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What Does Democracy Really Mean In The Middle East? Whatever The West Decides

Sometimes I Wonder If There Will Be A Moment When Reality And Myth, Truth And Lies, Will Collide

By Robert Fisk 

08/20/05 "The Independent"
-- -- It makes you want to scream. I have been driving the dingy, dangerous, oven-like streets of Baghdad all week, ever more infested with insurgents and their informers, the American troops driving terrified over the traffic islands, turning their guns on all of us if we approach within 50 meters.

In the weird, space-ship isolation of Saddam’s old republican palace, the Kurds and the Shia have been tearing Iraq apart, refusing to sign up for a constitution lest it fail to give them the federations - and the oil wealth - they want. They miss their deadline - though I found no one in "real" Baghdad, no one outside the Green Zone bunker, who seemed to care.

And that evening, I turn on my television to hear President Bush praise the "courage" of the constitution negotiators whose deadline Bush himself had promised would be met.

Courage? So it’s courageous, is it, to sit in a time capsule, sealed off from your people by miles of concrete walls, and argue about the future of a nation which is in anarchy. Then Condoleezza Rice steps forward to tell us this is all part of the "road to democracy" in the Middle East.

I am back on the streets again, this time at the an-Nahda bus station - nahda means renaissance for those who want the full irony of such situations - and around me is the wreckage of another bombing. Smashed police cars, burnt-out, pulverised buses (passengers all on board, of course), women screaming with fury, children taken to the al-Kindi hospital in bandages to be met by another bomb.

And that night, I flip on the television again and find the local US military commander in the Sadr City district of Baghdad - close to the bus station - remarking blithely that while local people had been very angry, they supported the local "security" forces (ie the Americans) and were giving them more help than ever and that we were - wait for it - "on the path to democracy".

Sometimes I wonder if there will be a moment when reality and myth, truth and lies, will actually collide. When will the detonation come? When the insurgents wipe out an entire US base? When they pour over the walls of the Green Zone and turn it into the same trashed blocks as the rest of Baghdad? Or will we then be told - as we have been in the past - that this just shows the "desperation" of the insurgents, that these terrible acts (the bus station bombing this week, for example) only prove that the "terrorists" know they are losing?

In a traffic jam, a boy walks past my car, trying to sell a magazine. Saddam’s face - yet again - is on the cover. The ex-dictator’s seedy, bewhiskered features are on the front pages, again and again, to remind the people of Baghdad how fortunate they are to be rid of the dictator. Saddam to go on trial next month, in two months’ time, before the end of the year.

Six deadlines for the ghastly old man’s trial have come and gone - like so many other deadlines in Iraq - but the people are still supposed to be fascinated and appalled at Saddam’s picture. You may sweat at home in powerless houses; you may have no fresh food because your freezer is hot; you may have to queue for hours to buy petrol; you may have to suffer constant death threats and armed robbery and your city may suffer 1,100 violent deaths in July alone (all true) but, just to take your mind off things, remember that Saddam is going on trial.

I have not met anyone in Iraq - save for those who lost their loved ones to his thugs - who cares any more about Saddam. He is yesterday’s man, a thing of the past. To conjure up this monster again is an insult to the people of Baghdad - who have more fears, more anxieties and greater mourning to endure than any offer of bread and circuses by the Americans can assuage.

Yet in the outside world - the further from Iraq, the more credible they sound - George Bush and Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara will repeat that we really have got democracy on its feet in Iraq, that we overthrew the tyrant Saddam and that a great future awaits the country and that new investments are being planned at international conferences (held far away from Iraq, of course) and that the next bombings in Europe, like the last ones, will have nothing - absolutely nothing - to do with Iraq.

The show must go on and I know, when I return to Beirut or fly to Europe, Iraq will not look so bad. The Mad Hatter will look quite sane and the Cheshire Cat will smile at me from the tree.

Democracy, democracy, democracy. Take Egypt. President Mubarak allows opponents in the forthcoming elections. Bush holds this up as another sign of democracy in the Middle East. But Mubarak’s opponents have to be approved by his own party members in parliament, and the Muslim Brotherhood - which ought to be the largest party in the country - is still officially illegal. Sitting in Baghdad, I watched Mubarak’s first party rally, a mawkish affair in which he actually asked for support. So who will win this "democratic" election? I’ll take a risk: our old pal Mubarak. And I’ll bet he gets more than 80 per cent of the votes. Watch this space.

And of course, from my little Baghdad eyrie I’ve been watching the eviction of Israelis from their illegal settlements in the Palestinian Gaza Strip. The word "illegal" doesn’t pop up on the BBC, of course; nor the notion that the settlers - for which read colonisers - were not being evicted from their land but from land they originally took from others. Nor is much attention paid to the continued building in the equally illegal colonies within the Palestinian West Bank which will - inevitably - make a "viable" (Lord Blair’s favourite word) Palestine impossible.

In Gaza, everyone waited for Israeli settler and Israeli soldier to open fire on each other. But when a settler did open fire, he did so to murder four Palestinian workers on the West Bank. The story passed through the television coverage like a brief, dark, embarrassing cloud and was forgotten. Settlements dismantled. Evacuation from Gaza. Peace in our time.

But in Baghdad, the Iraqis I talk to are not convinced. It is to their eternal credit that those who live in the hell of Iraq still care about the Palestinians, still understand what is really happening in the Middle East, are not fooled by the nonsense peddled by George Bush and Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. "What is this ’evil ideology’ that Blair keeps talking about?" an Iraqi friend asked me this week. "What will be your next invention? When will you wake up?"

I couldn’t put it better myself.

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd

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