, and noted that the low turnout in the so-called "Sunni Triangle" was due to threats of violence and not for political reasons. It hoped the election would be the first step toward a national reconciliation, since it proved that an Iraqi civil war is not probable.

The headline in Alhayat Saudi Daily, published in London, read "Iraqis Challenged the Long Suicide Bombers Day ... and Voted." Editor-in-chief Ghassan Sharbel wrote on the front page, "By going to the voting centers Iraqis expressed their determination to take back their country. Take it back from the occupation as well as from aliens who claim to wage a war against the occupation."

Even in countries such as Jordan, where the Iraqi election triggered much concern, press coverage did not deny the success of Election Day. While the Addustour daily in Amman reiterated the "Shiite Scare" warning, it considered the election the only way for political movement and a necessary step toward building a legitimate government and institutions in Iraq.

Al-Qabas daily in Kuwait praized all the elements of the "better than expected" election: the interim government, which succeeded in minimizing the terrorist attacks, the jubilant Iraqis who voted with enthusiasm, especially the women, and the political groups that acted responsibly and showed maturity. However, it warned that the election was not a magic cure for all the problems in Iraq, but rather a means to a modern constitution and a government capable of putting Iraq on the right track.

The editorial of the leading Egyptian daily, Al-Ahram, looked at another dimension of the Iraqi election. "The regional acceptance of the results of the elections is as vital as the voting itself for the legitimacy of the new Iraqi government," the Al-Ahram report read. It noted that regional reaction to the election already indicates the beginning of a severe disagreement among regional powers over election results, which will cast a shadow of doubt on the future of the reconstruction and the political process in the country.

In Iraq, the independent daily in Baghdad, Azzaman, called the election a victory for all Iraqis, and expressed hope for the formation of political coalitions based on the results that would then govern in a calm atmosphere.

Mohamad Ozeir is a former editor of the Arab American Journal

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Albion Monitor January 31, 2005 (

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