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Elections in Iraq: Will Political Reform Spread to Other Arab States?

Many Iraqis both inside the country and outside have expressed hope that Sunday's election will bring meaningful change. In the Arab world, the election is being watched closely. VOA's Greg LaMotte spoke with political analysts about whether change in Iraq could lead to political reform in the region.

According to Iraqi embassy officials in Cairo, about 1,000 of the estimated
5,000 Iraqis living in Egypt cast their ballots for the elections being held in their homeland. Embassy spokeswoman Lena Madhloom says voters are eager for change.

"They want the political procedure, because they trust that this is the only alternative Iraq has," Ms. Madhloom says. "There must be a political procedure ongoing in 2005, including writing the constitution, electing the government, because this is the only alternative we should support."

But, while Iraq is heading for significant political change, analysts in the Arab world are at odds over whether other Arab states will feel any pressure to reform their own political systems.

The head of the Asian Studies Department at Cairo University, Mohammed al-Sayed Selim, says the Iraqi elections cannot be viewed as having been legitimate. He says the fact that the elections are being held under a declared state of emergency, while coalition forces remain in the country, does not create a realistic incentive for change in other Arab states.

"I would not like to see free elections in Egypt, or any other country, under the same conditions," Mr. Selim says. "I do not believe that these elections will be considered a model for any other Arab countries. The fact that you think this would be a model for others is ridiculous, because no intellectual, including myself, would like to see free elections under the same conditions of the Iraqis."

Former Egyptian ambassador and expert on Arab affairs Abdullah al-Ashaal says he agrees the current situation in Iraq does not provide the best model for political change among other Arab states. Nevertheless, he says, Arab leaders are well aware that change often occurs under less than perfect circumstances.

"They have mixed feelings with these elections," Mr. al-Ashaal says. "They feel the election, no matter what the outcome of these elections, would be a model to be tested in other Arab states. I think, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even Syria, they feel these elections would be a good omen and a bad omen, as well. A good omen in the sense that the Iraqis should feel that, for the first time, they go to the ballots without being pushed or being watched by watchdogs of Saddam Hussein. But, at the same time, they feel that other shapes of elections could be forced on them, without taking serious consideration to the circumstances of each country."

Many analysts agree that, because of the current circumstances in Iraq, Arab leaders in the region may view the election Sunday as not having been legitimate. Even so, the same analysts are unanimous in their belief that few, if any, Arab leaders will publicly refuse to accept the outcome of the elections because, they do not want to adversely affect their own relationships with the United States.

The secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, has said, while the election in Iraq has drawn what he described as "intense concern" among Arab leaders, he says the individuality of each Arab state must be respected when it comes to instituting democratic reform. He says not all Arab states are economically, socially and religiously ready for elections that would produce free and open societies.