October 26, 2005
Lessons of Democracy "Sinking In"

By Austin Bay

The Iraqi constitution -- now ratified by the Iraqi people -- is another signal that the democratic revolts of 2004 and 2005 won't be defeated by murderous tyrants and autocrats.

The democratic revolts began with Afghanistan's October 2004 presidential election. Ukraine's Orange Revolution added momentum. Palestinians and Iraqis went to the polls in January 2005. Lebanon's pro-democracy street rallies, following the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, continued the surge.

Democratic revolutions, however, are slow, painfully incremental miracles. Take Iraq's constitutional process as the au courant example. Prior to the election, Iraqi Sunni negotiators insisted on an amendment procedure, and they got it. This means the ratified constitution can change, and probably will. Which means the constitutional process "ain't over."

And that isn't necessarily bad. On the day of the election, I received an email from an Iraqi reader. He's a Sunni Arab, a businessman and by no means a public figure. While protecting his identity, I will note I visited his hometown while on active duty last year in Iraq.

His letter mixed excitement and pride with a touch of dread, as he noted that the constitutional process and election experience told him that "major players (in Iraq) are coming more and more to realize that dialogue, alliances, common interests and just plain politics are the way to win -- not violence, intimidation and terror. So this (lesson) is apparently slowly 'sinking in' in our confused and frightened Iraqi mentality."

The promise of amendment held real appeal. He thought the emerging Iraqi consensus amounts to: "OK, enough misery. We need a stable government that can provide its first order of business (security). Let's say yes, and since it is not a divine thing, we can always change it."

That's one man's personal opinion, but today Iraqi opinions matter -- and that's a dramatic, history-making change from Saddam Hussein's era.

Now, Saddam awaits judgment in a court of law. One trial does not assure the rule of law. Saddam's trial gives Iraqis an extraordinary opportunity to test, as well as display, their new democratic judicial processes, however.

Via global television, the entire planet will witness a Mesopotamian tyrant in the dock (talk about a historic first). Arabic-speaking audiences will need no translators, nor will their autocrats, as the tyrant is called to account for his crimes. Saddam will rant, but let the fool exhaust himself with bombast and bluster. The windbag act will only expose his weakness.

It's ironic, but Saddam is a unifying figure for Iraq's fractured body politic. Iraqis share in common the scars of his murder, corruption and barbarism. Shias and Kurds bore the worst of his depredations, but many Sunnis suffered, as well. Two generations of Sunni intellectuals and technocrats were either jailed or corrupted by the Baath regime.

Like East European intellectuals in the Cold War, educated Sunni Arabs entered "internal exile" in order to stay alive. They kept their mouths shut and eyes averted -- morally damning compromises, but the life or death choice made by all but an exceptional few trapped in dictatorships.

A fair, transparent, just trial, instead of fueling ethnic and religious tensions, could well further reconciliation.

After casting his constitutional referendum ballot, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said: "The constitution is a sign of civilization. This constitution has come after heavy sacrifices. It is a new birth."

Jaafari echoed comments I heard last year in Iraq. Several Iraqis told me they knew democracy was "our big chance." One man said Iraq had the opportunity to "escape bad history" -- and Iraq has a lot of bad history to escape. Two other Iraqis said toppling Saddam and building a more open society was their chance "to enter the modern world."

Democracy may not quite coordinate with modernity, but the overlap covers significant historical, political and economic territory.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Austin Bay

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