Seasoned Middle East observers have long been familiar with the contempt the United States holds for genuine democracy in the region, despite the equally familiar rhetoric and platitudes to the contrary. One only needs to count the litany of Arab countries considered American allies to appreciate this; all are nations ruled by a collection of monarchs and dictators who have never stood for a legitimate election in their lives.
In 1953, a precedent was set: anyone who dared challenge Western interests or dictates would be unceremoniously deposed. Such was the case when the popular and democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown in the CIA-orchestrated coup dubbed Operation Ajax after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The toppling of Mossadegh’s government (engineered by President Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, Kermit Roosevelt Jr.) allowed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to become absolute monarch of Iran. Shortly thereafter, the nation’s oil reserves were opened up to a consortium of American and European companies.
The authoritarian rule of the Shah, ruthlessly enforced by his CIA and Mossad-trained SAVAK secret police, ultimately gave rise to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and put an end to the line of those occupying the Peacock Throne.
We are still left to speculate, almost wistfully, on the “what ifs.” What if there was no foreign intervention in Iranian politics and democratic rule was allowed to stand? How might have this positively impacted on the development of Iran and the entire Middle East in the subsequent decades?
Instead, the policy of installing and maintaining dictators diametrically opposed to democratic rule made its debut.
Witness the 2006 Palestinian election victory of Hamas, to the dismay and chagrin of the U.S. Although a majority government was legally formed and a prime minister elected, the Palestinian governance suffered a geographic (and ideological) split: Hamas governed Gaza while Fatah ruled the West Bank. Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas quickly sought to curry favor with the U.S. and Israel by demonstrating his disregard for the democratic process and rule of law. By appointing Salem Fayyed as prime minister, Abbas assured them the Palestinian leadership would remain fractured and feckless.
But what was the real, tangible result of the election?
Simply, the collective punishment of the electorate.
To exact retribution for voting Hamas into power, the residents of Gaza were made to suffer. In clear and flagrant violation of international law, Israel limited the import of basic humanitarian goods, supplies and services to one of the most densely populated pieces of land on earth, as well as increased the frequency and severity of military strikes into the territory resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths.
Cordoned off in all directions, and out of sheer desperation and necessity, the walls separating Gaza from Egypt where leveled and the population burst forth. The scenes of thousands of Palestinians crossing and returning through the destroyed Rafah barrier were not what most expected to behold. There were no extravagancies or luxury goods brought back from Egypt. Rather, it was cooking oil, fuel, livestock, food, medicine and the staples of ordinary existence. The sight should have not only brought shame to the Israeli government but to largely unsympathetic one in Egypt as well.
As for Lebanon, it is ostensibly the most democratic of the Arab states. The current political showdown between the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Siniora and Hezbollah has challenged that notion however. While the country has been without a president since November 2007, the inability to elect a new one after 16 attempts is only a minor symptom of Lebanon’s deeper political woes.
What lies at the heart of this crisis is the unconstitutional nature of Siniora’s rule. There has been no Shia representation in his cabinet since November 2006 when all five Shiite ministers resigned over the failure to form a national unity government (the Lebanese Constitution requires that all of the country’s major confessional groups be represented in the cabinet).
Their demand was for a fair and equitable distribution of ministerial positions. This would also allow them to restrain the hands of the Prime Minister and ruling March 14 Coalition who, among other seditious acts, encouraged the Israelis to extend their July 2006 war until Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was killed. He was not, but 1000 Lebanese civilians were.
Along with the Free Patriotic Movement of Michael Aoun (who speaks for a significant portion of Lebanese Christians) Hezbollah and Amal have proposed an equal split of cabinet posts between themselves and the government, giving them veto power in an administration that has already cut deals with al-Qaeda affiliated extremists and the Israelis. Rather than encourage dialogue and compromise among all the parties in the spirit of national reconciliation, the U.S. instead dispatched three warships to Lebanon’s coast. It was a very unsubtle message to the opposition.
Iraq too has felt the dire consequences of people’s wish to have a voice in their future. Vice President Cheney’s surprise March visit to Iraq was unsurprisingly followed by a unilateral assault waged by Prime Minister Maliki against the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. It was only this past February that al-Sadr extended the order for his Mahdi Army to observe a unilateral ceasefire for an additional six months.
Al-Sadr is enormously popular among the impoverished residents of Bagdad’s Sadr City, home to two million Iraqis alone. He also enjoys a significant following in the south of Iraq, rivaling that of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). Although ISCI controls many governmental positions in the southern provinces, Sadr’s base is formidable and the two groups have often clashed.
Maliki’s own Dawa party and Hakim’s ISCI are both aligned with the U.S. and want to see American troops remain for now. Al-Sadr on the other hand has called for an immediate end to the occupation and the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Other differences include ISCI’s desire to create a federalized superstate encompassing the entire south whereas Sadr favors a unified country under a more centralized government.
To understand the violence which erupted in Basra and other cities this past week, one only has to be aware that provincial elections are scheduled for October 1st and the winner will have a large say in the debate over federalism. Both ISCI and Dawa fear a Sadr victory in these elections.
Encouraged by the U.S., an attempt was made to weaken Sadr’s political and military standing prior to the vote with the attack. The folly backfired miserably however and Sadr’s untrained, undisciplined Mahdi Army was able to handle the American-trained Iraqi Army better than anticipated.
The threat of upcoming elections and their expected outcome unfortunately led to hundreds of Iraqi deaths, thousands of injuries, and the simmering resentment of families who were unable to feed their children or obtain medical care during the conflict.
Whether it is the blowback from the Palestinian elections or the menacing presence of U.S. warships off Lebanon’s coast or the provoked fratricide in Iraq, in the Middle East, the power of the ballot is being confronted by the power of the bullet.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.