The Arab Spring – Bush’s Fault?

by TIM WILSON June 25, 2012

It may just be that the Arab spring, with all its death, destruction, pain and injury, heralds the initial blooming of a unique new feature amongst the Arab peoples - the birth pains of spreading democracy. If so, this must surely be due in large part to the influence of the first democratic elections to be held in the modern Arab world, those held in Iraq on January 30, 2005. Those elections were a direct result of the US-led invasion of Iraq, for which President George W. Bush bears by far the largest responsibility.

Having retired from the British Army in early 2003, I was in Baghdad later that year, and over most of the next 2 years, working in the civilian component of the Coalition Provision Authority. I was fortunate that I had an introduction to an Iraqi family through a good friend in Britain, an ex-patriate Iraqi married to a British friend. She asked me to visit her mother and sister while I was in Baghdad, the beginning of another strong friendship which gave me a unique perspective on much of what was going on at the time in Iraq.

The elections were a true turning point in many ways - not least that, on the ground, we felt it truly marked the beginning of Iraqis taking back control of their country. This was universally agreed on by those I spoke to in Baghdad as a good thing. However, there were also numerous deep concerns over corruption, terrorism, crime, internal dissent, national security and many other factors. Not least amongst these was the strong belief held by many, both Iraqi and international, that Arabs, and Iraqis in particular, were unable to grasp the concept of democracy and "needed" a strong leader (read dictator); that they would be unable to function through any form of parliamentary democracy.

In the end, despite all the doubters, the actual elections were a tremendous success with a turnout in excess of 75% despite threats and physical attacks. The Matriarch of the family who I was friendly with was so enthused that she got up at 4 am on the morning of the voting and was third in line at the door of the local polling station when it opened (after standing in the pre-dawn line for over 3 hours). She duly voted, had her index finger inked, and promptly went to the back of the queue to wait in line to vote again!

On once more reaching the front of the line after another four hour wait, her inky forefinger was spotted and the lady was incensed to be told she could not vote again and raised sufficient fuss that her son was summoned to explain that she could only vote once, and to take her home. This did not satisfy her desire to express her new democratic rights repeatedly, even though she is not a stupid woman, but eventually she agreed to depart - and left, still enthralled by her voting experience, to rejoin the (still 4 hour) queue once again! (Note: she voted only once in the end, but refused to wash the ink off for a week). All this in conditions of considerable discomfort, queuing in the heat and direct sun and under threat of terrorist attack by dissidents.

I asked why the enthusiasm to vote, especially in light of all the rumors and accusations of corruption amongst the candidates. Her answer, supported by a number of other Iraqi friends, was illuminating: "We know they are corrupt and will steal what they can, but if they are too corrupt, we will vote them out in the next election, and they too know this - for the first time ever, our votes mean something!" I found that a tremendously moving, simple and yet sophisticated view of the advent of democracy in her country.

I believe that this understanding of the power of the vote in free and open elections has become well understood by the Arab world. They have seen its effect in Iraq, and listened to their Iraqi cousins proselytizing on behalf of democracy, especially in comparison to living in a dictatorship. I believe the creed of freedom runs strong and true in human nature, and that has spurred the revolts against oppression across the Middle East and North Africa.

I suspect too that the lessons of American freedom ring chords with many around the globe, and that the envy of the US felt by so many others has finally been channeled into action by the People, for the People and of the People, at least amongst the citizens of Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Its effects are also causing changes in Syria, Bahrain, Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco. Discontent is even being expressed in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Oman, Mauritania and more. And of course Iran, although a Persian rather than an Arab nation, has also shown widespread signs of popular discontent with autocratic rather than democratic rule.

Like the American Revolution, this (mainly Arab) rise of democracy is a bloody, messy and complex matter with uncertain and mixed results. Perhaps in twenty years we will have a clearer understanding of what is happening now.  Perhaps the example of American freedoms, injected into the Arab world by force following the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein, may in the end turn out to have been a tremendous boon for the people of all these and many other nations. Perhaps President Bush began the true liberation of many peoples.  Might it even turn out that his greatest legacy is as the Founding Father of democracy in the Middle East? I hope so, and am rooting for these fledgling democracies, and for all the generations who will benefit if they manage to grow to maturity.

Tim Wilson is a retired British Army Lt Col, a Consultant, a recent and proud immigrant citizen of these United States of America and a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.

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