February 06, 2005

More on the Arab World's Burgeoning View of the Iraqi Elections

Amr Hamzawy of Carnegie:

The turnout in last Sunday's Iraqi elections surprised even the most optimistic observers in the Middle East. Reading Arab newspapers during the weeks before the vote, one could hardly escape the expectation that the adventure of holding elections in Iraq was certain to be a fiasco. The bulk of Arab intellectuals and journalists foresaw a minimal turnout and possibly devastating results, such as an outbreak of civil war between the Shiite and Sunni populations and the emergence of an Iranian-controlled Islamic republic of Iraq.

Operating from Pan-Arabist and Islamist credos, they could not envisage the elections as at least a step toward political normality in a country long ruled by a brutal dictator and currently under foreign occupation. Commentators emphasized potential voting irregularities, asserting that no free elections would ever take place under occupation and implicitly urging Iraqis to stay away from the polls.

Because Arab writers normally see themselves as embodying an imaginary "Arab street," they had no trouble, in the absence of independent public opinion surveys, in representing their own quite ideological views as those of the Iraqi majority and as those of Arabs generally. They took this line even though their rhetorical warnings at the time of the initial invasion of Iraq -- exemplified by the slogan "the Arab street will explode if the Americans invade" -- had proven incorrect. These writers were taught a hard lesson by the Iraqi voter turnout in a way that should lead to questions about their claim to represent Arab public opinion...

...Assessing Arab public opinion is notoriously difficult because of widespread media censorship and government domination of the media. One of the few real indicators we have are readers' written comments on op-ed articles published in Arab dailies, especially in the regional newspapers such as al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat...

...within this very wide spectrum a mainstream perception of Iraqi political developments can be discerned that runs counter to the main tide coming from prominent intellectuals and journalists. A clear consensus exists among the majority of commenting readers on the moral and political rightness of the elections and a hopeful attitude toward the democratization of Iraq. Mistrust of American intentions and lamentations on the fate of pan-Arabism are to a large extent pushed aside by a more pragmatic understanding of events.

An active polemical minority, largely non-Iraqis, certainly remains, but it does not define the terms of the readers' debate. Most interesting, however, is the fact that the readers' comments turn out to be self-referential -- that is, they entail less commenting on the respective op-ed pieces and far more discussion among the readers. A pluralistic platform emerges, without the usual allegations of betrayal or tendentious ideological statements.

With all due modesty regarding how representative the readers' comments on the Iraq elections are, they do portray a different picture of the Arab public, a public that is pragmatic, confident and for the most part tolerant. This is one more reason to be hopeful for a better political future in the region. [emphasis added]

Posted by Gregory at February 6, 2005 05:37 PM | TrackBack (8)

Look at it this way -- the fact that the MSM played up Iraq as a fiasco, it played right into the hands of Bush. Everyone going into the elections thought disaster. Except they forgot to ask the Iraqis.

Apparently the Iraqis had a different view of freedom.

After the media pumped the failure, the pavement came up fast and the splatter was a sight to behold. I know some Iraqis and they are exceedingly happy about the whole affair.

Proving once again, hate is not real reporting, nor is it a valid agenda.

Posted by: ds at February 6, 2005 09:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Misunderestimated again, drats.

Posted by: Mrs. Davis at February 6, 2005 10:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Wow, I hope this "light" blogging continues apace.

Posted by: Sanjay Krishnaswamy at February 6, 2005 10:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is a very important ancillary benefit of the elections, and one well-intended, I believe. Arabs have had lots of good reasons to be suspicious of American intentions, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other places. Real elections in Iraq are a powerful demonstration tool against cynicism.

Posted by: John Thacker at February 7, 2005 12:58 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A good sign indeed. A propos disgruntled pan-arabists, check out this post of mine. I'm also in the middle of translating excerpts from an al-jazeera panel on Iraq featuring Negative Nancy (Juan Cole) and Fouad Ajami. It should be up tomorrow. I must say, Cole feels most at home (in his natural habitat) on al-jazeera!

Posted by: Tony at February 7, 2005 03:51 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm missing something... how are op-eds in a newspaper a "real indicator?" Don't editors choose which op-eds go into the paper?

Posted by: just me at February 7, 2005 06:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I suggest we consider Arab media reactions to the Iraqi elections in the context of Arab media coverage over a longer period of time than the last couple of years.

I understand the point of view that points to the good news of high Iraqi turnout primarily in the context of President Bush's political standing in the United States. On this particular topic, however, this point of view is not especially helpful or even relevant.

Arab media for years prior to the war did not offer their audience much in the way of accurate reporting or direct commentary on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. By indirection or implication Arab audiences might get the impression that Saddam perhaps was not the model defender of Arab honor and Muslim faith that (in his later years) he made himself out to be. But he had few outright enemies in the Arab press, and none that did reporting from inside Iraq. Revelations about the nature of his regime, its sudden collapse in the face of the allied invasion, the frequency with which the insurgency has targeted other Iraqis -- all this and much else is, historically speaking, new material for Arab audiences and much Arab media to digest. And on top of this comes the elections, something else that is brand new in the Arab world.

What Mr. Hamzawy writes reflects in part the disorientation one might expect from people accustomed to one way of thinking who find that way of thinking overtaken by events. This disorientation, I think, signals opportunity for those in the United States and elsewhere who hope for better things from the Arab world than it has produced for most of the last half century -- because as old ways of thnking have been disrupted, some constructive (or as Hamzawy calls it pragmatic) thought is beginning to replace it.

Posted by: Zathras at February 7, 2005 05:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Arabs are reluctant to enter the modern world, a world which seems to be outpacing most arab countries. Inadequacy forces arabs to seek meaning in antiquated philosophies such as Wahabism, replete with delusions of grandeur and visions of exquisite revenge on infidels.
Reality cannot compete, unless it is forced upon the occupants of this fantastic land.

Posted by: Akhmed at February 9, 2005 01:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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