In my opinion: in an occasional feature in which the Middle East invites the opinion of a guest columnist, Adam M. Smith, a political economist at the United Nations, and a former staff member of the World Bank and the OECD, comments on the democratisation of Iraq which may prove problematic but is not without precedent.

Author:Smith, Adam M.

Critics contend that establishing democracy in Iraq will prove the most arduous part of building a post-Saddam state. According to some, Iraqis either won't embrace such a system, or, if they do, democracy will languish due to social divisiveness, and the absence of both civic "training" and a history of "western" civil liberties. Recent examples of widespread disregard for the rule of law by many Iraqis, along with calls by some for the establishment of a theocracy, have seemingly strengthened the critics case. However, though hurdles exist--and segments of the population will prove reluctant democrats --democratising Iraq may not be as difficult as feared. This optimism derives not only from Iraq's democratic advantages, but also from a comparison between the Iraqi effort and another "unlikely" recent case of non-western democratisation, Sub-Saharan Africa. Comparing Iraq's democratic potential to the 1990s democratic surge in Africa suggests that Iraq is even more promising than newly consolidating democracies such as Mali, Ghana and Senegal. If sub-Saharan states can successfully democratise, so too can Iraq.

The Democratic Choice

Given that democracy requires a degree of citizen participation, any preliminary success of Iraqi democracy will be based on whether citizens choose to follow the democratic path, a system that is institutionally foreign to the country after 25 years of Saddam. Why will Iraqis do so? An analysis of African democratisation efforts, most of which began with the same handicaps ascribed to Iraq, provides useful answers.

The 1990s was a watershed in African governance with elections and wider democracy gaining a firm foothold on the continent. Despite some slippage, the expansion of democracy (from four states in 1990, to at least 17 today) has become a permanent feature of pan-African society. Much as in Iraq, this explosion in rights and civil liberties was driven by external influences. African democratisation was a joint product of two revolutions. The first revolution was technological, and, via the Internet and satellite television, led to the globalisation of western ideas and discourse. In Africa this empowered the continent's elite to demand participation in governance.

The second transformation was the end of the Cold War, which inspired a generation of African democrats. Western powers capitalised on the end of the Soviet Union's generous aid to Africa by placing new demands--related largely to respect...

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