Supporters of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi celebrate in Baghdad in March, after election results showed Allawi edging out current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But Iraq's neighbors are nervous about instability in Iraq since the election, and some are quietly worried about the display of democracy in their backyard.
Supporters of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi celebrate in Baghdad in March, after election results showed Allawi edging out current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But Iraq's neighbors are nervous about instability in Iraq since the election, and some are quietly worried about the display of democracy in their backyard. Karim Kadim/AP
The recent Iraqi elections and their messy aftermath have riveted Iraq's Arab neighbors.
The surrounding Arab states, largely driven by fear of Iran's influence in Iraq, were thrilled to see pro-Iranian Shiite parties lose ground while Sunni Arab voters re-entered the political arena in a big way, throwing their support to a secular coalition headed by Ayad Allawi.
But Iraq's neighbors are fearful that postelection wrangling could destabilize the country, while some are also disquieted by the display of democracy in their backyard.
Reaction To Unexpected Results
Almost immediately after Iraqi voters defied conventional wisdom by punishing the established Shiite religious parties and handing a narrow victory to a diverse, secular slate of candidates, state-controlled media in nearby Arab states seemed to experience a form of journalistic whiplash. Even as the news pages hailed the return of Iraq's Sunni minority to politics, editorials and columnists downplayed the vote as a unique result of years of occupation and horrific violence.
Analysts say the message was clear: Arab regimes were glad to see Allawi upset Iraq's sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but they're not keen to see unexpected election results in their own countries.
Cairo analyst Mustafa el-Labbad says Arab citizens around the region couldn't help but notice that Iraqi voters displayed a power that they don't have — the power to surprise.
"Iran and most of the Arab countries are suspicious of these elections exactly because of this," el-Labbad says. "Because Iraq is giving now a model, how people can go to elect and to practice their rights. It's not the same in Iran and it's not the same in Saudi Arabia, even Egypt, even Syria. So it's a good example. But this good example will suffer when the winner is not capable to build a government."
Role Of Iran
Among those not surprised by the election results are the Iraqis who were forced to flee during the height of sectarian bloodshed a few years ago.
At one packed restaurant in Amman, Jordan, that specializes in Iraqi dishes, a middle-aged Iraqi man who gives his name as Abu Ali sits and waits for his order.
Abu Ali says he was kidnapped a few years ago in Baghdad, and is afraid to give his family name because things are still very uncertain in Iraq.
As a Sunni, he was glad to see Allawi win, he says, but he is not optimistic about the negotiations now under way to form a new government.
"Everybody has his own agenda," he says. "No one wants to cooperate and work for the country. And Iran is behind most of them, and as long as Iran has a hand in Iraq, we're not going to see anything good."
Arab commentators have made much of the fact that all the major players except Allawi met in Tehran immediately after the election. But the Americans, the Saudis, the Turks and the Syrians are also seeking to influence the outcome.
Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi says while a regression into violence is always possible, there are reasons to hope that compromise will prevail over chaos.
"You have to look at it in a sober way — the lesser of two evils would prevail," he says. "The Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians — they don't want to see a pro-Iranian regime in Iraq. Now the Iranians might try to pull a deal with the Americans. They know the Americans want to make sure that if they start pulling out, the regime in power in Iraq is not in the hands of the Iranians. So they might simply acquiesce to Allawi forming a government under certain conditions."
Emergence Of A Stable Democracy?
Analysts say all the neighboring states, including Iran, have a strong interest in not seeing Iraq slide back into chaos — and that suggests that, eventually, a compromise will be reached. But whether Iraq will emerge as a stable democracy is another matter.
Jordanian analyst Oraib Rantawi says it will take more than one election to answer that question.
"Democracy in general, it's not only about procedures and mechanisms," he says. "It's also about values. In Iraq we have the procedures now, we have mechanisms, but when it comes to the values, we don't have that much. Therefore, Maliki remained in power for three to four years, and he wants to stay forever, and he will want to repeat Saddam Hussein's model of ruling a country."
The current analysis suggests that neither Maliki nor Allawi will be the next Iraqi prime minister. But whoever emerges from the negotiations will continue to face intense interest — and conflicting pressures — from the neighbors.