Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Middle Eastern Revolutions?

Christian Isely has a thought for Hunter S Thompson's Las Vegas as he continues his series of series of dispatches from Baghdad.

Baghdad Despatch # 25
Baghdad — March 8, 2005

Middle Eastern Revolutions?

I have returned to Baghdad from my last trip out of country. This time I went to Paris, France to meet up with my parents who I had not seen since I left for this adventure almost a year ago. We spent a great deal of time seeing the sites and catching up. By the time I left to come back to work, I was reaffirmed in my commitment to our great effort

It is quite strange but when I stepped foot back on the Palace grounds, I felt like I was home. Over the last year, this place has been the closest thing I have to one.

However, this time I did not return to work for Louis Berger. This time, I returned as a contractor to the US State Department. I am now working in a totally different branch of the reconstruction effort, private sector development under the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office. My job is to help Iraq develop a viable, transparent, and open equities market. Most of my attention will be on supporting the Iraqi Stock Exchange which started trading last summer. I will help to automate their trading systems. Additionally, I will be tasked with helping the Iraqi Securities Commission (the Iraqi version of the Securities and Exchange Commission; it oversees the Iraqi Stock Exchange and all matters relating to the securities industry) begin to fulfill its mandate. They must be empowered to enforce market regulations in order to build both domestic and international faith in the burgeoning Iraqi capital markets.

My other tasks involve picking up any other slack in the office regarding our small business loan program, micro-finance, and any other financial programs where I can add value. I am very excited. After all, most of my professional experience to date has been in the realm of financial markets.

In general, the atmosphere around the Green Zone is optimistic. As I wrote in my last e-mail, I believe the elections in January were a tremendous milestone and headway is being made. However, as one can see in the news today, progress is not just occurring in Iraq. I feel like the hard work we have committed ourselves to and performed in the face of great adversity is finally starting to pay off. Great changes are occurring around us and I have been a part of it. I wouldn't trade the last 10 months for anything.

The Great Wave

I wrote the following on my way back to Baghdad as I was staying in Amman and watching the Cedar Revolution run its course in Lebanon:

The American writer, Hunter S Thompson, the founder of so called "Gonzo" journalism, took his own life last week. In the spirit of pondering his passing and being blown away by the events I was witnessing on Arab satellite television in the restaurants of Amman, my thoughts kept returning to his writings and one line kept coming back to mind.

There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," 1971)
Despite the fact that he was referring to the American counter-culture of the 1960's and its eventual "high-water mark", I cannot help but place similar words in a totally different context, the wave that is currently enveloping the Middle East right before our eyes. Iraqi politicians are now hashing out politics like in any other parliamentary system. Palestinians have embraced elections and seem to be moving toward not only democracy but possible peace with Israel and an independent state. And now, in the past couple of weeks, we are watching people take to the streets in Lebanon to protest foreign occupation and a puppet government. How far will this wave roll on? Will it ever stop and roll back?

And of course, one cannot but help ponder what inspiration the Lebanese have drawn from their counterparts in Ukraine. Has the Orange Revolution paved the way for the Cedar Revolution by showing again to the world that tyranny can be fought by peaceful means?

What is the common denominator for these three possibly emerging democracies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine? Oddly enough, they are the only countries in the Arab world (except perhaps for the Western Sahara) that are occupied by a foreign power.

So how does the combination of sovereignty and democracy keep up the momentum? It probably begins with legitimacy. By the fact that any coherent movements are taking shape, they have legitimacy on their side since they are by definition, movements toward sovereignty. The Iraqi government now possesses an unprecedented degree of legitimacy since it represents the majority of the population and seeks to create a thriving and independent Iraq.

The US and Israel could never totally isolate Arafat because the one thing he did possess was legitimacy both among his own people and the international community. Now that he is out of the way, a new democratic Palestinian government can take shape because it seems to be inheriting Arafat's mantle of legitimacy.

The Lebanese government has never possessed any real degree of legitimacy due to its general weakness and reliance on Syria. What next? If these movements result in democratic governments because they possess legitimacy, how can it spread to other Middle Eastern regimes?

Judging by the behavior of the "Great Powers" and the "International Community", the current undemocratic regimes actually possess tremendous legitimacy. Interestingly enough, it is on the domestic front where public opinion sways toward labeling these regimes as puppets of the US, Israel, and other foreign powers. Will people take to the streets in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, after watching their Arab brethren achieve greater political freedoms? It must have been strange to watch Iraqis cast their ballots on Al Jazeera or even in person at the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus.

Strangely enough, the emergence of Al Jazeera in recent years may have in part laid the necessary foundation to keep the emerging democrats aware of each other and what is being accomplished in other parts of the Arab world. For instance, I have seen that Al Jazeera has been covering the demonstrations in Beirut and I did catch one quote from another cable news program of a demonstrator claiming he was inspired by events in Ukraine.

The question then becomes, why should we be surprised? After all did this not happen in Eastern Europe in 1989? Actually, what is particularly striking about today's wave of democratization is that every case of it is so spectacularly different from the others. The case of Georgia and Ukraine are perhaps similar with regard to the waning influence of Russia but the three cases in the Middle East are so fundamentally different. The Iraqis are gaining greater political power and independence with the enthusiastic backing of the Americans. The Palestinians are pushing ahead even during the struggle for peace with Israel despite some opponents who condone violence. And now Syria seems to be giving into Lebanese and international pressure to end the occupation of Lebanon.

But will the momentum continue? To what lengths will the insurgents go to defeat emerging democracy in Iraq? How will Hezbollah react to a proposed Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon? And how far will the US go to support Iraqis in their bid for freedom and democracy? How much support will the US give to an emerging and democratic Palestinian state? And what will the US do if Lebanon were to remain under Syrian domination or slip back into civil war? Also, how will other states react, including Iran?

So now the question is not whether a wave of democratization is engulfing this region, but whether five years from now gazing out my window of the Sheraton in downtown Amman, I will be able to see where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

St. George’s Anglican Church Update

But for now I want to share another success story. As I wrote in one of my previous dispatches, my friend Ryan had organized a fund-raising effort for an embattled Anglican church here in Baghdad. I know that some of my readers have contributed to this effort so I wanted to bring those interested up to date. A generator has been installed along with protective barricades to deter attacks by car bombs. Thank you to all those you made this possible!

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