Free elections in Iraq—a “pink revolution” in Iran—Syria poised to withdraw from Lebanon—reforms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia—is a “new Arab world” suddenly on the horizon? Where will this power shift in the Middle East lead?
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In late 2002, Iraqi officials proudly announced that President Saddam Hussein received 100 percent backing in a referendum on whether he should rule Iraq for another seven years. Of the 11.4 million eligible Iraqi voters, every one of them voted for Mr. Hussein to remain in office.
Of course, government officials and reputable news organizations around the world saw through this election farce. They pointed out that Mr. Hussein was the only candidate—and that the voters knew he routinely tortured and murdered anyone who opposed his rule. Simply slandering Saddam Hussein brought the penalty of having one's tongue cut out.
With the removal of Mr. Hussein and his underlings from power, the Iraqi people were given a chance to start anew.
In spite of ever-mounting obstacles—the rising death toll of soldiers and civilians alike, the increasing onslaught of terrorist attacks from Iraqi insurgents, a growing intolerance for the presence of American and British troops, now viewed as occupiers rather than liberators, and the unceasing drumbeat of criticism from political pundits and news analysts—U.S. President George W. Bush boldly announced that free elections would take place in Iraq.
It was said that the American-led invasion would not succeed, and that even if it did, the war would result in a bloodbath for the U.S. and its allies. It was said that America and Britain would face humiliating defeat and be chased out by Iraqi resistance. It was then predicted that Iraq's free elections would end with utter disaster—that the people would bow to the intimidation of terrorists and be too afraid to vote—that polling places would be under fire from terrorist attacks—that, even if the people had the courage to vote, the election results would lead to civil war.
Democracy and the idea of majority rule is a foreign concept in the Arab world, where transfer of power is done through hereditary lines or by military coup.
America believes that democracy can take root in Iraq. After all, the argument goes, it was established in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan after World War II, two countries that were once bent on world domination. With America's guidance and aid, Germany and Japan have risen from the ashes of military defeat, and are thriving. Germany is expected to have a large voice in the affairs of the European Union. Even Russia and its former satellite states have embraced democracy, to varying degrees.
The hope is that if democracy takes hold in Iraq, it will inspire the peoples of other Islamic states to cry out against the governments that oppress them.
Of the nearly 7,500 political candidates running under 111 parties, as many as 50 parties dropped out of the race, either in protest to the election or for fear of violence (at least four candidates had been assassinated).
When the day of the election came, everyone anticipated the worst. Polling stations were defended by loops of razor wire and sharpshooters atop the roofs. There were at least nine separate attacks around polling stations, resulting in 44 deaths—but not hundreds, as was feared. About 300,000 Iraqi and U.S. troops patrolled the streets, ready to protect voters. Using loudspeakers, the Americans stressed to the voters that every ballot was important.
On January 30, 58 percent of registered voters (nearly 8.5 million nationwide) came out to cast their ballots, and a new National Assembly was elected. The 275 seats will be filled proportionately (i.e., a party that received 50 percent of the total vote will get to fill 50 percent of the seats).
Three political groups won the largest share of assembly seats. Winning 48.2 percent of the vote, the Shia Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance received 140 seats. Endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's leading cleric, one of its policies is to demand a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal. For years, they had to endure Saddam Hussein's regime, despite being the majority group in Iraq. They are now poised for one of their own to become Iraq's next prime minister.
The Kurdistan Alliance won 25.7 percent of the vote, receiving 75 seats. The Alliance represents traditional elements in Kurdish society, and has charge over the western part of the Kurdish self-ruling area.
Coming in third, with 13.8 percent of the vote, or 40 seats, was the Iraqi List, headed by Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who was backed by the U.S. This party included a mix of Sunnis and Shias, and is considered more secular than the United Iraqi Alliance.
Most of Iraq's seven to eight million Sunni Muslims, about 20 percent of the population, boycotted the elections; only about two percent turned out to vote. Since 1920, the Sunnis ruled Iraq, despite being a minority party. For them, this is the most dramatic shift in political power.
The newly-elected National Assembly, a parliamentary-style governing body, will select the president and two deputy presidents, and a committee for drafting a new national constitution. The president will name a prime minister and a Cabinet, who will serve for 11 months, until new elections are held. The assembly will serve as a legislative body until the new Constitution comes into effect.
The January 30th election also resulted in the establishing of local councils in each of Iraq's 18 governorates, and a 111-member council for the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Despite the predictions of naysayers around the world, Iraq has taken a large, historic step toward democracy, and the Islamic nations of the Middle East have taken notice. CNN reported that the Arab media reacted to the elections with a mixture of “hope, concern, and skepticism.”
Now that the United Iraqi Alliance has the most seats in the Assembly, there is concern that the Shiites might attempt to re-impose Islamic law over the people. Also, Iraq is expected to have stronger ties with Iran. However, many feel that it is unlikely the new Iraqi government will model itself after Iran's theocratic system. It has been argued that Iraq's key clerics understand that the Iranian model has failed—and they are keen to avoid making the same mistakes.
There has been speculation that Iraq's free elections will cause a political fervor among the Iranian youth. More than half of Iran's 70 million people are below age 30, and many of these are contemptuous of the rigid theocratic government imposed over them, and the problems this has wrought. Despite being the world's fourth-largest oil producer, Iran's economy is plagued by never-ending inflation. The unemployment rate for young people has reached 15 percent. Government corruption is prevalent. Journalists and writers of Internet weblogs have been imprisoned for daring to call for reforms. Moderate and reform-minded politicians have been ejected from Iran's Cabinet, and were barred from running in 2004's parliamentary elections.
Though outright opposition to Iran's political regime and rigid cultural code is not tolerated, a “pink revolution” has gradually taken hold among Iranian youth, and is being silently demonstrated in the streets. The Koran teaches that women should cover virtually every part of their bodies, from head to toe, whenever they venture outside the home. But, over the years, many young women have quietly substituted their garments of black for pink apparel—coats, head scarves, shoes, handbags, etc. And young men are beginning to forgo the Islamic tradition of growing beards and wearing their hair short. Many youths wear jeans, a universal symbol of embracing Western culture.
Only time will tell if this change in culture will eventually trigger a shift in Iran's political makeup.
In the wake of the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, mass protests have erupted in the streets of Beirut, demanding that Syria's 14,000-man occupation force leave the country. These demonstrations have led to the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami, effectively terminating Lebanon's pro-Syrian government.
Under pressure from the U.S. and Britain, and even from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has announced that Syria, in a two-step plan, will redeploy its troops to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon by March 31st. This pullback would be the biggest since 1976, when Syria sent its forces to intervene in Lebanon's civil war. (But America and France have said this is not good enough.)
In the second step of the plan, Syrian and Lebanese military officials will discuss how many troops will remain in Bekaa, and for how long.
A White House adviser commented that when it comes to Syrian promises, actions speak louder than words.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese protestors, along with the international community, are demanding that Syria abide by a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a total and immediate pullout. Speaking to Voice of America News, many demonstrators said Syria's troops and spies must leave so that Lebanon can reclaim its independence.
“We want to be free,” one protestor said. “That's what we want. We want to build an economy. We want to put Lebanon again on the map, on the world map. That's what we want.”
Some news commentators, who have opposed President Bush at virtually every turn, believe (although reluctantly) that the recent elections in Iraq emboldened the Lebanese people to voice their demands.
In a recent press briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “Well, the President has often spoken about how all people desire to live in freedom. I think you're seeing today in Lebanon that the Lebanese people are clearly demonstrating their desire to have a free and independent future, free from outside interference.”
He also said that across the world, and most notably in the Middle East, democracy and freedom are on the march: “The Iraqi people demonstrated their desire to live in freedom and peace when they went to the polls in overwhelming numbers and showed their courage and determination to defy those who want to return to the past, the terrorists.
“And I think you're seeing in other parts of the Middle East that there is a commitment to moving forward on democratic reforms. You're seeing that with regards to the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian people want a future that is built on a free and democratic and viable state. And you have a leadership now that is committed to helping them realize that vision that the President outlined.”
Some critics have admitted (albeit with great reluctance) that the recent changes in the political scene of the Middle East are due to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The historic events taking shape in that part of the world are slowly being compared to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. When U.S. President Ronald Reagan had challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the infamous wall that kept West and East Germany divided, German politicians and other critics made sport of Mr. Reagan's speech. The looming, bear-like presence of the Soviet Union made it difficult to imagine that a united Germany could ever become a reality.
Walid Jumblatt, current leader of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party and a prominent leader of the Druze community, said, “It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world...The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it” (Washington Post - emphasis ours).
The head of the Syrian Press Syndicate told the New York Times, “There's a new world out there and a new reality. You can no longer have business as usual.”
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in power since the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, has recently asked his nation's parliament to amend the constitution to allow for direct, multiparty elections. The announcement came on the heels of Iraq's historic free elections.
Currently, the president is nominated by the People's Assembly, the legislative body, to serve a six-year term. The nomination must then be validated by a national, popular referendum.
Responding to White House pressure to become an example of democracy for the Arab world, President Mubarak has agreed to allow other political candidates to run for the presidency.
Skeptics say they will wait for more details, concerned that such a constitutional amendment will only create the appearance of democracy. One political analyst pointed out that, in spite of talks of more direct elections, emergency laws are still in effect in Egypt, political opponents continue to be imprisoned, the state still controls the media, and political parties exist in name only.
But what if Mr. Mubarak's proposal leads to more reforms? Could this, along with events taking shape in Iraq, inspire changes in other Islamic states?
Within days of the Iraqi free elections, Saudi Arabia, a monarchy-led state governed according to Shari'a (Islamic law), permitted local elections to take place.
Even talks of peace between the Palestinians and the Jews have taken on a new life. Since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is apparently setting out to prove to Israel that he is serious about peace. Mr. Abbas has stated that he will implement reforms that will make peace a reality between the Palestinians and the Jews. Also, new faces now occupy the seats of the interim Palestinian Cabinet, with nearly all of the 17 new ministers considered to be technocrats, experts in the areas they are to oversee.
Putting these together, one has to wonder if the emergence of democracy in Iraq triggered a rippling effect across the pool of Middle Eastern politics.
So far, America's agenda, starting with Iraq, seems to be working. But where will it ultimately lead? Nicolas Rothwell, in his article “The Genie is out of the Bottle,” writes, “Just as the dominoes tumbled across the heart of Europe 15 years ago, so today the headline events of the changing Middle East, all meticulously captured by the new Arab satellite TV channels, are breeding radical ideas in the minds of the watching public in neighboring states. If there are free elections across the border, they ask, why not with us?” (The Australian.)
The article concludes with a scenario in which calls for open elections could backfire for America: “The Arab response to the U.S. and the broad example of the West combines attraction and repulsion, envy, awe and fear, as local observers know. All these elements lurk in the reactions of Arab leaders to the newly stressed U.S. demand for democratization. In each Arab capital, young generations long for a free social climate, educated intellectuals crave political space and a serried establishment aims to preserve the existing terms of the power structure.
“This is a recipe for potential instability as much as for democratic revolution. Although U.S. President George W. Bush and new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are doubtless gratified by the way the pressure they have applied to their Arab allies, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, has produced a swift set of electoral concessions, the flow and ebb of democratic government is hard to impose—it grows, it is not born the moment free votes are held.
“U.S. and European demands for open elections could well produce unpredictable results in many countries: under level-playing-field conditions, Arab voters may choose to back conservative religious parties, as they have in Iraq. Strange forces might then come to hold the balance of power: In Lebanon's May elections, a key bloc of seats is almost certain to fall once more to the Shia Hezbollah militia.
“No single formula can apply when the move towards 'Arab' democracy must cover entities as diverse as the oil-rich, liberal Qatar or the United Arab Emirates and, at the other extreme of the spectrum, the charismatic dictatorship of Libya. There is no road map, no easy model for the region's political shift—and this is doubtless just as it should be.
“Recent history offers no hint of what will come in the weeks and months ahead. For the key, as with all democratic transformations, is simple: Arabs will be making it up themselves.”
History may not show what will happen in the Middle East's future—but there is a source that does.
For many years, the Bible has been the world's best-selling book—and yet, ironically, it is also the least understood. Few realize that approximately one-third of Scripture is devoted to prophecy.
God's Word focuses much of its attention on the city of Jerusalem. And, for the most part, it only addresses other peoples and nations as they relate to, and have contact with, this ancient city. Even in these modern times, Jerusalem, which is home to Judaism, Islam and traditional Christianity, remains the religious and geopolitical focal point of the world.
Psalm 83 reveals a future time of trouble for the modern nation of Israel. Notice: “Keep not You silent, O God: hold not Your peace, and be not still, O God. For, lo, Your enemies make a tumult: and they that hate You have lifted up the head. They have taken crafty counsel against Your people, and consulted against Your hidden ones. They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance. For they have consulted together with one consent: they are confederate against you” (vs. 1-5).
A confederation of nations will assemble together and conspire against Israel. But who will these nations be?
Let's continue reading: “The tabernacles of Edom [modern Turkey], and the Ishmaelites [Saudi Arabia]; of Moab [southern Jordan], and the Hagarenes [Syria]; Gebal [Lebanon], and Ammon [northern Jordan], and Amalek [scattered in the mid-east]; the Philistines [Palestinian Arabs] with the inhabitants of Tyre [Lebanon]; Assur [modern Germany] also is joined with them: they have helped the children of Lot [Jordan and western Iraq]” (vs. 6-8).
Though the light of democracy may seem to be shining in the Middle East, this present scenario will give way to a much darker future. These and other verses reveal that a confederation of Islamic states, allied with a German-led United Europe, will rise to take “crafty counsel” against Israel, and capture Jerusalem, its capital (Zech. 14:1-2).
These Islamic nations, which have long held much hatred and envy for Israel, will “clap their hands” with glee as they pass by and survey the state of their fallen enemy: “They hiss and wag their head at the daughter of Jerusalem, saying, Is this the city that men call The perfection of beauty, The joy of the whole earth? All your enemies have opened their mouth against you: they hiss and gnash the teeth: they say, We have swallowed her up: certainly this is the day that we looked for; we have found, we have seen it. The Lord has done that which He had devised; He has fulfilled His word that He had commanded in the days of old: He has thrown down, and has not pitied: and He has caused your enemy to rejoice over you, He has set up the horn of your adversaries” (Lam. 2:15-17).
But how could Israel's staunchest allies, the United States and Britain, allow such a horrible defeat to take place? The Bible speaks of future events regarding the nations of the “east,” “north” and “south”—all from Jerusalem's perspective. But nowhere does it mention the nations of the “west”—why? Could it be that there will come a time when they will no longer exist? If so, how and when will this come about? God's Word reveals much about future events involving Jerusalem and the Jewish state of Israel, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Germany, etc. Yet, it appears to be silent about the fate of America...or is it?
If the Bible is truly inspired by God and one-third of it is prophecy—with about 90 percent of it yet to be fulfilled—then how can it be silent about the fate of the United States, the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, and in mankind's history?
To learn the answer, read our book America and Britain in Prophecy, and be prepared to be amazed!