Coming on the heel of President Obama’s speech in Cairo, the swift march of events seem to have energized voters in Lebanon and Iran who turned out in a record number. President Obama did mention the imperative of upholding minority rights; and singled out both the Christian Maronites of Lebanon and the Copts of Egypt .
By the same token he emphasized women’s right to full inclusion in public life. At least in the case of Lebanon, both Maronites and women voted at an unprecedented rate (60%) . Last month not only a similar high turn out took place in Kuwait , but also four women were elected for the first time, despite the fierce resistance of a coalition of tribal and Islamist elements .
The parliamentary elections in Lebanon earlier and from Kuwait last month clearly indicate that Islamist parties lost significant grounds to secular liberal counterparts. Along with Turkey, these two countries have had some democratic traditions by Middle Eastern standards.
Scholars of the subject maintain that societies which manage to have four or more consecutive, free and fair elections are usually judged to have achieved a democratic transition. Without direct visible foreign intervention, both Lebanon and Kuwait seem to have such transition well under way .
The fear that Islamists might impede the process have not materialized. Leaders of competing Islamist forces conceded defeat and accepted the result. To his credit, the much demonized Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah made an eloquent sport-like concession. The often repeated contention that with Islamists in the fray, it would be “a one man, one vote, one time” is yet to be proven.
Now, enters Iran and the optimism for democratic transition starts to fade a bit. The tenth presidential elections of the Islamic Republic were held on 12 June 2009. The Incumbent President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election with 66% of the votes cast and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate, had received 33%.
There was a big outcry of foul, both domestically and internationally. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran’s dual system (the theocratic and the democratic ones) came out in a Friday prayers sermon declaring that the winner is definitely Ahmadinejad.
The whole sermon (yes, supposedly a religious, spiritual ritual) was centered on the election results and conveyed four messages to the four raisons d’être of the Islamic Republic: the people of Iran, the Islamist political elite, the enemies of the Islamic Republic Iran (or the imperial forces), and the hidden Imam.
The conclusion of the Supreme Guide, who supposedly should be above factionalism, was siding publicly and heavily with Ahmadinejad. That was expected. The election had to be stolen because otherwise Iran’s hardliners would have been confronted by a democratically elected president determined to revive republican values and institutions.
But the interesting part of the speech was the message delivered to America under Obama’s administration. It was not the regular “death to the imperialists” (despite the chants of the crowd). It was challenging Obama on his own turf: “Human Rights?!!…you Democrats burned Davidians’ children alive in Texas!” Ayatollah Khameini recalled (in a different context, he would ve probably added WTF?!).
Will the “Obama effect” crash when it comes to Iran? This we will yet have to see. But the defiance of the Iranians for democracy and freedom, the outpouring applause the President received in Cairo, and the electoral results of Lebanon and Kuwait all show that the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims are ready for democratic transition.
But being ready is just one little factor supportive of that transition. It takes a lot more than that. In most of the Middle East, the balance of power (and of terror) is heavily tilting towards the state against their own societies and whoever hijacks the state and the electoral results – whether Islamist or secular – is not ready for democratic transition.