A Tale of Three Cities

A Tale of Three Cities

Mini Teaser: Despite the obvious obstacles, the signs of democracy are encouraging in Kabul, Beirut and Cairo.

by Author(s): John R. Thomson

The world watches as President Bush relentlessly promotes democracy in the turbulent Middle East and Central Asia. Criticisms vary: Democracy is a confection of the West; Islam is in fundamental conflict with democracy; and most repugnant (and semi-racist), Arabs are unprepared for democracy. But in a journey to three Arab and Central Asia capitals, I found democracy developing at a dramatic pace. In Kabul, Beirut and Cairo, leaders and masses alike earnestly seek something better. The real regional debate, Arab and non-Arab, urban and rural, is not whether democracy but what form of democracy.

Few serious commentators favor rigid rule by monarch, military or mullah. Some put forth a vague form of governance wherein Allah perfectly instructs worldly leaders and followers alike, and a few others wrap themselves in theocratic, "Islamist" political garb to selfishly grasp corrupt control of governments from Tehran, Islamabad and Kabul to Algiers, Tripoli and Cairo. But the lack of progress throughout the entire region has proved to all but the most stubborn that another, yes, foreign form of government--democracy--is the best option to try.

Kabul: It's About Time

Three and a half years after liberation by the United States, there is an air of expectancy in the Afghan capital and throughout the country as it prepares for September's parliamentary elections. The elections will cap four steps agreed to in late 2001 at a unique conference in Bonn that included representatives from every sector of Afghan society. An Emergency Loya Jirga and subsequent Constitutional Loya Jirga were followed by presidential elections last October. Parliamentary elections complete a remarkably determined exercise by formerly fractious Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek ethnic groups, Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, and innumerable lesser tribes and sects.

Afghanistan's democratic development has experienced numerous inter-party vendettas, often settled by assassination, but enormous political progress is undeniable. The reason, according to a resident diplomat: U.S. strength and generosity, combined with Afghans' fierce, resolute will. "The Afghans have fire in their hearts", he says admiringly, "for getting it right and for creating democracy."

It takes raw determination and enormous political aptitude to run Afghanistan. Detractors notwithstanding, President Hamid Karzai has demonstrated both. Mullawy Abdul Rahman, formerly Taliban security chief of Kabul, barely hides his disdain for what he terms Karzai's "naivety" and "indecisiveness." Yet Abdul Rahman is one of four former Taliban leaders running for parliamentary seats as a direct result of Karzai's determination to provide a climate where all views are represented.

Other criticisms abound. A senior sub-cabinet member considers Karzai slow to make decisions, citing a six-month delay in giving Ismail Khan, former warlord and governor of Herat province, a ministerial post, removing him from his comfortable fiefdom, where he created what many consider the country's most attractive, efficient and corrupt city, Herat. Yet Zaid Haidary, a member of the Emergency and Constitutional Loya Jirgas, faults the president for impatiently going around fellow Afghan-American and Minister of the Interior Ali Jalali, in naming governors, considered a prerogative of the Interior Ministry.

Returning Afghan refugees, especially those with long experience in the West, bring much needed expertise to their mother country. Nearly thirty years of abysmal education and economics have left a generation of Afghans unprepared to build a modern nation. What the 24 million natives who did not leave have in abundance, however, is a steely determination to support--and defend--the creation of the foreign concept called democracy.

First Deputy Minister of Defense Yusuf Nuristani, educated in the United States and holder of dual passports, sees the situation as "a symbiotic relationship, although sometimes, of course, there are issues." Nuristani takes justifiable pride in serving as director of the International Foundation of Hope while in America. "The foundation created the largest nursery in the country", he noted when we discussed the country's rampant deforestation and urgent need for alternatives to poppy farming, "with two million fruit trees that can be a major source of alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers."

Multiple voices were raised during my visit, complaining that the government must move faster against the poppy scourge and the attendant corruption of officials. As Afghanistan accounts for 90 percent of heroin production worldwide, the criticism makes superficial sense, until one considers the enormous challenge of replacing the narcotics industry (representing 60 percent of Afghanistan's GDP) without strangling the struggling economy, creating mass starvation and fomenting open rebellion.

Poppies are grown by more than 80 percent of Afghan farmers, who comprise 80 percent of the population. Eradicating poppy cultivation and introducing alternative pursuits will clearly take time. Yet, despite the narcotics trade's massive impact on the economy, UN studies estimate poppy production in 2004 was reduced by 30 percent from 2003.

While each of the many criticisms of Afghanistan's government may have validity, in context each is attributable to the extraordinarily complicated situation facing Karzai, his ministers and provincial governors in trying to knit together a nation torn asunder by factional rivalries, foreign intrigue and terrorist subversion. Mullawy Abdul Rahman knows from personal experience how different Karzai's inclusive leadership style is from Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Rahman and a group of mullahs had met with President Karzai in April. "I spoke my mind to him", the former Taliban leader reminisced, adding ruefully, "Mullah Omar really disdained my advice. At the end, he said to me, 'I really don't like you. You're too political, and politicians don't have much faith in Islam.'"

Most Afghans look forward to September's elections positively. Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a leader long supported by Saudi Wahhabis and known for his commitment to make Afghanistan an Islamist state, admits:

"The results of the past three and a half years have been greater than we could expect in seven. . . . We should have a parliament that can help the government's good programs. Afghanistan needs Parliament to work day and night with the government, to make Afghanistan stand on its feet. We must rebuild Afghanistan at least to where it was fifty years ago. I am optimistic concerning the future."

Although there is concern about foreign meddling and money--from Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India and China, not from the United States--most observers believe the elections will be as successful as the presidential polls in 2004. Those elections were, according to a senior resident diplomat, "One of the most magnificent political events of the year, and it happened in this star-crossed, troubled country. We thought perhaps one million Afghans would register and half of them vote. In fact, 8.5 million people, 40 percent of them female, voted with no significant disturbing incidents." The former governor of Nangarhar province, Haji Din Mohammad, brother of slain national leaders Haji Abdul Qadir and Abdul Haq, is upbeat: "In the presidential elections, we called on the local population to handle security and protect polling stations. If we do so [again], these elections should be successful and peaceful."

Afghans have made enormous progress, admittedly with massive U.S. assistance, in fewer than four years. Leaders like Din Mohammad are grateful, if impatient: "The U.S. has given us more than the UN, UK, European Union and NGOs combined. The Agency for International Development and the Provisional Reconstruction Teams have done so much. . . . We just hope they can give more."

Despite only brief exposure to a constitutional monarchy in the 1970s, Afghans are tantalizingly close to establishing a working democracy. As Haidary puts it, "Afghanistan has never had an opportunity like today. We must all stand up!"

Beirut: A Place Between

It was July 1967, day three of the Six-Day War and my first conflict as a correspondent. My driver and I were headed from Beirut east into Syria, to go to the Golan Heights, where there was heavy fighting between Israeli and Syrian forces. Prior to reaching the border, we stopped along the roadside in Lebanon's beautiful Beka Valley, the main corridor to Syria from Beirut. As I stretched and admired the scenery, four Lebanese jets appeared, heading toward Israel. It seemed that Lebanon was at last joining the battle, having experienced several explosions in Beirut, attributed (not necessarily correctly) to Israeli agents or, what was equally incendiary, to the much-maligned CIA.

Just as the Lebanese fighters were overhead, four Israeli jets appeared. My driver took cover as I took out my camera for what would surely be spectacular photographs, but not a shot was fired by either group. Instead, as the planes approached perilously close to each other, the lead Lebanese pilot waggled his wings in a salute of friendship, and within seconds the lead Israeli aviator did the same, whereupon the Israelis headed northeast, toward Damascus, and the Lebanese made a sharp about face, returning to Beirut. Although I got no pictures, I learned something that frustrating day: Lebanon is the land "between"--between Syria and Israel, Muslims and Christians, anarchy and democracy, oil money and Western carpetbaggers, war and peace.

Seats in Lebanon's parliament and senior government positions are based on the relative size of 17 recognized religious sects, in what has been termed "confessional democracy." The president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies a Shi'a Muslim, the defense minister a Druze Muslim and so on. Equally, division of the 128 parliament seats is sorted out along religious lines. All this careful adherence to the numbers of citizens in each sect is based on the latest census, taken in 1932.

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