Why Arab Leaders Love the Iraqi Election

CAIRO – Iraq’s main Sunni political movement, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has announced it will boycott U.S.-sponsored elections to be held Jan. 30. The head of the party, Mohsen Abdel Hamid, told reporters in Baghdad Monday his decision was motivated by the refusal of authorities to postpone elections for six months to ensure broader participation. The influential Association of Muslim Scholars, the highest Sunni religious authority in Iraq, along with other Sunni civic and political figures had already announced in November their plan to boycott the elections. But elsewhere in the Arab world, governments in Sunni-majority countries are pushing for broad participation.

Nearly every day, a new Arab leader urges wide participation in Iraq’s elections. In the last week alone, high-ranking officials from Egypt, Jordan, and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council have spoken out against the boycott. After a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa called a boycott “very dangerous” and said it might lead to “a sectarian or ethnic conflict.”

Pro-democracy advocates here in Egypt find such rhetoric amusing, since all of the leaders who have spoken in favor of the election are either kings or long-ruling dictators.

“The regimes are really wishing and praying for a settlement in Iraq,” notes Wael Khahl, a spokesman for AGED, the Egyptian Anti-Globalization Group. “So they are doing everything in their power to create a settlement so at least the country will have a sense of stability.”

Khahl says the harshness of the ongoing occupation of Iraq and the Palestinian Intifada are creating problems for Arab governments – most of whom depend on the U.S. government for military aid and political legitimacy.

“Things like imperialism and aggression are not abstract anymore,” he says. “These are news on the TV. These are actual facts on the ground. At one point in time, it would have been possible to find supporters of the American model. It’s very difficult to find them [now].”

Wael Khahl and his colleagues in the anti-globalization movement are pleased with this new way of looking at things, but Egyptian researcher Samer Sulayman fears the same thing his government does – that Iraq will fall into chaos and fundamentalism.

“It will mean that the whole region will be very fertile soil for fundamentalism,” he says. “I think the Americans came to Iraq in order to impose a political project in the region, so they must know that their failure in Iraq will mean the success of Osama bin Laden and his projects.”

One possible outcome of January’s elections is that a slate of Shi’ite candidates will come to power, a development that would lead to the ascendancy of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, a politician whose organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has been funded by the Iranian government for close to two decades. Egyptian political analyst Ashraf Firadi doesn’t think that will pose a problem to America or peace in the region.

“The first thing they did was to refuse the theory of Ayatollah Khomeini,” Firadi argues. “We have a statement from [Abdel Aziz’s slain brother] Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim where he says he doesn’t want to establish a religious government in Iraq, but a secular democratic government.”

But other analysts are not so optimistic about this possibility. When the U.S. tried to impose a constitution on Iraq last February, a group of Shi’ite politicians led by al-Hakim and advised by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani initially refused to sign, saying the constitution afforded too many rights to women and demanding Islamic sharia law be adopted in the family law of the country. Hakim and Sistani relented only when the U.S. promised to scrap the interim constitution after an elected government was in place.

“They will probably be able to pull the elections together,” says anti-globalization activist Mohammed Waked, “but it will not change things, except that it will bring the Shi’ites to power as an organized group. And when the Americans fail to deliver their aspirations, they’ll have a double problem. So it’s really going to get worse and worse as far as the American plan is concerned.”

And in the Middle East, the plight of the American plan in Iraq and the health of the Arab regimes the U.S. supports are linked.