Antoine Basbous is a Christian Arab from Lebanon who has made a career advising big business about the society and politics of the Middle East; for this purpose he founded the Observatoire des pays arabes [Observatory of Arab Countries] in Paris. -- He is the author of a number of volumes, most recently on Saudi Arabia; mutatis mutandis, he is a sort of French Fouad Ajami. -- Basbous is somewhat sympathetic to the Bush administration's attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East. -- In the piece translated below, published in the conservative Paris daily Le Figaro, he joins in the chorus of Western cheerleaders claiming that the election was a success, but foresees great dangers ahead....

Debates & Opinions


By Antoine Basbous

Le Figaro
February 7, 2005

Twenty months after the fall of Baghdad, a rare piece of good news has arrived: the organization of the first genuinely pluralistic vote in the history of Iraq has been crowned with success. And this occurred despite the climate of terror reigning in the country. Yet a bloodbath had been promised by the Jordanian Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who enthroned himself, with Bin Laden's accreditation, as al-Qaeda's "emir" in Iraq. Takfirist Jihadism [Note: *Takfir* is the fact that a Muslim has decreed that another Muslim is a *kafir*, or apostate, which amounts to an automatic death sentence.] does not recognize the "artificial" borders within the "territories of Islam" and does not ask for authorization from local residents before waging war on their soil. Zarqawi is waging al-Qaeda's fight in the Iraqi theater to make that country the "Afghanistan of the United States" and to convert the Shiite "heretics" to "true" Islam.

Al-Zarqawi succeeded in taking one part of the Iraqi Sunni community hostage, with the complicity of most of its Wahhabi clerics and Saddam's faithful. For them, the reasons for opposing rising democracy are multiple. For how long will Zarqawi's strategy continue to be mixed in with that of the Sunni clerics? He does dispose of an impressive number of kamikazes and a monthly budget of 800,000 euros. But he does risk quickly reaching the limits of his power. With 19 kamikazes, his master caused, on September 11, 2001, three thousand deaths and the destruction of the haughty Twin Towers in New York, together with that of one wing of the Pentagon in Washington. With 13 kamikazes on January 30, Zarqawi only caused the death of paltry fifty innocent Iraqis who were courageously carrying out their electoral duty!

When will the Arab satellite media and the religious authorities of Sunnism react, and denounce and fight extremism? For defusing the doctrine of intolerance is a struggle much more crucial than the repression of demonstrations of extremist thought.

In the 1990s, we saw a similar situation in Algeria when the GIA took hostage part of society that had voted for a change of administration, in favor of the FIS, before losing its social support on account of the massacres it committed. When will the Iraqis, their religious authorities, their intellectuals and/or the forces of the coalition succeed in bringing about a divorce between the terrorist Zarqawi and an active part of the community that identifies with his struggle?

Once the definitive results of the elections are known, it will be necessary to tame the announced success of the Shiites lest the victory be transformed, because of its extensiveness, into an "irreversible change" -- if they had such intentions -- that would never allow its power to be challenged. In which case, the break-up of Iraq would be assured. In fact, if the victors of the vote tried to establish an Islamic Republic in Baghdad with the Khomeinist concept of wilayat al-faqih, giving civil and spiritual powers to a cleric, the unity of Iraq would immediately shatter. Now that they are the sole leaders of Iraq, the wisdom of the Shiites should be "encouraged" by Washington's mediation. The latter has no interest in seeing chaos reign in the country, nor in seeing a replica of Iranian mullah power established in Baghdad. Sunnis must be given the feeling that they are not at all excluded from the political stage and that they may have in the Iraq of tomorrow an important position and a veto power, just like the Kurds.

So far, the Shiites of Iraq have benefited from a certain convergence of American and Iranian policies. But now the interests of these two actors diverge: each will defend the vision of "its" Shiites. Iran's capacity to cause trouble in Iraq has been developed to keep Washington busy and distract it from its Iran dossier. Tehran has been categorized at the top of the list of "tyrannical" countries by Condoleezza Rice. Unless the nuclear dossier ends up bringing the two states together in a strategic relation that would substitute for the alliance that prevailed between Washington and the Saudi Wahhabis of Riyadh from the Quincy summit of 1945 [a reference to King Ibn Saud's five-hour visit with Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Feb. 13, 1945 aboard the U.S.S. Quincy, anchored in the Suez Canal --M.K.J.] until the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In any case, the Iraqi elections constitute a major event on several scores. They show that a revolutionary hyperpower has been able to bring about a process of democratization -- albeit a stammering and fragile one -- through force. Even if, compared to the standards of elections in countries with democratic traditions, those of Iraq are but a pale copy. However, they are a first step obtained under occupation -- and thanks to occupation.

In addition, these elections represent a precedent worth thinking about for quite a few Arab countries, which refuse genuine multiparty systems and only accept 99% scores. The Iraqi proceeding may give the impression that the democratization of the "Greater Middle East" is on the march and that force can serve to accelerate a process that took centuries to mature in the West. But should the Shiite numerical majority exercise unrestricted hegemony in Baghdad, the "democratic model" that Iraq should have incarnated would be transformed into an anti-model to be proscribed at all costs. In both cases, the emergence of Shiite power in Baghdad will provoke, without any doubt, the awakening of that community's claims in the kingdoms of the Gulf, beginning with those of Arabia and Bahrain, and will give to Tehran and Baghdad leisure to be able to meddle in the domestic policies of neighboring states. The incursion of Uncle Sam in the land of Islam will continue to provoke durable upheavals of which we perceive now only the first fruits.

--Antoine Basbous is founder and director of the Observatoire des pays arabes. His most recent work: L'Arabie saoudite en guerre [Saudi Arabia at War] (Perrin, "Tempus" collection).

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
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