The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A note on the Iraqi elections

The Iraqi elections are over, and I'll refrain from making any detailed comments until the situation gets clearer. The 70%-plus turnout is great news, but I'd like to see how that is calculated. Overall, it looks like a step in the right direction, although the problems of the occupation and the role Sunnis will play are obviously going to be key in the next few months.

I'd like to give you my own account of seeing Iraqis vote in Cairo last Friday. The community in Egypt is fairly small, no more than several thousands. Egypt is not on the list of countries where Iraqi expats can vote, due to a decision of the Iraqi electoral commission and the International Organization for Migration. This meant that Iraqis would have had to fly to Jordan or another country where voting is allowed to make their voices heard.

But four Iraqis living in Cairo were not happy with that. They formed their own electoral commission for Egypt, and last week organized (entirely at their own expense -- it only cost some $500, which makes you wonder why a little bit of the $300 million spent on elections worldwide couldn't have gone here) a symbolic vote at the Iraqi embassy. A buffet was laid out, the stereo played traditional Iraqi songs, and people hung around after they voted to chat.

They also kept trying to lobby the relevant authorities to have the ballots transferred to Jordan to be counted. In short, some 200-300 people came to vote last Friday knowing full well that there was only a 10% chance that it would actually count. But, talking to the people there, they were all convinced that it was important to participate in the elections.

The strange thing is that although most of these people were relatively wealthy and sheltered from what is happening in Iraq, they were fairly negative about the situation. Almost everyone described the current situation as a "disaster" and most were also doubtful about how democratic these elections were -- many said that the results were largely pre-determined because there are only a limited range of acceptable outcomes for Americans. They railed against the Pentagon crowd, Wolfowitz especially, for comparing Ahmed Chalabi to Charles de Gaulle. One said that he thinks President Bush "believes in democracy, but is surrounded by a bunch of crooks." They said that levels of corruption are ten times worse than under Saddam. Yet they were enthusiastic about elections and tried their best to do everything by the book -- one of the organizers told me that it was about the spirit of having elections, that even if this time they are flawed hopefully next time they will be better -- but that people have to believe in elections "otherwise we are opening the door to another Saddam." They even forced the Iraqi ambassador to go back home and get a second ID because the one he presented was not valid. Even for this cynic, it was all very moving.

One more thing: the outcome of the vote was very divided. There I met Islamists of various shades, secularists, independents, monarchists, socialists and more -- even a niece of Ahmed Chalabi ("We're so proud of him".) There were Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and Kurds. If Iraq is going to be anything like this, we may have months of complicated coalition-building.